At the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, retired/fired General Stanley McChrystal gave a ringing endorsement of drone warfare, only to subsequently mention, footnote-style, that the so-called precision bombing of drones don’t always spare civilians. “We should be using drones a lot,” he said. But “We need to understand what drones are not.”
[McChrystal] described a chilling account of the wrongful execution of a civilan farmer in Afghanistan by a U.S. drone strike. “We fired a missile and killed him and found out he was a farmer,” McChrystal said. After the assassination, McChystal replayed the event to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a laptop who told McChystal the farmer was engaged in routine irrigation work just prior to the missile strike–an activity the U.S. military should’ve been familiar with. “You have to know these sorts of things,” McChrystal told the crowd.
A loose-lipped general is an enlightening thing. Remember, McChrystal also explained matter-of-factly to the New York Times how the US military “have shot an amazing number of people [in Afghanistan], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” He also, rather adroitly, explained the logic of what he called “insurgent math.” That is, “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.”
The talk of drones being “precise” is mostly ideological. The term is used as if it isn’t inherently relative, but it must be. Relative to an atom bomb, drones are “precise.” Relative to a sniper rifle, drones are…what?
The state and the military always claim their weapons are precise. In WWII, the US parted with the British in their night time carpet bombings of civilian areas. New technology, they said, made it possible to do “precision bombing.” The Norden bombsight, which could calculate the bomb’s trajectory for accuracy, was said to have been able to hit a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet.
But “in reality,” writes Yuki Tanaka in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History, “‘precision bombing’ was a euphemism, as the bombs regularly fell at least a quarter mile from the target.” The US Strategic Bombing Survey, issued in September 1945 concluded that “in the over-all, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area.”
The propaganda about our military being humanitarian and our bombs being precise is the same now as it was then. The reason the dogma about the “precision” of drones is so widespread throughout the public, is because not enough US generals make a point to mention the mistaken killings of civilian farmers in rural Afghanistan.