In this article:
– A recap on the transparency record of the US drone program
– Revelation about the true age of “military-age males”
– Where does international law come into play?
– What can can be done?
– Resources hyperlinked throughout for further insight
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
– Nelson Mandela
Denial From The Start
It’s been a struggle to receive any information on missile-bearing drones currently used in American foreign policy. Robert Gibbs’ revelation on MSNBC last year symbolized the administration’s views on transparency from the start, and why it was like pulling teeth for investigative journalists. As the former Press Secretary to President Obama, he stated that one of the first things he was told when sworn in to office was to treat the drone program as if it “didn’t exist”. Not to say the usual, “well I can’t get into that as it would threaten our national security endeavours.”, but to treat a reality as if it wasn’t occurring at all.
Jedi mind tricks didn’t work against the internet. Although the administration has referred to these strikes as “surgical” and like a “scalpel”, this rhetoric has crumbled. Multiple claims in 2011 and 2012 by the administration on civilian casualties we’re shown by ProPublica to not add up. In 2013 McClatchy reported that in a 12 month period of strikes in Afghanistan, only six out of 482 people killed were leading figures of al Qaida . A recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed that in Pakistan alone, out of the 400+ strikes that have occurred, only 4% of drone strike victims we’re named simply members of al Qaida.
It has also been a struggle for investigative journalists, UN committees, and NGO’s to demand transparency on how the United States justifies their drone strikes. Take “signature strikes”, a practice that fires missiles on an unidentified man based on his pattern of life. It was revealed thanks to the first Intercept article that the intelligence needed to authorize a strike can be minimal, targets sometimes are reduced to a known sim card location, and the life pattern under suspect can be based on their electronic metadata. Focussing in Pakistan, Amnesty International’s own report Will I Be Next outlines nine strikes, one that dropped a missile on a grandmother picking okra in a field alone, with her granddaughter and grandson close by. This report also tackles another practice known as “double tapping”, when a strike happens and unidentified people rush in to the area (perhaps to help medically or search for survivors), a second missile is then fired on them. In the report it is well articulated that this practice alone could surmount to war crimes.
With signature strikes and doubling tapping alone, the level of “threat” by these targets have been put in question. Although there may be self-defence claims made by the US, it was revealed through orwellian Department of Justice leaked documents (which I challenge everyone to read) the policy “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
Does any of this so far sound “precise”? Or use of “necessary force”?
It also became known that “military aged males” in the area of a drone strike are considered immediately “enemy-combatants”. Rightfully so, this has been lamented by many as a way to reduce the number of reported civilian casualties, and that it is also ethnocentric and I will add sexist.
“ For now, consider what this means for American media outlets. Any of them which use the term “militants” to describe those killed by U.S. strikes are knowingly disseminating a false and misleading term of propaganda. By “militant,” the Obama administration literally means nothing more than: any military-age male whom we kill, even when we know nothing else about them. They have no idea whether the person killed is really a militant: if they’re male and of a certain age they just call them one in order to whitewash their behaviour and propagandize the citizenry (unless conclusive evidence somehow later emerges proving their innocence).”
And let us not forget that all of these policies apply to strikes happening in now undesignated warzones as well, such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.
In knowing all this, I didn’t think the policies could get much worse. In March of this year I befriended my Project Red Hand colleague Brandon Bryant, a US Air Force veteran and former drone operator. We took a trip to the Iraq Veteran’s Against the War 10th Anniversary Conference, and during a twelve hour drive from Montana to Colorado I learned that I was wrong. And there was one thing that he revealed to me so outrageous that it stayed burned in the back of my head for months. I have scoured the internet to see if what I am about to state is widely known, to find that I do not believe it is.
So here goes.
