Project Red Hand Members Jake Bridge and Cian Westmoreland speak on Al Jazeera about being veterans of conscience.
When you think of a precision airstrike, what normally comes to mind?
Better yet allow me to ask a series of other questions…
Who do you think makes the decisions? How many people and processes do you think are involved in conducting these strikes? Who is ultimately responsible for the end result? What is a weapons system?
Once you begin asking yourself some of these questions, you’ll be on the right track. But if you are at this time under the impression that pilots, planes, and bombs are the answer to all of these questions, then prepare to be enlightened.
This working paper will attempt to provide you with some understanding to answer some of these questions, and will hopefully give you an insight into some potential ethical problems with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and perhaps even an insight into how atrocities such as the bombing of civilians without soldiers and airmen challenging the system can happen. In doing so, this paper also seeks to help further a more comprehensive dialogue toward the understanding of warfare and societies at a human level. These are my reflections as I go, and I hope that people will feel compelled to participate in the development of this project in a critical way, whether that be of my writings or in order to add to them.
Words on the diffusion of responsibility and desensitization to conflict
When I was opening up to a good friend to explain why I felt a personal responsibility for my work in Afghanistan and how it still affects me, she told me another much more relatable example of a problem that plagues our society today. H&M, a store we’ve all shopped at some point is a store that actively uses sweatshop labor for the production of its goods. She said that if she shopped there, she’d be guilty of perpetuating that system of labor. But if she didn’t and ran a campaign that stopped people from shopping there, then perhaps one of these sweatshops will close, but leave many people on the streets, or worse, it may burn down with everyone trapped inside. This she said was one of her reasons to pursue politics. We currently live in a system that is blind and desensitized to the ingredients that facilitate our way of life. Knowingly and unknowingly, we support systems of cruelty around the world with our every purchasing decision. If you ever bought a cellphone, quite likely you indirectly paid a person who actively uses slave labor. If you eat meat, you more than certainly contribute to millions of pigs, chickens, and cows living in factory-like conditions that are subject to unimaginable cruelty every year. Perhaps a person against their own interests exposed a corrupt and anti-constitutional system of spying on their own citizens. In our society, there seems to be five approaches to this.
- Willful ignorance and/ or apathy.
- Abolition of self responsibility by rationalizing oneself out of the decision-making process.
- Mistrust of negative information, while blindly supporting the views of the authority figures.
- Vocal outrage while still persisting their purchase of said product, albeit guiltily so.
- Absolute rejection of the system, while actively looking to change it.
Guess which four pathways most people choose? What do you do when confronted with issues such as these? Well, you might ask what one person changing their habits could do to change an entire system? Maybe you try to rationalize it into a general acceptance of cruelty as a fact of life. Maybe you just ignore it. We are surrounded by interconnecting systems of injustice just asking to to be revealed, but as a civilization we are perpetually concerned with our own self comfort, and are hard pressed to look outside ourselves and relate to the cycles of suffering we help to exist globally. Our brains are wired to interact with communities of no more than 300 people. Within that group of 300, altruism is often quite prevalent. We will spend great sums of time and money to save a puppy from being euthanized for instance, while at the same time pass a homeless woman with her children on the street without batting an eye. Maybe we’ll say to ourselves, “she’s probably a scam artist”, or “someone else is supposed to help her, where is the state?”, it’s “Somebody Else’s Problem”. If enough people stand idly by, we are anti-conformist if we act. This is called the “bystander effect.” It is therefore no stretch to say that this problem persists in the military and politics as well.
In 1961, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram devised an experiment three months after the start of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. It sought to answer the questions “ Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” The results of these experiments were quite stunning. Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience”, writing:
“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Six years later – at the height of the Vietnam War – one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:
While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…
Milgram’s experiment revealed something unwelcoming about human nature, something most people would emphatically deny. We humans are pragmatic creatures who believe themselves to be principled in times of calm, but are more often than not weak in the face of gross injustice when in the presence of authority; whether it be institutionalized or of a majority of peers.
A separate but equally important experiment was conducted by the Stanford Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. This experiment would come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was of interest to both the US Navy and Marine Corps as an investigation into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. In the experiment, twenty four students were selected to take on randomly assigned roles as prisoner and guards in a mock prison. Well beyond the expectations of Zimbardo, the guards actually became authoritarian in nature and began subjecting prisoners to psychological torture. Several prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse, and consented to the requests of guards by harassing prisoners who attempted to prevent it. Zimbardo himself, acting as the superintendent found himself conforming to his role, exhibiting sadistic tendencies as well. This ultimately cause him to terminate the experiment, as it began to spiral out of control. The conclusion to this experiment favored situational attribution to behavior. Zimbardo argued that the results of the experiment demonstrated the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.
The results of both experiments are both mutually reinforcing, it shows that people conform to roles in the best way they know how, and are by and large eager to do so. What does this say about human nature and the structures which persist in our society, and how does this relate to the diffusion of responsibility
No one person in the Nazi party claimed responsibility for the millions of people killed in concentration camps. The hierarchical nature of the party allowed minor bureaucrats to say that they were just following orders, and minor supervisors to say that they only issued commands but did not actually commit the deeds. When one pilfers through archives of confessions, this might be the common arguments one would expect to find. Concentration camps and their transportation networks were designed in manner which created separation between the operators and the prisoners themselves. From cultural indoctrination, they were taught to hate the Jews and see them as lesser beings. Linguistically, Nazis developed official words that were used in common language to make genocide more palatable. A concentration camp official might write home bragging about the “units” he processed that day to his wife, while in the same paragraph telling her how proud he is of his daughter’s grades. Language being our principal means for constructing our reality, is, and has always been used to manipulate perceptions. With each label and each choice of verbiage, it will determine whether we view an action as justifiable or unacceptable, authoritative or subversive. In today’s society, politically loaded words are thrown around constantly, and people are often left unaware of their own emotional manipulation. The military institutionalized this into their vocabulary with the use of emotionally neutral words to describe often controversial topics, and acronyms to describe complex interactions in order to speed up communication and obscure information to non- military ears. It also unofficially uses slang to refer to “others” in a derogatory manner. The culture of the military is often seen from the outside and internally as an exclusive group. Below are a list of terms used, that could be said to have a hold on the US military/ public image of military’s mindset:
- Shake and Bake : a combination barrage of White Phosphorus and explosive artillery shells. Also an American side dish of potatoes.
- Haji: used to describe any person with a brownish skin-tone. Often it is use derogatorily. Actual meaning is someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In practice, it conflates race with the Muslim faith, and is a label used to identify and “other”. It could also conflate religion with belligerent actors.
- Target: used to describe anything of potential military threat.
- Potential Enemy Combatant: used most in reports or official documents to describe people who were killed who they suspect of being a combatant, but lack adequate evidence
- Suspected Insurgent: Man of military age brought in or killed nearby, or suspected to be linked to insurgent activities.
- KIA: Killed in action. Typically used in referring to friendly forces who are killed in combat. Acronym obscures the emotional response one would have to the word “kill”
- Optics: The public eye (opinion)/ the perception of the man in the street. It is used to obscure text which refers to public opinion
- Collateral Damage: Destruction of unintended infrastructure or the killing of non-combatants (ie. women and children)
- Enemy assets: Roads, bridges, weapons, communication networks, guarded information, and soldiers/ suspected insurgents
- Deconflicted/ Attrited/ Degraded: words that are used in place of “killed”, typically for the purpose of awards packages, EPRs, or other official military documents.
- To Attrit: Means to blow into smithereens; sanitization of destruction
- Fog of War: A term used to justify mistakes or atrocities committed during combat
- Embedded Journalists: Journalists who travel with soldiers and report favorably on the US war effort
- PBIED: Person Borne Improvised Explosive Device; meaning suicide bomber; used in order to not provoke offense
- GWOT: Global War on Terror; refers to all operations, including clandestine operations conducted in the effort to stop terrorism
- EIT: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques; this refers to coercive interrogation tactics such as but not limited to waterboarding and sleep deprivation
- Black Site: locations where they are neutral non-signatory to any torture prohibition treaties. Metaphor used to make it sound more acceptable.
- HVT: High valued target; used for people on terrorist watch lists or those who are valued for their information
- EPW: Enemy Prisoner of War
- Illegal Combatants: Term that replaced EPW to avoid conditions protocols in the Geneva Convention
- Renditions: Removal of EPWs to countries where use of torture in interrogation is condoned. Used to make it sound more acceptable
- Surge: Refers to the deployment of troops; originally called an “escalation” then changed to “augmentation”.
