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Book review – Drone Warfare

Definitely, Medea Benjamin is not afraid to tackle controversial themes: on the contrary, it seems she considers being silent on some issues the deadliest possible sin. She has dealt, in her previous books (some of which date back to the late 80’s) with the embargo imposed on Cuba and the stories of Latin American women, and during the years has criticized multiple times the WTO and some major corporations on trade policies and working conditions. She has also lambasted both the G. W. Bush and the Barack Obama administrations on topics such as Guantanamo, US involvement in the Middle East and the ‘war on terror’. So, the fact that her latest book is dedicated to ‘Drone warfare: killing by remote control’, and does not spare criticism to policymakers and to the ‘military-industrial complex’ is little surprise, if at all.

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More unexpected is the fact that – when coming to those in power – Barack Obama and his aides are maybe more harshly criticized than their predecessors. Given Benjamin’s fierce opposition to the ‘neo-conservatives’ foreign policy and her involvement, during the 2000s, in the ‘anybody but Bush’ campaign, one might have expected the opposite, but the author has at least three significant reasons to justify her choice. One is numbers, which are extensively given and detailed throughout the book: “The defense department – Benjamin writes for instance – reported clocking in 10,000 UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, i.e. drones] in 2005; by 2010 that number was more than 550,000”. In other words, she adds a few chapters later, it was the Obama administration that “institutionalized the practice of targeted killings transforming ad-hoc elements of emergency measures developed after 9/11 into a counterterrorism infrastructure designed to sustain a permanent war”. The activist condemns in particular the unclear criteria according to which the lists of possible targets for drone strikes (alleged al-Qaeda militants) are compiled, and the so-called ‘disposition matrix’, which she describes as a secretly developed “next generation targeting list (…) a blueprint designed to pursue terrorists for the next ten years”.
Benjamin’s, however, is not a quasi-anarchical criticism of a power structure which is seen as corrupt in itself – and this is the second point to be underlined. What she stands firmly against is not the Washington government as a whole, instead she questions – and indeed this is not something new – the assumption that warfare should be the key instrument of a foreign policy. In her opinion, politicians should give more chances to “the forgotten art of talking to one another”, as she defines diplomacy. However, she underlines, “in the past decade, the State Department has become a weaker and weaker institution, watching its anemic attempts at diplomacy go up in smoke”.
The third point is that, despite what it may seem, ‘Drone Warfare’ is not just a book about politics. Its groundings are also (if not mainly) moral ones, as the journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich acknowledges in her foreword: “At the end of this book, you’ll be inspired and you’ll know exactly how to get involved”, she writes. And Benjamin, in turn, states: “The burden is now squarely on us, the people, to reassert our rights and push back against the normalization of drones as a military and law enforcement tool”. The use of these devices, she adds “needs to be limited, transparent and, at the least, acknowledged (…). Our ability to curb the use of UAVs (…) will not only determine the future of warfare and individual privacy, but shape our character as a nation and how we live together as a global human community”.

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From this point of view, the more one proceeds in reading, the more another fact becomes evident: the campaign against drones Benjamin is waging is not a ‘single issue’ one. The author’s fears do not regard only the trivialization of death and war that directly derives by the widespread use of drones, presented by many as ‘clean’ and ‘smart’ weapons; also the common citizens’ privacy is seen as increasingly at risk given the surveillance capacity of these aircrafts. The possibility that other countries will in the future develop similar technologies and take similar measures, both at war and in peace, using the US as an example, is also taken into account.
No wonder, therefore that the last chapters of the book are devoted to sketch a picture of the anti-drones movement currently growing, both in the US and the UK. Before getting to that, however, Benjamin provides her reader with a wide range of information about UAVs, going from the history of their development, to the corporate interests (and their links to the Congress) behind them. The book gives also flesh and bone to what is usually called ‘collateral damage’ – something which is actually made up of men, women and children more or less accidentally fallen under the drones’ fire. This highly sensitive point is approached by the book also from a legal point of view, but the more vivid (and disturbing) pages of the book are, beyond any doubt, those in which the individual stories of some innocent victims are told, in an empathetic manner and often without sparing the brutal details of their death.
These documented accounts are indeed one of the reasons why ‘Drone warfare’ cannot be easily dismissed as the umpteenth politically motivated attack against US foreign policy, as some may be tempted to do. However, the strength of the book stands also in the fact that it does not make an appeal only to the readers’ sensibility but – with its wide set of figures, arguments and examples – to his moral sense and rationality, too. (D.M.)
Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare. Killing by remote control, Verso 2013 (updated edition), 246 pp.

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