Bombing Children as Accepted Policy
During the twelve hour drive in August of this year, Brandon completed a part of the missing chunk of public knowledge on the drone program. In the years of binging on any information that I could find, one thing that I had never been exposed to was what drone operators go through on the inside. As the only previous drone operator to publicly speak out, many of the interviewers focused on the sensational things he had witnessed or the fact that he now suffers from PTSD. In some cases I’d argue this was used to discredit any relevant commentary he might have on the program itself, very similar to tactics used on other whistleblowers. There were never direct question about the policies, what his instructions were like, or the conditioning that he went through inside the program.
He was shuffled into the drone program at 20 years old, which was roughly the average age. He was told that his new job was “to kill people and break things” . These young operators are not told much, if anything, about the people they are striking, just that they are the enemy and are dangerous to the United States. The database that is used to store technical data about drones is called “Skynet”, yes, the same name as the fictional company that makes Terminators. Every operator would receive a list of “achievements” which stated the number of kills by strikes. Brandon stated that sometimes these numbers were used for promotion, just like you would in a sales job. Brandon and the other operators were not allowed to speak to a psychiatrist because they would lose their clearance. They were allowed to speak to a Chaplain, which Brandon did. When he expressed his concerns about not understanding who they were killing and if it was right, the Chaplain stated, “Did you ever think that it was God’s will for these people to die?”
To add, the news site The Guardian was banned on US military bases abroad in the summer of 2013. In August of this year The Intercept became banned reading for all Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corp employees, even those with top security clearances.
These operators are the same age as recent high school graduates or college freshman. All of these inside tactics: kill-lists like a video game, the oddly referenced “Skynet”, the radical religiously pacifying Chaplain, and news censorship, can and should be called out for what they are: dehumanizing conditioning on behalf of the US Military on these young soldiers which could result in dire psychological effects.
For Brandon it continued to the labels that are used to describe the people on the screens that find themselves in a strike zone. During his time flying for JSOC, women were known as “ravens” , while children were “crows” , two birds that are most known for being symbols of death. Everyone else in the area we’re known as “MAMs” or “military aged males” .
Now the idea that a military aged male can be assassinated with no consequence, trial, or even recognition does need to be addressed alone. Is no man considered a civilian then? The presumption of inherent guilt punishable by immediate execution is a known unjust judgement for any institution to cast, hence the evolved constitutional and internationally regarded right to due process. Hauntingly ironic as it seems now, the presumption of innocent until proven guilty was an American legacy born during the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
However, from what I had understood, the “military age” to be considered an enemy combatant was eighteen years old and up. Or perhaps at worse, it may be sixteen years old and up. This is not the case. Revealed by Brandon, and seconded by other military sources, to be considered a “military aged male” one must only be twelve years old. So, if there is a twelve year old boy in the town square where a drone strike occurs and is blown up, we are to disregard his young life and assume he was likely an enemy. A little boy. A preteen.
And how far does this go down the rabbit hole? If they are considered enemies immediately, are 12 year olds being tortured in US-backed black sites? These questions must be asked. We already have a case of a child in the American detention center in Guantanamo Bay. The heart-raging case of Omar Khadr, detained when he was fifteen years old and held for eleven years of his life.
In opposition to investigative journalists who bring the civilian casualties and loss of children under drone strikes to light, many TV news personalities loyal to US foreign policy say, “well there are always casualties in war, its never perfect ect.” That’s disingenuous to what’s actually being laid bare here. The point is not only that the US is firing missiles in areas and there are casualties, but that the administration by policy claims the international authority that all the male children 12 years old and up in a strike zone most likely deserve to die. Is that not the logic behind presumed guilt and assassination?
President Obama has continued the tradition of preaching American exceptionalism in his speeches, from the articulate metaphors of being a beacon of human rights on the hill to recently when he patronizingly appealed to the youth by stating that being the worlds protectors was “how we roll”.
If there was anything to challenge American exceptionalism should it not be the bombing of children as a matter of accepted policy?
