Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Perfect American Weapon

Reprinted with permission of

America Detached from War
Bush’s Pilotless Dream, Smoking Drones, and Other Strange Tales from the Crypt

By Tom Engelhardt

Admittedly, before George W. Bush had his fever dream, the U.S. had already put its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drone surveillance planes in the skies over Kosovo in the late 1990s.  By November 2001, it had armed them with missiles and was flying them over Afghanistan.

In November 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren’t at war.  Six suspected al-Qaeda members, including a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer the USS Cole would be turned into twisted metal and ash — the first “targeted killings” of the American robotic era.

Just two months earlier, in September 2002, as the Bush administration was “introducing” its campaign to sell an invasion of Iraq to Congress and the American people, CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney “trooped up to Capitol Hill” to brief four top Senate and House leaders on a hair-raising threat to the country.  A “smoking gun” had been uncovered.

According to “new intelligence,” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had in his possession unmanned aerial vehicles advanced enough to be armed with biological and chemical weaponry.  Worse yet, these were capable — so the CIA director and vice president claimed — of spraying those weapons of mass destruction over cities on the east coast of the United States.  It was just the sort of evil plan you might have expected from a man regularly compared to Adolf Hitler in our media, and the news evidently made an impression in Congress.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because “I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.”

In a speech in October 2002, President Bush then offered a version of this apocalyptic nightmare to the American public.  Of course, like Saddam’s supposed ability to produce “mushroom clouds” over American cities, the Iraqi autocrat’s advanced UAVs (along with the ships needed to position them off the U.S. coast) were a feverish fantasy of the Bush era and would soon enough be forgotten.  Instead, in the years to come, it would be American pilotless drones that would repeatedly attack Iraqi urban areas with Hellfire missiles and bombs.

In those years, our drones would also strike repeatedly in Afghanistan, and especially in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, where in an escalating “secret” or “covert” war, which has been no secret to anyone, multiple drone attacks often occur weekly.  They are now considered so much the norm that, with humdrum headlines slapped on (“U.S. missile strike kills 12 in NW Pakistan”), they barely make it out of summary articles about war developments in the American press.

And yet those robotic planes, with their young “pilots” (as well as the camera operators and intelligence analysts who make up a drone “crew”) sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another kind of American fever dream.  The drone is our latest wonder weapon and a bragging point in a set of wars where there has been little enough to brag about.

CIA director Leon Panetta has, for instance, called the Agency’s drones flying over Pakistan the only game in town when it comes to destroying al-Qaeda; a typically anonymous U.S. official in a Washington Post report claims of drone missile attacks, “We’re talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare”; or as Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command told author Peter Singer, speaking of the glories of drones: “They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.”

Seven thousand of them, the vast majority surveillance varieties, are reportedly already being operated by the military, and that’s before swarms of “mini-drones” come on line.  Our American world is being redefined accordingly.

In February, Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post caught something of this process when he spent time with Colonel Eric Mathewson, perhaps the most experienced Air Force officer in drone operations and on the verge of retirement.  Mathewson, reported Jaffe, was trying to come up with an appropriately new definition of battlefield “valor” — a necessity for most combat award citations — to fit our latest corps of pilots at their video consoles.  “Valor to me is not risking your life,” the colonel told the reporter. “Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons. That to me is valor.”

Smoking Drones

These days, CIA and administration officials troop up to Capitol Hill to offer briefings to Congress on the miraculous value of pilotless drones: in disrupting al-Qaeda, destroying its leadership or driving it “deeper into hiding,” and taking out key figures in the Taliban.  Indeed, what started as a 24/7 assassination campaign against al-Qaeda’s top leadership has already widened considerably.  The “target set” has by now reportedly expanded to take in ever lower-level militants in the tribal borderlands.  In other words, a drone assassination campaign is morphing into the first full-scale drone war (and, as in all wars from the air, civilians are dying in unknown numbers).

If the temperature is again rising in Washington when it comes to these weapons, this time it’s a fever of enthusiasm for the spectacular future of drones (which the Air Force has plotted out to the year 2047), of a time when single pilots should be able to handle multiple drones in operations in the skies over some embattled land, and of a far more distant moment when those drones should be able to handle themselves, flying, fighting, and making key decisions about just who to take out without a human being having to intervene.

When we possess such weaponry, it turns out, there’s nothing unnerving or disturbing, apocalyptic or dystopian about it.  Today, in the American homeland, not a single smoking drone is in sight.

