Obeying a Higher Law: Making the Case Against Drone Warfare

by Medea Benjamin
OR Books, 2012

I had already determined I wanted to review Medea Benjamin’s new book Drone Warfare when I encountered three guys on a Bay Area waterfront who were test-driving a remote controlled miniature drone toy. The drone was about two or three feet in wingspan, styled like an F16, and had an intrusive, loud—well, dronelike—buzz.

It had the rapt attention of everyone on the waterfront. People walking their dogs stopped to marvel at the drone as it flew over the bay and returned to buzz around, about a hundred feet over my head.

Curious, eh? I had just received Benjamin’s book, and now a drone was buzzing right above me. I got a creepy sense of what it might be like to be in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Honduras, or the Philippines in the wrong place at the wrong time, under drone surveillance or violence.

I imagined myself a denizen of Gaza, for example, feeling trapped, imprisoned, or even tormented on a psychological level, by the constant buzzing presence of an Israeli drone or the threat of a drone’s arrival.

In Drone Warfare, there are many firsthand accounts from people who have been the targets of drones, or near the targets of drones. One comes from a Palestinian father in Gaza:

“It’s continuous, watching us, especially at night,” said Nabil al-Amassi, a Gaza mechanic and father of eight. “You can’t sleep. You can’t watch television. It frightens the kids. When they hear it they say, “It is going to hit us.”

What a different response came from the little boy of about nine years old who was ecstatic over the drone I saw on the waterfront. Jumping up and down and shouting, he ran to beg his father to buy him one for his birthday. “Oh please, Dad? Oh my god, please?”

And as Benjamin’s thoroughly researched, hard-hitting book tells us, most of the United States is in the same euphoria over drones and drone warfare:

Asked if they approve the use of unmanned “drone” aircraft against terrorist suspects overseas, eighty-three percent said yes, including seventy-seven percent who call themselves liberal Democrats. Even more stunning is that seventy-nine percent approved of using drones even if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries.

Contrast the anecdote of that little boy’s excitement with the following account from the introduction to Benjamin’s book:

Roya never had time for sports, or for school. Born into a poor family living on the outskirts of Kabul, her father was a street vendor. Her mother raised five children and baked sweets for him to sell…. One day while her father was out selling candies, Roya and her two sisters were trudging home carrying buckets of water. Suddenly they heard a terrifying whir and then there was an explosion: something terrible had dropped from the sky, tearing their house apart and sending the body parts of their mother and two brothers flying through the air.

Roya and her family were not terrorists. Most of the people killed by drones, as Benjamin’s book makes clear, are not terrorists.

The little boy on the waterfront—who so longs for a drone toy—is not endangered by a drone. So why should he worry about a little girl whose life was ruined by a drone—a little girl who doesn’t feel excitement at all, but profound, traumatic, long-lasting grief?

That smug, oblivious sense of safety is a big selling point for drone warfare, touted as a way to save the lives of U.S. soldiers. They can continue being boys sitting at their sophisticated PlayStations, pushing buttons. And they can push the horrifying results of their “play” into the recesses of their reptilian brains.

Credit: Code Pink.

When by chance a thought emerges about the innocent, unknowing victims of the latest military toy—indeed, whenever the public even starts to think of the pain and death we are causing far away—the corporate- industrial-military-government propaganda machine jolts into gear to convince us that the drone warfare is pinpoint accurate, that it only kills “bad guys.”

So why, as I write this review, are there thousands of Pakistanis protesting drone warfare, telling the world that over 500 innocent civilians were killed by drones in Pakistan already, 175 of them children? Why are they determined to stop the use of drones in Pakistan?

Drone Warfare presents all of the information about who has died or been wounded by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), who is being surveilled, and where drones might be used in the future. What emerges from Benjamin’s inquiry is the clear recognition that drones are no different from land mines or weapons fitted with depleted uranium: they are extremely unsafe for civilians and they do not, in fact, differentiate between “noncombatants” and “combatants.”