- WMD: Weapons of Mass Destruction; reduced to an acronym to demote after claims of Nuclear Weapons
- Friendly Fire: Used to describe shootings of soldiers belonging to the same side; the purpose is to avoid reality and neutralize emotions on killing people
- CW: Chemical Weapons; acronym that sanitizes death
- Smart Bomb: Refers to precision guided munitions (missiles); this is used to connote to the public that they are extremely accurate and are a good military option; sanitizes death
- Cluster Bomb: these are “dumb” bombs which are released indiscriminately over a targeted area, that often don’t explode and litter populated areas; it does not represent reality
- Daisy Cutter: a bomb called a Blu-82 which is used to flatten areas for helicopter landing and as anti-personnel/ intimidation weapon due to its large lethal radius; name used to sanitize death.
As one can see, there are clearly many ways that are used on the military and the public to suppress or drum up certain emotions. Words and phrases such as these work to create a certain lexicon of speech peculiar to the military.
Once one is put through the process of basic military training which entails the breaking down of an individual and the building up through the image of the military, s/he is taught to follow orders with extreme attention to detail, s/he is bound and made accountable to their fellow servicemen, and are thus effectively made able to perform as an individual whose actions and inactions have consequences for an entire system in a very short amount of time.
Words such as those listed above, as well as acronyms become a peculiar part of his or her vocabulary and mode of thought. The military therefore has multiple ways it can make the action of killing human beings easier and more effective.
A system of hierarchy is etched into the minds of every recruit, one that requires a soldier to answer to his officers so that they do not answer for him. It makes Non Commissioned Officers and Commissioned Officers alike responsible for the welfare and the good conduct of their troops.
Once a civilian signs his contract and swears his oath, he is no longer his own property, but that of the government of the United States of America. From then on, they have the authorization to send you where they wish, and make you do what they wish. Applying for Conscientious Objector status at this point becomes less credible, and requires one to go through a great deal of humiliation and legal work. For disobeying orders on the basis of negligence or disagreement, one is potentially subject to career ending punitive paperwork that could ruin ones chances at promotion or worse, their chances of employment as a civilian.
Concerning the diffusion of responsibility, I have outlined several contributing factors one must take into consideration as I explain how a modern air strike may be conducted. It is important to consider the human psychological elements of submission to authority, conformity to roles within different social contexts, the use of language as a program for thought in the US military, hierarchical command structures, and the repercussions for disobedience when explaining the environment this diffusion of responsibility takes place. The last linkage to make of course is how modern technology itself, as well as the specialization of roles contribute to this diffusion. To do this, I will offer my brief interpretation on the historical progression of technological causes, as well as structural causes for the diffusion of responsibility over time, in which I will eventually come to describe modern conflict.
Progression of the diffusion of responsibility
Up until the invention of gunpowder, there was primarily only one way for soldiers to kill people, and that was to do so directly with whatever weapon they had at their disposal. Be it a sword, a mace, a bow and arrow, or a trebuchet; the kill decision was in the hands of the soldiers. The soldier and his weapon was effectively a weapons system. But even then, he was trained for combat by his superiors, he had a commander to take orders from lest he risk severe punishment or death, and he had very little say over what battles he’d fight. Moreover, without people making his weapons he was ineffective, and without armor he was vulnerable. Arguably, the first example of the technical diffusion of responsibility was through weapons like the trebuchet, as it often required a team to operate. No single man was responsible, but all men were needed to ratchet the pulley back, load it, point the machine, and then release the triggering mechanism. These machines were mostly used as siege weapons and the soldiers operating them were often dual use (as in they also served as infantry), but from this point warfare evolved.
Warfare in those days was brutal, just imagine marching onto a field knowing good and well that you would most likely be killed, watching the men beside you being filled with arrows while you continue toward a storm of blood, flesh, and metal. History depicts these battles as glorious meta-events, but it rarely focused on the effects it had on the soldiers themselves. It’s true that these men must have been more hardened and/or desensitized to this kind of violence as a result of their training and societal upbringing, but these events were moments of absolute trauma, adrenaline, and fear. In such instances, desensitization to this level of violence was crucial to an army’s success, as those who were not, most likely perished.
Physical distance is also emotional distance. The advent of gunpowder made it so that human beings could kill each other more easily, without the years of training it took to create professional soldiers. Numbers rather than skill became the most effective measure for an army’s success or failure. One only needed to instill the discipline to stand there and be fired upon while having the ability to reload, fire and point his rifle. During this time, these men were constantly aware of the fact that if they did not fight, they would be lanced in the back by their officer in charge. It was therefore hopeless either way, and one was just lucky to make it out alive. Morally, the choice to kill was merely an option of choosing to live or die. But even so, PTSD existed during such times. In the American Civil War, it was called Soldier’s Heart and was treated as the name implies, as a heart condition. War was still extremely brutal at this point too, once armies exhausted their ammunition, they were expected to charge with bayonets. Nevertheless, there was never a question of who was responsible, it was clearly officers, soldiers were just helpless pawns.
World War I saw countless new advances in diffusionary weapons systems. Tanks, landmines artillery, airplanes, and chemical weapons all made killing more simple and required less personal accountability. They were also vastly inaccurate, but absolute destruction was the objective. Rather than counting deaths in the hundreds or thousands, this war was counted by millions. Shell shock became a new term to describe those who were traumatized by the violence. Rather than standing in rows, individual soldiers regained their individual importance on the battlefield to an extent. Trench warfare introduced prolonged engagements and a new level of uncertainty, it caused men to endure siege conditions on either side on a daily basis who were not trained to do so in the least. Under these conditions, morale was difficult to enforce, and thus men were left fighting their own battles to survive. It was unclear for them why they fought, and time spent in those trenches gave way to thought, which ultimately contributed to a humanization of the individual soldier in literature and in popular culture. Conversely, while brutality was broadly existent on the receiving end, the artillerymen, the tanks, and the bombers in the aircraft normally attacked from a great distance, and were not exposed to the destruction they were inflicting.
World War II was as much a war of propaganda as it was one of new advances in weaponry. Soldiers became more valued as individuals, and the painting of the “other” was as much for soldiers as it was for entire populations. Commanders and officers could distance themselves from the battlefield with radio technology, and logistics became more structured and consistent with the advances in transportation and communications. Warfare began to take on a more systematic quality and specialization became a means of making battlefield operations more efficient. Air warfare was itself able to begin diffusing its responsibilities with the introduction of several new technologies, particularly the radio and the radar. As in all standard aircraft, bombers had a pilot and a flight engineer who acted as the copilot. There was a navigator, who navigated. But then there were radar operators who scanned the ground for targets, bombardiers that calculated trajectories and released bombs on the targets that were selected by the radar operators, wireless operators that communicated with the ground/ scanned for enemy aircraft/ jammed enemy aircraft signals, and gunners were responsible for protecting the plane while in flight. Together they were all essential for the mission to succeed, but ultimately the flightpath, the target selection, and the kill decision was restricted to those on board the aircraft. General orders were given to the crew by a commanding officer, and those on board acted under radio silence autonomously, a measure used because of poor cryptography. This weapons system was less concerned with collateral damage as it was out of the hands of control of the operators. Technology simply did not exist at the time to effectively avoid it. It was responsible for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, in that time, questions of responsibility weighed on the shoulders of the crew of the Enola Gay and the Bockscar, regardless of the absence of regret for doing so as they viewed it as necessary, but were still confounded. Being a bomber at that time was one of the most dangerous jobs in aviation. Additionally, they had their country behind them. The media influence sufficiently dehumanized the enemy to the point where such measures were seen as an acceptable outcome. This isn’t to say that the enemy did not demonize themselves on their own, but it certainly acted as a powerful force in extinguishing the ethical question over such uses of force.