Now it’s the United States whose UAVs are ever more powerfully weaponized.  It’s the U.S. which is developing a 22-ton tail-less drone 20 times larger than a Predator that can fly at Mach 7 and (theoretically) land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.  It’s the Pentagon which is planning to increase the funding of drone development by 700% over the next decade.

Admittedly, there is a modest counter-narrative to all this enthusiasm for our robotic prowess, “precision,” and “valor.”  It involves legal types like Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions.  He recently issued a 29-page report criticizing Washington’s “ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe.”  Unless limits are put on such claims, and especially on the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan, he suggests, soon enough a plethora of states will follow in America’s footprints, attacking people in other lands “labeled as terrorists by one group or another.”

Such mechanized, long-distance warfare, he also suggests, will breach what respect remains for the laws of war.  “Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield,” he wrote, “and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.”

Similarly, the ACLU has filed a freedom of information lawsuit against the U.S. government, demanding that it “disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to conduct targeted killings overseas, as well as the ground rules regarding when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and the number of civilian casualties they have caused.”

But pay no mind to all this.  The arguments may be legally compelling, but not in Washington, which has mounted a half-hearted claim of legitimate “self-defense,” but senses that it’s already well past the point where legalities matter.  The die is cast, the money committed.  The momentum for drone war and yet more drone war is overwhelming.

It’s a done deal.  Drone war is, and will be, us.

A Pilotless Military

If there are zeitgeist moments for products, movie stars, and even politicians, then such moments can exist for weaponry as well.  The robotic drone is the Lady Gaga of this Pentagon moment. 

It’s a moment that could, of course, be presented as an apocalyptic nightmare in the style of the Terminator movies (with the U.S. as the soul-crushing Skynet), or as a remarkable tale of how “networking technology is expanding a homefront that is increasingly relevant to day-to-day warfare” (as Christopher Drew recently put it in the New York Times).  It could be described as the arrival of a dystopian fantasy world of one-way slaughter verging on entertainment, or as the coming of a generation of homegrown video warriors who work “in camouflage uniforms, complete with combat boots, on open floors, with four computer monitors on each desk… and coffee and Red Bull help[ing] them get through the 12-hour shifts.” It could be presented as the ultimate in cowardice — the killing of people in a world you know nothing about from thousands of miles away — or (as Col. Mathewson would prefer) a new form of valor.

The drones — their use expanding exponentially, with ever newer generations on the drawing boards, and the planes even heading for “the homeland” — could certainly be considered a demon spawn of modern warfare, or (as is generally the case in the U.S.) a remarkable example of American technological ingenuity, a problem-solver of the first order at a time when few American problems seem capable of solution.  Thanks to our technological prowess, it’s claimed that we can now kill them, wherever they may be lurking, at absolutely no cost to ourselves, other than the odd malfunctioning drone.  Not that even all CIA operatives involved in the drone wars agree with that one.  Some of them understand perfectly well that there’s a price to be paid.

As it happens, the enthusiasm for drones is as much a fever dream as the one President Bush and his associates offered back in 2002, but it’s also distinctly us.  In fact, drone warfare fits the America of 2010 tighter than a glove.  With its consoles, chat rooms, and “single shooter” death machines, it certainly fits the skills of a generation raised on the computer, Facebook, and video games.  That our valorous warriors, their day of battle done, can increasingly leave war behind and head home to the barbecue (or, given American life, the foreclosure) also fits an American mood of the moment.

The Air Force “detachments” that “manage” the drone war from places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada are “detached” from war in a way that even an artillery unit significantly behind the battle lines or an American pilot in an F-16 over Afghanistan (who could, at least, experience engine failure) isn’t.  If the drone presents the most extreme version thus far of the detachment of human beings from the battlefield (on only one side, of course) and so launches a basic redefinition of what war is all about, it also catches something important about the American way of war.

After all, while this country garrisons the world, invests its wealth in its military, and fights unending, unwinnable frontier wars and skirmishes, most Americans are remarkably detached from all this.  If anything, since Vietnam when an increasingly rebellious citizens’ army proved disastrous for Washington’s global aims, such detachment has been the goal of American war-making.

As a start, with no draft and so no citizen’s army, war and the toll it takes is now the professional business of a tiny percentage of Americans (and their families).  It occurs thousands of miles away and, in the Bush years, also became a heavily privatized, for-profit activity.  As Pratap Chatterjee reported recently, “[E]very US soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by at least one civilian working for a private company. All told, about 239,451 contractors work for the Pentagon in battle zones around the world.”  And a majority of those contractors aren’t even U.S. citizens.