And as Benjamin also makes very clear in her consideration of the legal issues in the use of drones, the United States and all other nations of the world are legally required to use weaponry and war tactics that make that differentiation—under penalty for war crimes.

In the conclusion to Drone Warfare, Benjamin puts the “mainstream media” front and center, exposing them as corporate sycophants and faddists:

The mainstream media, after cheerleading for war and enthusiastically covering the initial shock-and-awe volley of missiles, quickly became bored with America’s imperial exploits. And with the use of drone warfare that poses no risk to Americans, they aren’t about to spend time covering blown-up foreigners, especially when there’s something important like a celebrity breakup to report.

Illuminating the pivotal reason why her articulate book is so very timely, and so very much needed, she informs us that drones are not silent like the press. They are not voiceless. They have a vocal advocacy group in Congress: the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus. Yes, these machines have their own caucus!

“It seems that, like corporations, robots are people too,” quips Benjamin.

That quip cuts deeply, to the underlying reality of our nation: Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned us about it. He warned us back in the ’50s that the United States was not disarming after World War II. We chose instead to militarize in order to jump-start a lagging post-war economy, sucking our taxes into obscene military budgets, with rampant corporate profiteering from “endless war” manufacture, and with a Congress and executive branch going right along with the program.

The United States is hooked on war. Its so-called “economy” is deeply tied into the vicious cycle of ravaging the world for oil, feeding the war machine with that oil and our taxes, and then going out to ravage again for oil. As a result, the problems of the innocent civilians it harms don’t really amount to a “hill of beans” in most media (as Bogart said in Casablanca).

Benjamin is realistic in her understanding that drones are here to stay, in some capacity. She enumerates some of the positive, helpful uses to which they’ve already been put: for example, they have been used as monitoring devices after floods in Australia and after the Fukushima disaster, and as patrolling devices used by environmental advocacy groups to detect illegal whaling and other covert abuses.

Her point is that what drives the explosion in drone technology is their potential military uses. And that is what motors the explosive corporate competition to manufacture them. Billions upon billions of dollars of profits. So a small group fattens its pockets while the vast majority of us are vulnerable to the violent devices stoking their desires.

We have desperately lacked visionary leadership from the White House in the decades wherein drones have come of age. The informed, democratic discussion that is crucial to a healthy society, and the cri de coeur of conscience that maintains our spiritual health, must come from the courageous faith-based groups, human rights groups, and veterans groups and other military activist groups that have done whatever they could to force the United States to wake up to its infatuation with military might.

Code Pink protests drone warfare. Credit: Code Pink.

Benjamin’s own activist organization, Code Pink, has been at the vanguard of citizen movements against drone warfare in particular. Her book provides extensive information and stories about the activism that has so far moved drone issues closer to the media spotlight.

One of those groups, the “Creech 14,” entered the Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas Nevada in April of 2009 to protest and stop teams of soldiers remotely operating the U.S. killer drones abroad. Being mostly priests and nuns, the protesters invited the staff on base to share a Good Friday meal with them. They were arrested, jailed, and had a high-profile trial about a year later.

Benjamin gives a detailed account of that trial, in which the defendants created a debate about the use of drones, inviting distinguished witnesses and establishing that according to the post-World War II Nuremberg protocols, individuals are morally and legally bound to disobey orders and laws that entail crimes against humanity.

One of the witnesses they called to testify was Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Citing the historical duty of civilians to reign in the military, Quigley said of the “Creech 14” and other civilian dissidents: “In the long run we honor them for obeying a higher law, for helping to bring us toward justice.”

Drone Warfare strives for the same goal, attempting to reawaken our sleeping consciences, our compassion for others in the world. Its core goal is, in the final analysis, to reach into that reptilian brain and communicate spirit, faith and the memory of our moral promises.

I heard excellent programming on drone warfare on the Flashpoints program of KPFA radio, wherein a commentator urged more of the faith community to join in the outcry against drone warfare. My effort to join that protest comes in the form of this book review for Tikkun, which was created in the Jewish community and which emphasizes the infusion of spirituality into politics and culture.