The American war in Vietnam was a turning point in the public eye, from being a liberator to being a policing force. Unlike the Korean war and those before it, it was viewed as entirely unnecessary and asymmetrical. The free media in the absence of a looming direct threat; once employed to inform and rally its citizens around the use of force for its own good, became a liability to the powers at be. War reporting revealed the massive abuses of American power, the same vacuums in morale as the Great War were created and exaggerated, and people were cynically killing others out of fatigue and angst. Search and Destroy missions was code for slash, kill and burn everything that stands. The dense jungles, the absence of clear military and/ or political objectives, and use of guerrilla warfare by the enemy wore down the Americans as much as the trench warfare did almost half a century prior. The jungles hid an invisible enemy, much like the inaccurate bombardment and gassing it presented a deadly force impossible to defend against. It brought back close quarters combat, the kind in which soldiers half a millennia prior where trained years for to withstand. With sheer brute force and hatred, the American military used its advanced weapons of war to annihilate and demoralize the enemy into surrender, but it didn’t work. Moral superiority was not on the American side. As in the previous wars, the revered and respected American soldiers on the ground were conscripts, they were not volunteers. They were less disciplined than today’s soldiers, and they were unsupported by their own population. They fought their fear with violence, and came home bastardized, bitter, guilt ridden and traumatized. On a similar but different token, pilots and aerial gunners on average were responsible for the greatest atrocities: dropping cluster munitions of which still remains today, agent orange which burned entire forests, and gunning down entire villages of civilians. Yet in the midst of all this, they felt the least amount of connection to their actions. One reason for this was their command structure. Rather than all airstrikes being ordered by a single commander, requests for airstrikes originated with the 2nd Air Division and Task Force 77 in Vietnam and then proceeded to CINCPAC, who in turn reported to his superiors, the Joint Chiefs, at the Pentagon. After input from the State Department and the CIA, the requests then proceeded to the White House, where the President and his “Tuesday Cabinet” made decisions on the strike requests on a weekly basis. In addition to this complex command structure which diffused the decision-making process, precision guided munitions were newly introduced into common use, and required it’s own technical crew behind it. Targets were painted with white phosphorous smoke by Forward Air Controllers in small prop driven planes. Then bombers were radioed over to the general coordinates and they dropped their payload of whatever bomb was available.
When I went to Afghanistan in 2009, in simple words, my squadron set up the system which offered Battlefield Command and Control. We connected the soldiers on the ground to the battlefield commander, and the planes which were to deliver their payloads.
In less simple words, that I am aware of, our system maintained 250 +/- nautical miles of persistent data, radar, and radio transmissions between radar operators, battlespace managers, Tactical Air Control Parties, Joint Tactical Air Controllers, UAVs, satellites, imagery analysts, pilots (both UAV and manned), sensor operators, troops in contact, the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, the Air Support Operations Center, and various individuals located at the Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid.
As this was happening, I would often sit inside the Radio Control Unit and imagine the airstrikes as they were being conducted while I’d perform diagnostics on all of the equipment. It was difficult for me to fathom how instrumental the radios I put there and programmed were to the entire war effort in Afghanistan. With addition to airstrikes, they enable reconnaissance, airlifting cargo and supplies, and medical emergency transport. On the one hand, I knew that this mission enabled new capabilities which morphed the way warfare would be conducted in the future, hopefully improving the safety of troops. It was a movement into the realms of Network Centric Warfare. But within this realization, I also realized that we offered a key instrument for UAVs to conduct their missions. I questioned where responsibility lay in such a new form of warfare. Was it with the battlespace commander? Was it the pilot? Was it the intelligence analyst choosing targets based on reconnaissance imagery? Was it the JTAC talking to the plane, or the TACP coordinating with the ASOC? Am I responsible for building the network to facilitate all of this as was Oppenheimer for building his H-bomb?
Here I stood, only 21 years of age after my NCOIC called us over to our equipment to congratulate us on a job well done and to tell us we were killing bad guys now. Trying to maintain my composure in front of everyone else, it dawned on me what my place was in this war. War being something I never truly felt an affinity for, I always believed that we are what we are, based on what we do. Something within me rose, and I experienced a moment terror for what I had just participated in. If we are what we do, then what did that make me? My ambition to leave the military without harming anyone left out the window with my innocence. I sat in that RCU often, torturing myself with my own imagination as I pictured strike after strike. I wondered who it was at the receiving end. Was it Taliban, an angry father whose home was bombed killing his whole family, or was there a child there?
For a month until I left, a sense of dread lay for what my Enlisted Performance Report would say. Ultimately the day arrived after a month or so of being home, the work this system my unit built supported 2,400 Close Air Support Missions and 200+ enemy kills. That night, by way of the internet I cross referenced this report with the report by the UN’s Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. I waited until early 2010 to see what it said:
“UNAMA HR recorded 359 civilians killed due to aerial attacks, which constitutes 61% of the number of civilian deaths attributed to pro-Government forces. This is 15% of the total number of civilians killed in the armed conflict during 2009.” page 17.
It was all that mattered for me… My nightmares began in Afghanistan, where we had experienced rocket attacks almost nightly, with the threat of a ground attack which ultimately resulted in a suicide bombing weeks later, and with knowledge of a mortar landing close to me. I’d wake up throughout the night, sometimes rolling onto the floor with the assumption that we were under attack. But after this system went online, these nightmares morphed into ones where I was standing in a village being bombed with full knowledge of my role in it, while I’d desperately try to help save people. Upon returning home I’d wake up with nightmares of a child standing next to an ash covered body looking at me as if I had done it. I’d reach down and frantically try to revive the corpse to no avail, and the child would just continue to stare at me as if all hope had left her body. Sometimes I would dream of the reverse happening, a mother and father with a dead baby in the mother’s arms, screaming in grief.
I never needed to see the horrors of war, my imagination already haunts me. I feel the weight of my responsibility for my actions there, even if the majority of my peers don’t seem to. This weight continues to grow with each passing day, as the death toll rises. I can’t help that. Knowing what I know, I can’t in good conscience keep pretending everything is ok.
At my going away party, a joke about burning my uniform turned into an action which left a few former colleagues feeling uneasy. Ruining my boss’s grill was a regrettable way to try to separate myself from my experience, but it didn’t seem to work. Temporarily it did, on my post Air Force travels, until my trip lead me to the Republic of Georgia to a town called Gori, a place I visited as a tween while my father worked in Armenia as a US Defense Attache. Two years prior to my revisiting in 2010, the Russians bombed the town killing over 60 people. I suffered a near nervous breakdown in front of a bombed out apartment building and bawled my eyes out in the square next to the Stalin museum. From that moment, I’d say I was lost, trying to find my way toward redemption. I needed to connect with something that would give me back a purpose, so for a time I was determined to return to Afghanistan and apologize to anyone that would hear me. But I was stopped by a Russian Afghan war vet I met in Kazakhstan who assured me that my answer was not there. He himself tried to go back to reconcile with his actions, and he showed me his gunshot scar to prove it. So I decided to heed his advice and go to school, studying International Relations instead. Of course, when you feel like you have blood on your hands and bare a tremendous sense of guilt for that blood, the subject matter of international relations has an easy way of whittling you away. Till last summer, I didn’t know how to deal with my past. I broke down as my life seemed to be falling apart, but as a result I have managed to regain composure and come out of it. Hopefully, in a more useful capacity.
Being the person I am, I was never afforded the luxury of being content with causing pain to others. I yearned for a way to channel my experience into something beneficial for humanity. It’s incredibly difficult not to dwell on it now, as I view my own life in the context of a deficit I owe to those people who’s lives I helped ruin. As this deficit builds, so too does my motivation to do something positive. Honestly, so does my guilt sometimes, but I’m working on that. Terminating myself isn’t the answer, and I’m not supporting that mindset. I’m simply calling for awareness, dialogue and a new way of thinking.
Network Centric Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance
Network Centric Warfare (NCW) is a military doctrine and a theory of war that was conceived in the 1990’s. It was first mentioned in a paper called “Copernicus: C4ISR for the 21st Century” in describing the US Navy’s approach to the information age.
A commander’s greatest challenge is to maintain situational awareness on the ground on the location of his own forces. There are various systems that were developed to support this technologically, among them being the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS effectively allows combat troops on the ground to locate themselves on the battlefield, but does not create an automated/ integrated system for reporting that information.
To build a theoretical model for how this works in practice, I will use the example of a Marine Air to Ground Task Force (MAGTF). In order to progress, there are two assumptions one must make. First, the Marines on the ground as well as the attack aircraft know their own location with GPS. Second, they possess communications platforms to transmit this data. By automating this process, the MAGTF now has the ability to know the location of every Marine, as it is provided a database that can be manipulated and analyzed either locally or remotely.
The next stage is to provide this data to every weapons system that provides automated firing solutions ie. artillery, naval gunfire, aircraft. These weapons system can now avoid “friendly fire” by using the positional information made available to them across this network platform. Going one step further, it will provide all units with target identification and designation by automatically feeding this information into this network. By doing this, it provides both air and ground based automated weapons systems the ability to conduct a battle in real time, while avoiding friendlies on the ground and to hit their designated targets with near-pinpoint accuracy. With the information provided in this network, the Direct Air Support Center (DACS) can assist in coordinating Close Air Support (CAS) by making the network aware of all available aircraft and armament in the area. By connecting other systems, this network can be provided with an infinite platform for information.