If drones have entered our world as media celebrities, they have done so largely without debate among that detached populace.  In a sense, our wars abroad could be thought of as the equivalent of so many drones.  We send our troops off and then go home for dinner and put them out of mind.  The question is: Have we redefined our detachment as a new version of citizenly valor (and covered it over by a constant drumbeat of “support for our troops”)?

Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that a “pilotless” force should, in turn, develop the sort of contempt for civilians that can be seen in the recent flap over the derogatory comments of Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal and his aides about Obama administration officials.

The Globalization of Death

Maybe what we need is the return of George W. Bush’s fever dream from the American oblivion in which it’s now interred.  He was beyond wrong, of course, when it came to Saddam Hussein and Iraqi drones, but he wasn’t completely wrong about the dystopian Drone World to come.  There are now reportedly more than 40 countries developing versions of those pilot-less planes.  Earlier this year, the Iranians announced that they were starting up production lines for both armed and unarmed drones.  Hezbollah used them against Israel in the 2006 summer war, years after Israel began pioneering their use in targeted killings of Palestinians.

Right now, in what still remains largely a post-Cold War arms race of one, the U.S. is racing to produce ever more advanced drones to fight our wars, with few competitors in sight.  In the process, we’re also obliterating classic ideas of national sovereignty, and of who can be killed by whom under what circumstances.  In the process, we may not just be obliterating enemies, but creating them wherever our drones buzz overhead and our missiles strike.

We are also creating the (il)legal framework for future war on a frontier where we won’t long be flying solo.  And when the first Iranian, or Russian, or Chinese missile-armed drones start knocking off their chosen sets of “terrorists,” we won’t like it one bit.  When the first “suicide drones” appear, we’ll like it even less.  And if drones with the ability to spray chemical or biological weapons finally do make the scene, we’ll be truly unnerved.

In the 1990s, we were said to be in an era of “globalization” which was widely hailed as good news.  Now, the U.S. and its detached populace are pioneering a new era of killing that respects no boundaries, relies on the self-definitions of whoever owns the nearest drone, and establishes planetary free-fire zones.  It’s a nasty combination, this globalization of death.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, just published, is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).  Watch a Timothy MacBain TomCast video of him discussing the American way of war by clicking here.

This article originally appeared on

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books). Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands and Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.



  1. Oh boy, another feverish attack on military technology by Mr. Engelhardt. Let me say first of all that I share his dismay at an America garrisoning the world and wasting its blood and treasure on far-off wars that it doesn’t really need to fight and isn’t really trying to win. However . . .

    A drone is just an strike aircraft with a remote pilot. Now, we can, like the late, great General Patton, lament the fact that fighting without soldiers means nothing is demonstrated or reaffirmed — at least in human terms. But of all things to worry about in this life, the fact that drones are being used to kill people in Waziristan shouldn’t be high on anyone’s list.

    A few weeks back Mr. E. wrote a column in which he compared the draftee army in Vietnam to the French levee en masse, as if somehow citizens compelled to fight and die were preferable to a volunteer force. (The one problem with a volunteer force is that it makes unecessary wars easier for politicians to fight, but that’s another issue.) Now he’s objecting to remotely-piloted strike aircraft. I tend to think he’s feeling nostalgic (conciously or not) for the days of his youth, when planes had pilots and women were donut-dollies. I say again that what he needs is a long vacation in a pleasant spot, or perhaps a new girlfriend. Eventually life passes us all by, Tom. No point in proclaiming yourself irrelevant before your time.

    The fight is over rethinking American foreign policy generally, and getting us out of most of the 75-odd countries we’re in. That fight is going to be won by default when we run out of money and the will to carry on a world policy. But by all means keep trying to win it sooner; money and lives could be saved thereby.

    War is and remains the ultimate obscenity, whether we fight with bows and arrows or the latest technology. But I don’t lose a moment’s sleep over U.S. technological superiority — rather the opposite, in fact.