Let’s pause. I will do separate articles on a piece of legislation known as the AUMF, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, but to those unfamiliar think about what the Patriot Act did to civil liberties, the AUMF did for foreign policy. Congress was rushed to sign this floodgate in scope for the American warmachine and executive branch overreach only three days after 9/11. This is while the country was at it’s height of fear, remorse, rage, and utter panic. In the House of Representatives, out of the 431 voting members, there was one representative who had the foresight and courage to vote against the AUMF. This was Congresswoman Barbara Lee. By herself on the floor, with her voice shaking, she stated,
“ Some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say let’s step back for a moment, let’s pause for just a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control. Now I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it today. And I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial services. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘as we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’”
Are we there yet?
What About International Law?
It’s no secret that the US has avoided becoming a member of the International Criminal Court, and that it may sign on to international conventions but never ratify them (which means become obligated to follow it). One can take a tour of the of lip-service to UN conventions here.
Most startlingly however is that of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Next year it will be twenty years since the US has signed this convention but not ratified it. It was internationally recognized that children did not have enough specific protection under international law, and all member states of the UN have signed and ratified this convention, except two. Somalia and the United States of America. Somalia’s President pledged to ratify last year, so soon the US may be the only country in the entire UN Assembly to not ratify the only international convention dedicated children’s rights.
As the shining light of human rights on the hill, why?
Well there is false rhetoric that is being spread about UN conventions and that they are some threat to national sovereignty. This is a misunderstanding of jurisdiction and purpose. Amnesty International’s and UNICEF’s official response to this:
“ Does the Convention threaten our national sovereignty? Will the United Nations control our laws and children?
A: No. The Convention contains no controlling language or mandates. Moreover, under the supremacy clause of our Constitution, no treaty can “override” our Constitution. The United States has historically regarded treaties such as this Convention to be non-self-executing, which means the Convention can only be implemented through domestic legislation enacted by Congress or state legislatures, in a manner and time-frame determined by our own legislative process. Moreover, the United States can reject or attach clarifying language to any specific provision of the Convention.
Therefore, neither the United Nations nor the Committee on the Rights of the Child would have dominion, power, or enforcement authority over the United States or its citizens. Ultimately, the Convention obligates the Federal Government to make sure that the provisions of the treaty are fulfilled.”
Since we now know that the current administration’s view is a child aged 12-15 in the areas that are being bombed is presumed guilty and can be assassinated without due process, this is obviously a clear violation of Article 6 Section 1 of the convention which reads: State parties recognize that every child has an inherent right to life. Beyond that, and like in such cases as Omar Khadr, the United States would also be violation of Article 37, 38, and 40.
And what about inland? In a report published in October of this year, child poverty in United States is at it’s highest it’s ever been in twenty years, with a quarter of American children living food insecure. There could be an entirely separate article that laments on the state of children’s development in the United States. This could be about the education system, social programs, safety, discrimination, the list goes on. Perhaps one of the most antithetical to the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child would be the practice of youth incarcerated adult sentences of life without parole. So can we really say that the current United States administration is upholding the values of this convention even at home?
The growing pile of international conventions left unratified aside, here is one example of a law that can and is being used to challenge current US foreign policies, especially in the case of the drone program. In 1993, the 4th Geneva Convention officially became customary international law. This means that they are binding to not only signatories, but also to non-signatories who are engaging in armed conflict.
So keeping in mind the fact that yes, the US is obliged to abide, I direct your attention to Article 3 Section 1:
“ Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
President Obama campaigned on human rights and respect for international law. He won the American vote by promising CHANGE and HOPE from Bush warfare, yet for six years we have seen every element of that article continue to be violated. Under Obama these actions have expanded into undesignated war zones, tactics lamented under Bush have been codified legally by the National Defense Authorization Act and the renewal of the AUMF, and the idea of using the US military for resource extraction (oil) was touted charismatically on the UN floor last year as if it was always perfectly acceptable. And now we learn that when the US government tells us a “militant” has been killed, it may have been a thirteen year old on his way to soccer practice who took a wrong turn.