Once the ground, air and naval fire support elements, the ground units, and the coordination agencies have been integrated into the network, this system is now able to coordinate and provide fire support at the speed of a radio signal. By giving all of this information to every weapons platform, the network, with sufficient computing power can identify every element. The network can therefore compute the most effective firing solution, and either a human or the network itself will be able to select the appropriate system.
Future, if not already existent uses of this network centric approach are exponentially numerous if applied to every sector of the Department of Defense. Planners envisage real time coordination with medical systems, medical diagnostic feedback with individual soldiers, and real time status updates on ammo usage, thus allowing for the network to provide instantaneous resupply of ammo or arrangement of medical evacuation (MEDVAC).
NCW is the coming together of three elements: the sensor plane, the shooter grid, and the information grid. It is our current state, and it is the future of warfare. This system is integral to the US military’s other objective of Full Spectrum Dominance (FSD). FSD is a doctrine which one might consider, the practical implementation of George Bush’s declaration of global American hegemony in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. FSD is essentially the vision of total dominance in naval (surface and submarine), air, space, ground, electronic, and informational warfare. Whether or not this can be achieved is a valuable question to ask. With ubiquitous collection of information across every platform interconnected by a thinking network, it’s clear that the United States has the distinct advantage. But the United States is not the only power with the ability to create such a system. It also does not consider the asymmetrical tactics which will be developed and employed to combat it. Nevertheless, this network is instrumental in the further employment of UAVs and other automated weapons platforms and encourages further diffusion of individual responsibility for killing. At this point I find my greatest disconnect with how modern warfare is conducted.
The foretold advantages of NCW is that it will ultimately help prevent friendly fire and will improve battlefield logistics. But the potential repercussions of this system is that decisionmaking is taken up and diffused by the network itself, thus eliminating what should be the difficult decision to use deadly force. Already within the US military, soldiers are psychologically pre-conditioned by traditional hierarchy, social roles, specialization, fear of disobeying or lack thereof for exceeding expectation, social acceptance, and linguistic manipulation to be less sympathetic toward the use of structured violence. Through the use of UAV technology, pilots are no longer even put into harm’s way. With the prevalence of military video games utilizing methods of killing such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that are identical to images one would see in their combat missions, it is easy to understand where several disconnects with reality might lie. By diffusing the process further, and/or pushing toward further autonomy with weapons system as seen with the US Navy’s newest addition the X-47B, how can ethics or the Geneva Convention for that matter be upheld? Assuming there ever is a day when culturally acceptable, who will be held responsible for war crimes committed?
A modern air strike works as follows, although these scenarios are fictional and may include some inaccuracies. This is more to illustrate the complexity of aerial operations than to provide operational details.
Location: 40 km north-west outside Gereshk, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Situation: 12 man Army reconnaissance team are ambushed by what appears to be at least 30 anti-coalition militants from the side of a mountain sitting directly at their 2 o’clock position. They are sustaining heavy gunfire and artillery bombardment.
Airstrike type: Dynamic Targeting ( Time sensitive), friendlies in the area
Team Without Forward Air Controller:
- Soldier switches his Land Mobile Radio to a special frequency, calling for artillery bombardment and air support.
- Signal is intercepted by Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, it is transmitted to the 73 EACS where it is interlinked with radar and data and sent to the Battlefield Command and Control Center Al Udeid, it is also relayed to the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) for authorization.
- The signal is also intercepted by a nearby Fire Support Officer who controls artillery stands by for coordinates and authorization
- GPS coordinates are instantly made available to the network, and the soldier approximates the distance and direction of where the fire is coming from in relation to his location.
- Through BACN and the 73 EACS platform, the operators in Al Udeid and Kandahar coordinate to send the closest available attack aircraft in the area.
- The selected aircraft diverts its flight path and goes enroute to the location, then first does a flyover.
- Sensors and video footage are fed into the network and targets are selected by operators
- Coordinates are shared with the Fire Support Coordinator (FSCOORD) who coordinates with the Corps Artillery (Corps ARTY), Division Artillery (DIV ARTY), and the Field Artillery (FA BN) units to
- This data is at the same time sent from the Air Support Operations Center ( ASOC ) to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC in Al Udeid) for approval by the JFACC
- Approval is granted.
- The pilot loops around and does a second flyover, this time he presses the button releasing the munitions.
- The FSCOORD then provides authorization to commence with artillery bombardment of the area
- Another flyby is done to assessing the damage, and to ensure that all militants have been killed.
Team with Forward Air Controller:
- Forward Air Controller (JTAC) or TACP gets on PRC-117 ( a combat net radio enabled for satellite communication and dual command and control) and sends a request for Close Air Support (CAS) to the Air Support Operations Center.
- The radio itself is interoperable with all flight radios, thus all pilots in the area are alerted to this.
- BACN also intercepts this signal, then relays it to all ground commanding officers in the area
- The TACP in the meantime sets up a data link with the satellite and prepares the sensors for operation.
- The network already picks up their GPS coordinates, so all weapons systems are instantly alerted to this.
- The TACP then directed the sensor at the intended targets, and this data is uploaded onto the network.
- This information is analyzed by intelligence officers, and targets are selected.
- In the meantime, the TACP keeps the sensor on the targets and updates the network to their movements.
- The ASOC reports the situation directly to the CAOC, then it is approved by the JFACC, if s/he is not present it goes to next in charge.
- An aircraft is designated by the air control operators in the CAOC, then it is diverted to the location.
- The TACP or JTAC is linked to the pilot and to the ASOC, and the TACP guides the pilot on the best method of approach.
- The missiles are already pre-programmed on the targets to attack, intelligence officers watch the live video feed coming from aircraft, listen to the TACP, and match that information with his sensor data.
- As the pilot makes his approach, he deploys the guided missiles and they hit the preselected targets
- The TACP reports on the damage, then the pilot makes another pass to provide an overview for assessment of the intelligence officers, and to scan for further threats
- If successful and all human targets are killed, the team of soldiers will then visit the site of the air strike and visually inspect the casualties.
Location: 70 km north-west of Wana, Pakistan, 20 km before the Afghan-Pakistani border
Situation: MQ-1B Predator armed reconnaissance drone spots 120 heavily armed men moving southeast on foot heading toward the border of Pakistan presumably to Wana. Based on recent intelligence in the area, these men are suspected to have been responsible for recent attacks on coalition troops.
Airstrike type: Unmanned Air Interdiction Mission, Dynamic Targeting ( Time sensitive)
- Drone spots a cluster of moving targets travelling in a single direction toward Pakistani border.
- Drone pilot begins to circle overhead fixing its sensors on the suspected militants
- The sensor identifies 120 men armed with AK-47s, 20 of which also carry RPG-7 Rocket Launchers.
- This information is sent directly in real-time to the satellite which is being used for flight and redirected down to the satellite receiver-transmitter at the 73rd EACS in Kandahar Air Field and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
- The signal is diverted in real time to the CAOC and the Intelligence Officer/ Imagery Analyst who identifies and confirms that the selected targets are in fact anti-coalition forces by zooming in and visually inspecting them.
- Across the network, he also verifies that these men are not friendly militias by requesting verification from ground commanders.
- Once this is confirmed, a request for an airstrike is given, then it is rapidly authorized by the commander due to the time sensitive nature of the event. ( If the militants are allowed to cross the border, then the military commander will technically have to request entry from the Pakistani Government, which by the time it goes through, it will be too late.)
- Due to the drone’s limited supply of firepower, an A-10 is also called in for backup support instead of the drone using its two Hellfire missiles, which would be too little firepower to kill every militant, and would risk some escaping.
- The Predator continues to circle maintaining visuals on the cluster of militants at all times.
- This information is shared with the ASOC, who then directs the A-10 pilot on his initial approach.
- On the first approach, the pilot releases 5 of its 10 Maverick Air to Surface missiles to pinpoint locations on the row of militants to cause maximum casualties.
- In the meantime the drone continues to circle in order to give Intelligence and the Commander a situational overview. Its heat and motion sensors detect that all but 10 of the men were killed.
- The A-10 is then directed to make a second approach in which it employs its 30mm cannon to kill the remaining men.
- Once complete, a ground based assessment team is called into the location to inspect the bodies.
Location: Sangin, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Situation: Local intelligence sources state that a High Value Target (HVT) who is major drug trafficker working with the Taliban is currently held up in a large house near the outskirts of Sangin. He controls a violent local militia who are positioned within the house and the surrounding neighborhood, making it too hazardous to send in troops. In addition, the drug kingpin is expected to have an significant arms and ammo cache in his home, making the home itself strategically important to anti-coalition activity in the region.