Benjamin hints at the next developments in drone warfare—the manufacture of drones as small as hummingbirds and the trend toward using drones here in the United States. Plans for the domestic use of drones have awakened significant unease in the press—even in the most militaristic corners of the press.

Even Fox News commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano recently offered a complaint:

When drones take pictures of us on our private property and in our homes, and the government uses the photos as it wishes, what will we do about it? … If the military personnel see something of interest from a drone, they may apply to a military judge or “military commander” for permission to conduct a search of the private property that intrigues them… What’s next? Prosecutions before military tribunals in the U.S.?

That from a commentator for Fox News! Perhaps the United States will not deeply consider the issues in drone warfare and surveillance until they come home to roost. As Benjamin warns in her book, “Watch out America. What goes around comes around.”


(If you like this kind of a review, why not subscribe to Tikkun magazine? Many of our reviews are only available, either online or in print copy, to subscribers or members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Want some great summer reading? Try Embracing Israel/Palestine by Rabbi Michael Lerner, available either on Kindle from Amazon.com or in hard copy from Tikkun at tikkun.org/EIP.)

Lynn Feinerman is a writer and media maker, and has been an active member of the Jewish Renewal community for twenty-five years. She’s written for Tikkun on other subjects.
tags: Reviews, War & Peace   
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6 Responses to Obeying a Higher Law: Making the Case Against Drone Warfare

  1. Andrew June 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    You know, I find this review really offensive. Given, as the review mentions, the huge majority of Americans who support the use of drone warfare, did this author bother to — I don’t know — ask any of them WHY they supported it, before pronouncing them prey to “euphoria” and “infatuation with military might”? And if not, should she really be calling other people “smug” and “oblivious”?

    The war in Iraq was opposed by something approaching HALF of all Americans–because it targeted a nation that wasn’t a threat to us. That followed a HUGE push to war among many in the press, our politicians, and the military establishment, just as now there is a push to advocate for drone use. That in itself should indicate that those Americans hardly switched, starry-eyed, to become a bunch of children infatuated with gadgets and oblivious to loss of innocent life.

    If the author HAD bothered to ask any of us, she probably would have found SOME opinions that confirmed her assumptions. However, many of us had good reasons to approve of drone warfare, while still wanting there to be no loss of life among innocent civilians. The fact that these drones are unmanned, and therefore put no American soldiers’ lives at risk, is paramount–would the author insist on a return to the self-propelled howitzer instead (which, incidentally, hardly differentiated between civilian or military casualties either, in many of the battlegrounds in which it was used)? What, exactly, does the author think to gain by exposing more of our soldiers to harm? If it’s that they’ll be more careful in their use of force, surely she’s aware that the ordinary footsoldier doesn’t DECIDE where to deploy him- or herself, and that those who do are ALREADY remote from the action.

    I am also well aware that every piece of military technology can be misused, and I consider that MOST American uses of military force since World War Two have been a misuse of it (the sole exception, I feel, and this separates me from many of my fellow liberals, that we were right to retaliate against Afghanistan and to eradicate the Al Qaeda training camps there, as this was self-defense after 9/11, though I didn’t feel we should have an extended occupation there).