Let’s go back to Robert Gibbs one more time. There was a young journalist from the group We Are Change who confronted him about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the sixteen year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki. Anwar was one of the first Americans assassinated by a drone strike, and teenage Abdulrahman was killed by a drone strike two weeks after his father’s death. Robert Gibbs, the same man who’s sole job was to convey information to the press on behalf of the United States government, and while at the same time treated the drone program as if it didn’t exist, looked at this young journalist and could only justify Abdulrahman’s death by claiming he should have had a better father.
After years of public censorship, stonewalling, and false rhetoric, perhaps the reason why growing questions in specific cases like Abdulrahman or any other aspect of the drone program are going unanswered is simple: the administration simply feels they don’t have to. It is up to the public to prove them wrong. The aggressive actions the US administration conducts overseas is also how the American citizenry as whole is represented, and therefore they must know what is happening in their name.
So What’s to be Done?
The point of this article is not to just state that things are bad. Just like in the movie Network, we all know things are bad. The standards and practices of international law is always evolving, especially in times of need such as in times of war and aggressive state actions. And what is regarded as cynicism and apathy in the American populace I would argue is actually the result of being misinformed or not informed at all due to the lack of transparency and illusive rhetoric. This is much easier to engage with, empower, and organize than if everyone had the facts and still didn’t care. And I would also argue, as Amy Goodman does, that there is a silenced majority of the populace that is paying attention and very much so cares.
To summarize the points in this article and lay out a few courses of actions one can take part in:
– Make it known the age of “military aged males” considered immediate “enemy combatants” under current legislation include boys aged 12+ . You can share this article, contact relevant NGO’s and institutions, your own local representatives, write about it on your own, or engage in discussions. The current US administration needs to be put on point to justify this. Because really, how can they?
– Circulate information about the drone program as widely as possible. The rhetoric is still pervasive, but shown immediately false with the facts.
– Engage with returning veterans. We must work together. We must not abandoned those who return, and make no assumption that we understand exactly what they went through or how they feel about it now if they haven’t opened up about it. And keep in mind that again many news outlets like The Guardian and The Intercept are banned on military bases, so either by witness, action, or when they return they can be faced with intense moments of realization. Learn about PTSD and Moral Injury and reach out.
– Challenge “they hate us because of their religion”. Just like “they hate us for our freedom” sounds ridiculous now, so too will this. One can combat this with the actual facts of current American foreign policy. Also to be taken under consideration, just like a large portion of the American public was radicalized into supporting the illegal invasion of Iraq after 9/11, one can make the claim that in a climate of constant terror inflicted by the US some of these areas are being more easily radicalized into anti-West militant groups. Jeremy Scahill articulates an example of this effect specifically pertaining to tribal areas in Yemen in this article for The Nation and speaks about it on this segment of Democracy Now.
– Organize around the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Twenty years it will be in 2015, since the US has signed but not ratified. Shouldn’t the country who perpetuates the most war, selling of arms, and destruction around the world be the same country that should be obligated the most to the only convention on children’s rights? Once again, the United States may soon become the ONLY UN member state to not ratify this convention, so it will be glaringly obvious once this is known to the greater American populace.
– Challenge the US administration’s refusal to join the International Criminal Court. People sometimes talk about the ICC like it’s been around since the birth of the United Nations. It has not. It has actually only been around for roughly a decade. This may be a longer struggle, but first the US government needs a constant and growing pressure to justify why they haven’t yet, combined with fighting the “the UN is a threat to our national sovereignty” false rhetoric.
There are organizations out there that are already involved in most these efforts. One can join and support them, or go rogue and produce projects on their own that fosters engagement in these ideas. The point is to act now. If we don’t, if all of this continues to go unchecked, what future are we making inevitable for generations to come?
“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”
– Nelson Mandela
Written by Michelle Segal , Kraken