Airstrike type: Manned Air Interdiction Mission, Preplanned
- A surveillance drone is sent to the area in order to provide a persistent situational overview for planners to assess their intended target.
- The planning team builds up a list of targets based on the local intelligence given and uses the imagery to assess the potential for collateral damage ie. infrastructure and civilians that might be harmed unintentionally.
- This information is then used to designate aim points for the aircraft.
- The risk for high levels of civilian casualties is low, but it is expected that there will be some. Therefore it must be pre-approved by a higher ranking commander.
- Another a weapons planning team reviews the targets, and determines the best weapons to be used and the amount. It also determines the amount of aircraft needed, as well as the number of sorties needed for the mission.
- Next, this goes to a team that develops a Master Attack Plan.
- This plan then goes for approval to the commander who then weighs the military necessity of destroying this compound against the potential for civilian casualties and a fallout with the local population. With a ground based attack of the compound being ruled out due to the potential for suffering heavy loss, the commander considers the large scale anti-coalition presence in the area and the coming opium harvest in May. He determines that out of strategic necessity, the compound had to be destroyed, and the kingpin had to be killed with it, for the impact it would have on Taliban/ anti-coalition operations.
- This operation is then scheduled to take place the following morning
- In this case, it was determined that only two bombs would be used and only one aircraft/ sortie would be needed to collapse the building.
- The weapons are loaded onto the aircraft, and it sets off toward its intended drop zone
- Communications between the aircraft and the CAOC is managed via the satellite link between Qatar and Afghanistan via the 73 EACS. Operators manage air traffic in the area directing and tracking the movement of the aircraft to the bombing target. Information is shared with the ASOC.
- As the plane flies over, the bombs are dropped on the target’s compound, which results in a much larger explosion than was originally anticipated. The resulting blast effectively flattens every home within a 150 meter radius.
- Radio chatter between the CAOC, the pilot, and ASOC increase significantly as they try to discover what happened.
- The surveillance drone flying overhead detects people on the ground frantically running around trying to save people who survived the blast.
- The pilot inquires whether or not another pass would be necessary, to which the commander replies that he should get back to base.
- The next day, the mayor of the town contacts the governor of the region claiming that the strike resulted in over 50 civilian casualties
- The commander of the operation is alerted to this, then apologizes to the mayor and the governor and arranges for reparations in the form of payment.
- The area is still considered too hostile to assess what happened, but the commander suspected that the home was a decoy filled with explosives.
- In the official report, due to the inability for the military to send in a damage assessment team to gain first-hand evidence, it is stated that 50 potential enemy combatants were attrited (killed)
Expeditionary Air Control Squadron (CRC/CRE): EACS
- Detection, identification, and classification of all aircraft and missiles within the area of responsibility.
- Track management of each aircraft, missile, and ship.
- Data transmission, reception, and forwarding with other agencies
- Evaluation of the threat potential of enemy aircraft and missiles, and the selection and assignment of weapons to engage hostile threats
- Engagement control of friendly interceptor aircraft and surface-to-air missiles against enemy threats
- Control of airspace and air traffic within the area of responsibility
- Integration with BACN
Battlefield Air Communications Node: BACN:
The purpose of this system is to extend the radar, data, and radio coverage to remote areas that are inaccessible to ground based systems such as those which are operated and maintained by the 73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron. One issue with radios, is that different platforms use different interfaces, and often come into compatibility conflicts. BACN acts as an untethered platform which provides a cross systems interface that allows all weapons systems to communicate. Information that is transferred through a BACN system is then sent and received directly to through the 73rd EACS infrastructure, and is integrated with long-haul communication between Afghanistan and Qatar via satellite. In addition, it offers “knowledge based intelligence” which automatically senses different waveforms characteristics of different senders and receiver, and routes traffic to the appropriate locations. Traditionally, the BACN system was mounted into Bombardier Global Express Aircraft and operated by private contractors from Northrop Grumman (top right/bottom). However, more recently BACN systems are being mounted into EQ-B4 Global Hawk UAVs (top left). While already automated in terms of purpose, this will eliminate the need for pilots and standby operators. Global Hawks are able to fly at higher altitudes able to stay in flight 24/7. Eventually BACN UAVs will be autonomously flown, eliminating the need for operators altogether.
Combined Air and Space Operations Center: CAOC:
The (C)AOC is the senior Tactical Air Control System’s (TACS) agency responsible for the centralized control and decentralized execution of airpower in support of the Joint Force Commander. It acts as the “nerve center” for aerial missions for Operation Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. It provides real-time air command and control over Afghanistan for thousands of sorties daily. It was linked with Afghanistan in 2009 by the 73rd EACS who built the necessary infrastructure in both Kandahar and Al Udeid Air Base.
Air Support Operations Center
The Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) is an element of the Ground Theater Air Control System (GTACS) which coordinated with the senior Army maneuver unit in theater and is directly subordinate to the Combined Air Operations Center. Organizationally, ASOCs are Air Support Operations Squadrons organized and equipped as an ASOC.
ASOCs are commanded by an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, it manages allotted air resources and executes missions supporting its aligned Army units. TACPs assigned to an ASOC fill the role of receiving air support requests from forward deployed JTACs. Once an air support request is received, the air support request is either approved or disapproved by the ground commander’s land component chain of command. The following outlines the Air Support Requesting procedures for each decision:
Approved (urgent): Immediate requests to support urgent, troops-in-contact situations may result in strike aircraft being sent by the ASOC to the JTACs location for terminal control of immediate close air support.
Approved (non-urgent): Air support requests submitted after the cut-off time for inclusion on the next Air Tasking Order (ATO), or 24 hour sortie cycle managed by the JFACC, will become scheduled missions on the subsequent ATO.
Disapproved: The disapproved request should be sent back to the requesting unit with reasons for disapproval. It is important to understand that approval and disapproval authority of air support requests is the responsibility of the Army / Land Component being supported.
In 2004, the U.S. drone fleet produced 71 hours of video surveillance for analysis. By 2011, that figure was 300,000 hours annually, and today in 2015 it is in the millions. Cameras such as the Gorgon Stare produce so much footage no human could possibly review it all. This has pushed the US military toward programming and using visual intelligence software to review it. Technology exists today with the basic ability to recognize and reason about activity in full motion video. Currently, it is “known” that UAVs can sense movement, heat signatures, gunfire on the ground, and mark it for analysis. The next step is technology like the “Mind’s Eye” (DARPA), which will not only be able to identify and mark potential target, but it will be able to interpret their actions, and alert operators to suspicious activity. The creator once said that targets themselves are the “nouns” on the battlefield, this system seeks to identify the “verbs”. The latest information states that there are currently 48-60 verbs that the system can identify. The following are the tasks this system is programmed to perform.
- Recognition: VI systems will be expected to judge whether one or more verbs is present or absent in a given video
- Description: VI systems will be expected to produce one or more sentences describing a short video suitable for human-machine communication
- Gap-filling: VI systems will be expected to resolve spatiotemporal gaps in video, predict what will happen next, or suggest what might have come before
- Anomaly detection: VI systems will be expected to learn what is normal in longer-duration video, and detect anomalous events.
As a result of the sheer volume of surveillance data currently being processed with sensors such as the Gorgon Stare, it is anticipated that programmes like the Mind’s Eye will be choosing targets for operators themselves. Now I want you to dwell on this thought for a minute…
Back to the Questions:
With everything that I previously mentioned, I want you to ask yourself the same questions I put forth at the beginning of this article.
- Who do you think makes the decisions?
- Intelligence Officers?
- The TACP/JTAC on the ground?
- The soldier requesting air support?
- The pilot that drops the bombs?
- The team that assembled the bomb and instilled the firing mechanism?
- The network itself?
- All of the above?
- How many people and processes do you think are involved in conducting these strikes?
- Who is ultimately responsible for the end result?
- The soldier who requests the airstrike?
- The commander who provides authorization for the airstrike?
- The pilot who pushed the button that dropped the bombs?
- The intelligence officer that reviewed the footage and marked the targets?
- The people who built and maintained the infrastructure for the network that made any of this even possible?
- Nobody entirely?
- All of the five listed above?
- What is a weapons system?
- Is it the vehicle?
- Is it person commanding the vehicle?
- Is it the person who selects the targets?
- Is the sensors that mark targets?
- Is it the bombs, or is that merely ammunition?
- Is it all of the above and the network itself?
Then I want you to ask yourself a few more questions…
- Who will be responsible for making kill decisions in the future?
- The Secretary of Defense?
- The President?
- Will it be commanders?
- Will it be soldiers on the ground?