    Arguments that war crimes are being committed unless a weapon “differentiate[s] between ‘combatants’ and ‘non-combatants’”, as presented here, leave many questions unanswered: did ANY of the weapons used in the Battle of Berlin–the battle ending the defensive struggle that made the Nuremberg Trials possible in the first place–”differentiate” in this way? The differences between a drone and a manned howitzer are several, and many of them seem to me to be positive: the howitzer can’t see what it’s aiming at, and the drone can. Combined with another feature of the drone, the fact that it’s unmanned, the author assumes (apparently, there is evidence for this in the Medea Benjamin book, but we never hear what it is) that this will lead to greater loss of civilian life than other weapons betray. I, on the other hand, assumed that with greater visibility, combined with a lack of stress-inducing fear from a soldier carrying a weapon, would make the drones LESS likely to incur accidental civilian casualties (and if anyone assumes our military PREFER to incur civilian than military casualties, or don’t care which, all I can say is that I hope you’re as wrong as I think you are, though there are certainly examples like Pat Tillman’s killers or the My Lai massacre). So I initially supported their use, while also remaining aware that statistics might prove this wrong. So I look forward to seeing Ms. Benjamin’s evidence; but I am hardly a child who’s infatuated with gadgets and caught up in “euphoria” or “infatuation with military might” or “oblivious” to the harm that could come with their use. I have objected in the strongest possible terms to EVERY use of military force by us since World War II, save those few which have truly been defensive, such as the response to 9/11. So have many of those who favor drone use over other weapons which endanger American soldiers’ lives. To pretend that all of us thus offer carte blanche to misuses of those weapons against civilians, or to aggressive, non-defensive war-making, or that it means all 83 % of us are mere children who are “oblivious” to the misuses of our “toys,” is offensive in the extreme. Geez Louise–smug and oblivious. Even when I disagree strongly with someone of the right wing, I don’t ever dismiss them without giving them a hearing and say “you’re all children.” This review was so arrogant.

    Sorry for the long post.

    • Liz Arizona June 20, 2012 at 7:04 am

      due to as usual
      ignorance and Media Brainwashing!!!

  2. judy June 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I’m sitting in a friend’s apartment in Berlin reading Lynn Feinerman’s review of Media Benjamin’s book. Our Berlin friend just gave a talk to the large metal workers union about having control over what they produce, drones in particular. Do they really want to be producing them given their current military use? Good to know that people I care for all over the world are sharing thoughts and actions.

  3. Andrew June 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    If my post above was tl;dr, the shorter:

    - Good reasons for supporting drone use, instead of conventional weapons, may include the better visibility that drones confer, and the fact that American soldiers, at least, are kept safe from harm, though we wish no innocent civilians would be killed by them, and stand ready to hear any evidence that more civilians are thus killed, than by other conventional means of warfare; this improved visibility, and the removal of soldiers from harm’s way, would DECREASE accidental civilian casualties, I thought (though I’m eager to see any evidence either confirming or denying this);

    - The claim that a war crime has taken place, unless a weapon “differentiates” between civilian and military targets needs clarification: did all the weapons we used during World War II, before we CONVENED the Nuremberg Tribunals, truly meet this requirement?

    - To sum up, it is a gross distortion, and a lazy one, to assume without asking that all who approve of drone use are children who are fascinated with new military gadgetry, and are heedless of the cost in lives or the fact that it can be misused, and do not care if it’s misused. And, given the opposition of many of us to the Iraq War’s targeting of a regime that didn’t threaten us, it’s simply an illogical assumption. Ask next time, before assuming the worst of all 83% of us.

  4. Eric Zornberg July 1, 2012 at 8:01 am

    I am annoyed at Feinerman’s emphasis on drones in Gaza. There would not be any drones if the leaders of Gaza did not declare themselves as enemies of Israel, of wanting to destroy Israel, continuing to import bigger rockets instead of developing their economy, if they have not been shooting missiles and rockets at Israeli civilians (a bit more upsetting than noisy drones) all this continuing after Israel withdrew from Gaza lock stock and barrel!!@!! There would be no blockade if they were interested in peaceful coexistence.

  5. Jenny Littman January 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

    It seems to me that drones are the most cowardly, dangerous, and terrifying development of arms yet seen on our planet – precisely because those operating them are not at risk themselves, and it is so easy to press a button. How could so much power be put in the hands of a young ignorant operator? And so many of those killed are children, despite the claims that the operators can ‘see’ who they are targetting! I read of one young man who was killed by a drone for going to a demo to protest against drones and the reign of terror they had brought to his village. There are no trials – there is no accountability -

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