  2. @ jon harrison

    you miss the bigger point (or perhaps merely digressed into a side discussion). the point being that there have been at least 2 wrong lessons learned from vietnam rather than the valid one about not getting involved in unnecessary wars. the first wrong lesson was finding a way to fight without incurring human losses because body bags cause diminishing morale, hence the push first towards doctorines like powells re: overwhelming (read disproportionate) force, more recently drones and ultimately other manned then autonomous robots. the other was the desire to control information from the battle field, again for the same reasons, leading to embeds, bombing uncontrollable news station HQs etc. A third is trickier and you alluded to it in your post, being the issue of paying for the war. bush tried fighting the war off the books, but even that catches up with you eventually. one should perhaps anticipate a new push towards beefing up international law regarding war and restitution as one possible partial attempt at remedy for that ‘problem’. the underlying goal is to further minimize or eliminate all the normal disincentives for war making. war is sometimes unavoidable, but it should never become trivial to wage.

  3. He writes of “fever dreams.” For me, this idea reminds me of “Black Elk Speaks.” Black Elk, Crazy Horse’s nephew and the Shaman or spiritual leader where Crazy Horse was the military leader of the Ogalla Sioux.

    It was Crazy Horse’s fever dream that gave him the knowledge and certainty that he would never die in battle. The heroic exploits his dream or vision allowed make the Matrix look pedestrian.

    Black Elk’s fever dream was quite different. His vision was to see the decline of his people, their defeat in battle, the destruction of their land, freedom and way of life. His job was to prepare his people to the yoke.

    Well, it doesn’t take a fever dream to imagine the decline of this country. Yet, we are a country where this can’t be seriously discussed in the “media.” We’ve become a country where telling the truth is scandalous. Sophism and bullshit rule the day. Honesty cannot be tolerated.

    I agree with Jon, Drones are just a tool, just like a hammer it can be constructive or a murder weapon. It’s policies that dictate how they are used. I would like to recommend Glenn Greenwald for all to read. Whether you agree with him or not, he is earnest, constructs a logical argument. Glenn has been writing on the depraved policy of drones, more widely used under Obama. We’ve targeted US citizens for summary murder, and have no real process for what foreigners were targeted.

    It seems Israel started this policy of policing and destruction from above. It is a bit surprising that Israel got more criticism for it’s bombings of terrorists than the US.

    I am a bit disappointed there hasn’t been more discussion despite McChrystal’s comments on the expansion of our covert wars. More drones, more covert ops, more engagement; how can McChrystal’s criticisms be squared with our expansion? Is he critical of the expansion? What is the substance of his criticisms, all I’ve heard is carping and petty sniping.

  4. Thank you, Olivio, for your comment on my post. On paying for wars, I believe every war should by funded in part by a “pay as you go” system involving direct taxation of the citizenry (it’s never been possible to wage war without borrowing to cover some of the cost). That helps people “focus” on the war(s) we fight. Bush’s failure to do this was one of his many sins. He bears the ultimate responsibility, but none of his minions was of a mind to advise him otherwise.

    On the other two issues you raise, we disagree. When we fight a war we should always employ overwhelming force. If you’re going to fight, you owe it to your soliders to get it over with as quickly and with as few casualties as possible. Now, that shouldn’t be extrapolated to mean that we can drop an H-bomb on this or that country because we’re ina fight with them. There are rules about minimizing civilian casualties, etc., that need to be observed. I’m sure you grasp the distinction I’m trying to make. Similarly, using advanced weaponry like pilotless drones is simply fighting with the best weapons you’ve got. Why send an F-18 if a drone will do? That’s just common sense, there’s nothing wrong or immoral about it.

    And why shouldn’t the military control information from the battlefield? When a campaign is underway, winning is what counts, not giving the media what it wants. Even the citizenry’s right to know must take second place while the troops are in the field. This idea also should not be extrapolated to mean that it’s OK to cover up atrocities, etc. But information that may be of profit to the enemy must be controlled in the interests of fighting and winning the battle.

    The real, fundamental problem is that we keep getting into wars that we shouldn’t be fighting. That’s a political problem that can only be solved by changing the empire mindset of the American establishment. Good luck.

  5. @jon
    you are quite right about the natural tendency to minimize personal losses, which then inclines one towards becoming the 800 pound gorilla matched against much smaller opponents. of course this pursuit of overwhelming superiority also feeds the mindset of empire as the temptation towards involvement in matters otherwise left alone or handled differently grow. furthermore, having stockpiled all this hardware, there is always an urge to justify the vast resources directed at their procurement, another natural draw towards physical conflict. it is a difficult balance, being armed enough to dissuade detractors, but not enough to be tempted into foolish behavior.

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