- Will it be intelligence officers that review decisions that computer programs have made?
- Or will autonomous weapons system be trusted to the point in which they will be authorized for making the final kill decision?
- Who will feel responsible for fatalities?
- Everyone entirely?
- Everyone somewhat?
- Knowledge of roles, but void of feeling of responsibility?
- What effect does diffusion of responsibility have on warfare?
- How will network centric warfare, and lethal autonomy affect the future of warfare?
- What affect will this movement have on political decisionmaking?
- How will it affect their decision to use military assets?
- How will the structural use of deadly force be perceived by the public?
- Who will be making the decisions? Private enterprise or Public institutions?
These are just some of the questions that confound me when thinking of what my role actually was in Afghanistan…
Modern warfare will be described in books as intrastate and asymmetrical, and most assuredly, much will be said about the actual revolutions in the weapons themselves. But what will likely go unnoticed is what the violence actually means to individuals within these modern militaries in relation to the roles they played. Popular culture will continue to focus on the machines of war and less on the networks that structure and support it. The diffusion of responsibility is the nature of modern warfare. This begins with impressionable people who are taught obedience to authority and are provided a legitimizing ideology with social and institutional support. It is further enhanced by linguistic manipulation by the institution to neutralize emotional words, obfuscate processes with acronyms, and rouse feelings that would contribute to desirable outcomes. Furthermore, enlisted servicemen are then taught to respect hierarchies which put command responsibility in the hands of officers. Then the responsibility of the welfare and behavior of the subordinates are put in the hands of the officers. Most of all, the system of punishment for disobedience has evolved from corporal means to administrative means, potentially extending the repercussions over lifetimes, enhanced by social exile. If combined with weapons systems that are coordinated over large distances and require a network of highly specialized operators, sensors, and machine programming just to function properly, then how connected can any “involved” individual be to the use of deadly force on the the ground?
I wrote this paper to hopefully open your eyes to some of the realities of war today. If you hadn’t thought deeply about the things that I mentioned already, then it was the objective of my paper to get you to do so. It has been nearly ten years since I signed the contract binding me to the US military. I was property of the US government until April 18th, 2014. The issues I have discussed affect me greatly. It was my intention to share with you why. It is human curiosity to inquire with those who have participated in war if they have ever killed anybody. If one says no, then the interest often fades. If one says yes, then the inquisitor will often be satisfied with nothing less than a story of horrific conditions, gunfire and explosions. The truth is that many people who said no, may be as equally instrumental in an airstrike as the person that dropped the bomb, we were just too far removed from our actions to feel our part in it. I was a technician, and without what I did, the concept of Network Centric Warfare would still be a concept.
The Ground Theater Air Control System is complicated structure of machines, signals, and humans that span in coverage across the Middle East and Central Asia, but by offering a platform that allows it to operate I would argue that it can and should be considered a weapons system in itself. All parties involved in it are responsible for everything it does. To say otherwise would mean that nobody is responsible, and that the act of killing people in an airstrike is devoid of moral reflection. This is not a world I am willing to live in, and for this reason I refuse to avert my attention from my role in this machine of death and ruined lives. Many would point to the lives this system has saved. Yet I do not view this as any redemption, but rather question the system that made their lives need saving. For every civilian killed, for every man driven to violence as the result of his loved one’s death, for every life it has ruined I understand my place in it. To refuse a system where men and women are diffused of feeling responsibility for the horrors they are complicit with, is to recognize one’s role in this system and to extract oneself from it. The negative emotions which come with it in the beginning overwhelm the senses, fatigue will set in, one will find himself passing through the stages of grief, but in time one begins to understand that guilt has its purpose, through it one becomes more human. From facing it and not suppressing it, we grow as individuals and societies…
The airstrike as I see it, is a metaphor for how our globalized society functions, as we are all facilitators within a great network of injustices around the world. The ethical faults of the United States military are not our own, but they are based on roles we play in social constructs that are sculpted by many processes that reduce our capacities to feel empathy and act accordingly. Similar systems exist all around us and it is our duty to identify them. For this reason, we must all come to terms with who we are in relation to what we do and are complicit with, then sever ourselves from the unseen evils in how we live. Only then can we become more human, and only then can we hope to have a better future than our past.
Living the Dream
“Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principles of uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. That each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction.”
– David Mitchell “ Cloud Atlas”
I was sitting in class, we were discussing the Geneva Convention and it’s importance. The course was Introduction to European Peace and Security Studies. At the end of this course, we were meant to write a peer paper in which I and another student was meant to recreate the debate between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud called “Why War” in our own thoughts. All of the sudden, Dr. Koops pulls up the video that Chelsea (Bradley) Manning famously leaked to Julian Assange that previous year in 2010 named “Collateral Murder”. He shuts off the lights and the class watches the digital memory of when an Apache helicopter fired upon unarmed civilians, killing 18 people including two Reuters journalists and injuring two children. The video was buried deep within our classified database and was never meant to be known to the public. When the video finished, he turn the lights on and asked the class “What is wrong with this video?”. The class was silent. “ Come on, anyone..”
I looked around and everyone was clearly disturbed by what they had just witnessed. One student raises their hand and says questioningly “They didn’t have weapons?”. He points to me. “ And why is that a problem Cian?” Knowing that I would most likely answer the question correctly.
I hated speaking in front of people, and I hated being put on the spot even more…I knew what was wrong with that. I’ve seen that video before and many like it. It was the subject of the dreams that brought me to that point. I replied “ It was the heat of the moment, those guys probably hadn’t slept. The video feeds are grainy, you can’t tell if they are holding weapons or something else. They could be insurgents, they could be anyone. I would have made the same mistake.”
He paused, and looked up at the class, then prompts them. “ And what do you think?”
One American girl raises her hand. “ I agree, this is war and bad things sometimes happen. They were civilian but anyone could have made that mistake…” A few nod their heads agreeingly.
“Guys, what about the Geneva Convention? There were people here that were clearly unarmed, and the gunner fired on them and it turned out they were no threat to anyone.” He explains.
A German girl raises her hand “ I mean, I can understand how someone can make the mistake of thinking that the people with items in their hands were insurgents, especially considering that there was a fire fight in the area earlier that day. But why are they determining the fate of people’s lives based on images that you can’t even see clearly? Also, aren’t these people trained to follow the Geneva Convention, and aren’t they trained how to decipher these images?”
The class looks back at me. I lowered my head and replied to her “Yes…”
The was a brief awkward silence.
“ …Ok everyone, time is up, I want you all to think about this tonight and I want you all to read the Geneva Convention before next class and don’t forget, you need to turn in your first draft for your peer paper before next week”
I get up and begin to walk out of the class, and Dr. Koops stops me. “ Cian, you mind walking with me?”
I agreed and waited for him outside of the class. We walk out of the building and as we cross the street toward the main campus, he asks “ What did you think of that class?”
I replied “ I think it was good…”
“Would you mind speaking to the class a bit about your experiences sometime? Most of the students have never been exposed to the military” he says.
It was my intention to leave as fast as possible prior to that, but I responded. “ Dr. Koops, I don’t know what to tell them…”
“Well, I just think being able to talk to you might be valuable for them. You know, this is International Relations, some of them might be making decisions one day.” he replies.
“I got a piece of paper that said that I helped kill 200 people” I choked. “ Let me get back to you on that”
That night I thought about that video, the reactions of the class, and my own. My response was so cold. Why didn’t I just say that it was a violation of the Geneva Convention? Are these students really going to be decision makers. I hope they know better than I do. I hope they were just being quiet because they were shocked. What’s wrong with me, why wasn’t I shocked?
My girlfriend Francesca was cooking dinner. We sat there quietly, and then I told her about my day. We went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I tried, but couldn’t bring myself to that point. After Afghanistan, I was having dreams about being mortared. There were several occasions where I woke up startled. After reading my Enlisted Performance Report saying that my work contributed to 200+ enemy kills, I secretly grew obsessed with finding better statistics on that number. I read the UNAMA Reports, and those of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Numbers didn’t match up. The “200+ enemy kills” was actually an understatement. There were civilian casualties… numbers that were to me unacceptable… children… and that was only 10% of all the missions made transparent to the public. I started having dreams about bombs. Except, instead of them being dropped on me on base, they were happening in villages. I once dreamt that there was an air raid, and that there were something like 50 children staring at the sky in terror. I ran for them, and would try to save them, but when they saw me they would scream and run away. The bombs dropped. I blacked out. Then I found myself standing amongst them in a rubble field, and they were all dead. I had another one that I can remember because I had variations of it for a week. I was in my Radio Control Unit. The radios were all down, and I was trying to fix them. My NCOIC told me to fix them, or people were going to start dying. I panicked and I ran out the RCU into a desert. I ran and ran, then happened upon a village that was burning and black with smoke. I ran toward it, and saw a small girl crying over a body on the ground. I looked down, and it was a women. Instinct made me get down and try to give her CPR, but I hesitated to give mouth to mouth because it was caked in blood. I looked at the girl, and told her I was sorry. But when I looked up, she stopped crying and she grew quiet. She was afraid. I’m sorry I said. I looked at my hands and I was wearing my BDUs, they were covered in her mother’s blood. Then she turned around and ran away. I reach for her, then I hear the same whistle I heard during a rocket attack I experienced in Kandahar, there was an explosion, and I would wake up.
After I saw that Collateral Murder video, and being asked to talk about my experience. It became my mission to understand war. I felt like I was entirely out of my league. I at times would not be able to handle the material, and when I wasn’t thinking about it, I would try to link it to my experience. This was a difficult battle, one that I mostly kept to myself and at times spoke to my girlfriend about. I was struggling with money, the amount the GI Bill gives you is hardly enough to live comfortably on. I was struggling with the fact that I could not handle staying in America with my family because the whole time I was there, all I could see was people who were blissfully ignorant to the pain and suffering that was happening around the world in the name of their government. People who found comfort in laying their hands on me to pray away the pain I felt, instead of listening to what I had to say. I had long hair at that point so thankfully I was not burdened with people thanking me for my service.
I spent five of the eight months I had at home on unemployment in the house I had left five years prior in the midst of my parents separating, finding out that my father was gay, and my girlfriend at the time attempting suicide. For five years, I hadn’t lived in America. It was foreign and yet all too familiar for me. I had spent months on unemployment, looking for a job. At a point I had given up. The goal was to have my girlfriend move there so that I could be close to my family, but we weren’t about to get married to get a visa and it was too expensive to have her study there. She was the best girlfriend someone like me could have had. I tried to break up with her before I went to Afghanistan, because I couldn’t bare her getting lonely and meeting someone else. I didn’t want her to go through all of that, and I didn’t want to end up hating her for being human. But she refused. She stayed with me the whole time. When I came back, she was there for several months and held me when I had nightmares, and throughout my bursts of anger. Anger that I now understand was the result of repressed emotion. Even when I traveled the world, she waited.
I grew pretty desperate to make it work. I didn’t know how to make it work. Then one day Sean Dunn, an acquaintance posted that he had just got accepted to a small English speaking university in Brussels called Vesalius College and they had International Affairs as a course of study. That was it. So I told my family who I had promised that I would be home for awhile that I was going back overseas. I arranged everything with the Belgian Consulate in Atlanta and I left with the last $3,000 I had left saved.
For months, the VA did not pay me and I was forced to borrow money from my girlfriend who was receiving money from her Italian parents, that could barely afford basic things for themselves. My entire first year at university was overshadowed by my continuing struggle with money, living with my girlfriend in confined quarters with a Frenchman on the other side of a plastic wall, and my inability to obtain my residency permit for one reason or another. In the course of my studying, I began to see that my education was paid for in blood, so when I wouldn’t do as well as I had hoped, I would often break down and my girlfriend would bare the brunt of it. It was difficult not to think that way when you dreamt about dead kids every other night on a bad streak. To escape these thoughts, I’d often invest an obscene amount of energy in clubs and projects, often taking on more than I could handle, and often being disappointed with my inability to make them work. I’d often cast blame on others for that, and regret it afterwards.
In January 2013, my passion became a Capstone project to create a think-tank we called Bridge for Humanity. Our objective was to research and formulate a policy proposal for the Maghreb region (N. Africa) after the Arab Spring. We were then meant to present this document to the European External Action Service for consideration. Being someone who has been on the practical side of bad policy making, I had three months to obsess over creating something that I could never possibly understand well enough to be content that it would be used to improve matters. I managed to neglect everything else, my other schoolwork, my activities at school, my friends, and most importantly the person who went through everything with me. I became convinced that Bridge for Humanity was going to be my redemption. It was going to be my solution for world peace. I wouldn’t sleep, and I’d drone away at making this idea work.
After having to cancel my flight home for Christmas due to not having a residency permit and guilt for not being able to make it when it seemed like my family needed me there, my American history professor managed to pull some strings with the US consulate, and got them to call the Bureau of Immigration. I got my visa, and managed to pass my classes. But I was in a deep depression that I was not able to get rid of, my nightmares were in full force, and all I could think about was Bridge for Humanity and the plans I had for integrating it with the school by using my position in the student government. I left to Colorado in July just days before my five year anniversary with my girlfriend. I arrived, and I was fighting to be myself around my sister. I had ignored Francesca for that week, and eventually she told me that it was over. When she said that, all I could really say was “ok”. I didn’t want her to have to deal with me anymore. I spent a week staring at nothing before I broke down and asked my sister for antidepressants. The VA was not an option for me, I didn’t want to talk to them. What would I say? I felt terrible because I built a communications system? I anticipated that there were people who had seen and done things much more traumatic sounding than me. The antidepressants helped, but I felt like a robot. For once, I didn’t give a damn who I hurt. It was relieving, but unfortunate. By the time I returned to Brussels, I was full blown, not caring. I met someone, and we became intimate. I got with her before Francesca was able to move out. When Francesca came home, she was forced to endure the pain of not only me being with another person, but me being such an obnoxious prick as to force her to move out. For a month, I pushed Francesca away. I wanted no chance that she would take me back, or be associated with what I was planning next.
In the beginning of the school year, I assisted with a conference on EU-GCC relations and tried to bring up an idea I had on Trilateral Joint Policy Exchange Workshops which I had adapted from one of the items mentioned in the policy proposals we submitted to the EEAS. I had met many interesting and spirited people from the GCC countries. Next, I attended a Transparency International Workshop on Defense Industry Corruption and ended up going off on a tirade with the help of Andrew Feinstein about drone warfare and systemic corruption. After the meeting, he gave me his book “Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” which chronicled his four years worth of investigation into how legitimate American and other defense companies have been using the grey market to perpetuate warfare since World War Two, and even went back in history as far as Basal Zaharoff who helped start an arms race in every country involved in World War One. This was a man that was called a hero. After reading this book, many of my suspicions and fears were confirmed. With regards to the Snowden leaks – much of the information of which I was also suspicious about – I saw a state that had transcended the level of systemic corruption and abuse of power, as well as expansionist aspirations than I had ever seen before. Being a futurist and one who stays ahead of the curve with technological change, I became growingly concerned with this policy of Full Spectrum Dominance and the political philosophies associated with it. I had developed a major affinity for the writings of George Orwell after reading his short story called “To Shoot an Elephant” in my first semester of university. One quote burned in my head after hearing of these leaks
“In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
I started seeing issues that were arising in the US, that could lead to internal conflicts in the next ten years. In particular, the growing wealth divide and the exponential rise in machines that are replacing humans in the workforce and at war. I met the premiere peace scholar Dr. Johan Galtung soon after meeting Andrew Feinstein. He wrote a book that was titled “The Fall of the US Empire: And Then What”. I stood waiting to speak to him, and once I had the chance, I asked him “ How does one stop the US from descending into a police state” and he replied “ You have to target local institutions and change the country from the bottom up.” Had I not been on the antidepressants I might have been more inquisitive. But this was something I began thinking about intensely as time went on. Dr. Koops then asked me at the beginning of October, two years after he first asked me if I would do a lecture for Armistice Day (Veteran’s day). Had I not been on the antidepressant, I would have most likely not agreed to do that. But I thought that by the time I had to do it, I would have something to say.
In the course of my being broken up with Francesca, and being with my “unnameable girlfriend”, I had a brief relapse with Francesca. I caught mononucleosis in the month of October and nearly died due to dehydration. They misdiagnosed me for strep throat, and I blacked out on a tram. I woke up in the hospital, and in the three days that I spent there, I thought about how I was going to do this lecture to make it useful. After I got out of the hospital the mono had slowed me down, however, I intensely thought about my problem, and I wracked my brain about how I could put it into a context that people could understand. It was a 10,000 word paper that I called the Anatomy of an Airstrike. It was essentially about how warfare and society has evolved to the point where the there are so many people in the chain of actions that it has become increasingly difficult to understand the true impact of what we do.
For instance, when Brandon guided in those missile, someone else made the kill decision. There was someone else who activated the missiles so that they were able to kill people. Someone else constructed the intelligence for the decision maker to make that decision. We are at war because certain people in government sent us there. And if leaders of third world nations can be tried and executed as being war criminals for authorizing their men to kill civilians, then why is a man who built the communications system that made all this communication between individuals who are all bearing responsibility for making the act of killing an individual by airstrike possible any different than a person who can see the effects of what they do?
I was responsible for building that system. That system is used to kill people, therefore, I am killing everyone that my system was used to kill. It was my decision to build that system, and though coerced, it was my decision to follow those orders to do it. Braver men have been faced with greater threats than a dishonorable discharge and some jail time. More innocent men have been punished for less. Why is it that the lowest guy on the totem pole is always the one who gets the brunt of all punishment for immoral acts? In this interconnected world, we are all guilty for grave injustices to human beings and our planet, if there were a lense to view the entire impact of our entire lives as individuals on this planet in a single day, we would all look back on ourselves prior to that day as people who are on par with Hitler. Our society is built to shroud the effects of our evil acts, so that we can go on with light consciences. We blame Kim Jong Il of merrily living his life as his people suffer, but what do we do when we insist on buying the newest computers for the lowest prices, when we all know good and well that the ingredients of which fuel a conflict that has taken the lives of over 4 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo? We live in a world of moral children, and we perpetuate suffering by our decision to ignore the truth in favor of a carefree existence.
When I sat in front of fifty people to tell them what I did, and the consequences of my actions on the victims and myself, it was one of the most humiliating moments in my life. To admit that I have been conned, to admit that I am a coward and a killer, and to admit that I am not a good person was what I thought to be my lowest point. Of course, people may disagree with that, but those people clearly don’t know what I know. My paper never made it to the crowd, as I finished it the night before. But this moved Dr. Koops to try to take me onto the Global Governance Institute so that I could research this further. They postponed my due dates, and they told me to finish when my mononucleosis got better. I was maybe sleeping 2-3 hours a night trying to work on what I had to do, even when I had a break, I barely slept. The last day of the Fall semester. My unnameable girlfriend found messages on my computer to Francesca, and she found out that Francesca and I got together while I was with her. I had a finals party I was required to organize, a task that I was not especially keen on in light of my more grandiose plans that never worked out to transform the school into a ground zero for peace. My “unnameable girlfriend” chose to play it cool though, and tried to make our last night together memorable. It took everything in me not to cry. I had managed to hurt two people that I cared most for. When she left on the airplane, I was alone with myself for once. I no longer had antidepressants to numb me, and I no longer had someone to console me.
That month, I researched the future of warfare and extended my imagination to the depths of my sanity. If I had been able to believe that humans were as the powerful political theorists have said they were since Machiavelli, I would have conceded that my actions in Afghanistan were necessary and were therefore justifiable. But I have found no such proof that humans are intrinsically the cynically self serving entities that is claimed they are. In fact, this argument has been used to justify morally bankrupt actions since time immemorial as you can essentially feel blameless in anything you do so long as the person you are doing it to would beyond reasonable doubt do the same to you, given the same circumstances. But this isn’t exactly genuine. If perhaps we were lizards, that may be the case, but our minds are built to transcend this. We are capable of empathy, and often times we will sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. Some say that goes against nature but the fact that we do it makes it our nature. In fact, everything humans do is human nature, and making choices is human nature too. Ernest Becker says that we are in fact survival oriented, but we have the cognitive capacity to frame our own survival not only in our physical existence, but we are able to transcend death in our ideas as well. The great many things that we as individuals consider reality is in fact social constructions. These things are factors that determine our life choices. Patriotism, a nation, trucks, hell the words you are reading are social constructions that are representative of reality. You are given a name, and that name and everything attributed to it is a social construction. Social constructions are only as real as the power people vest in them. The idea that there is such a thing as a just war is very dependent on who you are speaking to and on what side. However every person who raises a weapon does so under the assumption that they are the one who is just in their decision to take another’s life. The very fact that there is a party who would view the act of taking their life as unjust signifies that that act in itself is unjust.
In war, we are conditioned to believe that since we are lawful combatants, there is a mutually understood agreement that if you kill or are killed by another combatant, that the act of killing is a mutual act of self defense. However, the very reason one is sent to war is also a social construction based on decisions a handful of leaders have made to expend the lives of otherwise peaceful individuals to meet a political objective or to eliminate an unwelcome influence on their society. Nevertheless, we are still fighting for things that are only as real as people make them, and are figments of our imaginations supported by generations of evolving thoughts that we must be aware of to make decisions based off of them. Some leaders have seen this, and thought it would be a good idea to culturally whitewash societies in order to create a new social reality based off their vision for human kind, but this is normally a measure that is enforced, and is not voluntary. These incidents of cultural whitewashing are normally referenced to societies that history normally associates with evil. In many ways, any norm, no matter how well intentioned or just is no longer just so long as it is imposed on that individual or society, as the nature of the norm changes in the process. War in itself is the business of imposition. War cannot be just because there is never justice for those who are forced by others to do something. Even violent revolution against an evil dictator is not just, so long as the structures of power remain intact, as those who rebel are not rebelling against the structure of society or the norm, but the people themselves.
For a month, I dwelt on these thoughts. In the middle of this month, I was having a very difficult time coping with what I did. I thought about the diffusion of responsibility and how this diffusion represents power of those making decisions, as it distances people from the moral weight of their decisions, and allows people to live in their collective fantasies by limiting their exposure to the actual injustice of taking another person’s life. In some ways, speaking about my experience felt like I was providing a service, perhaps I was. But since I became aware that people knew what I had done, I felt what I had told them every time I saw them. I stumbled on Brandon Bryant’s video for DemocracyNow! when I was researching drone warfare. It was a long shot, but he seemed like of all the people I have met or heard of, he’d get it. I helped him do his job after all. We spoke a bit. I played it off like I was doing this for research reasons to some extent. I didn’t want to tell him that I had been sitting at the edge of my own sanity for too long, what do I do, how do I deal this.
We talked on and off for several months. He was apparently very busy as I’d later find, but I was frankly just relieved that I wasn’t alone in this. I tried starting the antidepressants again, just so I could function normally. The mono still made me really tired, and I’d sit at my computer frustrated because I was not able to think clearly enough to articulate the research I did. In February, I found out that Brandon was coming to Germany to do something, so I pitched to Dr. Koops the idea that we organize a conference on drone warfare with Brandon. He thought it was a fantastic idea. Then I found out that he was in a documentary and I got in touch with Tonje Schei through Facebook. Then I messaged Andrew Feinstein and asked if he’d join us as a lecturer, knowing that I also heard his voice in the trailer and remembered him speaking about a drone documentary he was in when I first met him. Tonje and Jonathan offered to bring Shahzad Akbar with them from Norway, and all of a sudden I was organizing this conference called “Drone Warfare: Where to go from here” with around a month to pull that off and one of the first screenings of the DRONE documentary shown to the public right before everyone else went on vacation. This conference was organized primarily over Google Hangouts and Facebook with Giulia arranging bookings and flights in Italy, Dr. Koops directing from the Arctic Circle, me in Brussels, Andrew in London, and the rest of the DRONE crew in Norway. I had not anticipated that Spring break and a months notice wouldn’t be enough time to gather institutional experts that could argue for drones, I had never done this before. I just did it because I felt like it was critical, and people needed to know.
We managed to get the biggest theater at the Vrije University Aula Q and was told that we’d have a full screen. The day finally came, I picked up Brandon at the airport. Brandon’s credit card wasn’t working, so I went to the airport in Dr. Koops’s car. I was late, and he was sitting over to the side with his head down. I was in my suit and he was in clothes that looked far more comfortable to me. We both stood there and talked about books and movies, while we waited for Tonje. She arrived and went to the car. I had to move the child seat for her. I took them to their hotel to freshen up, and Sean Dunn pick them up. In addition to the conference, I had arranged for the very person who I found out about Vesalius College from on Facebook, and who was interning at New Europe, to conduct interviews with all of the guests. Then the time came, and of course nothing worked to plan. The projector we needed was broken and we were forced to use the small one. The speakers that were connected to the small projector reduced the acoustic quality and I feared that it was ruined. Everything was late, including many of the guests. I hadn’t slept in two nights and worse, Dr. Koops challenged me to sit up there with all of them. The film played, and for me it was an emotional moment. For one, I couldn’t believe someone made a documentary about this. Secondly, I understood that I was in the company of people who are in a very much David vs. Goliath scenario. Third, seeing Shahzad, and knowing that my equipment was still affecting the people in Pakistan he was trying to protect sent me into tears. It captured much of what I researched and put a face to the names I had been reading. I had realized that I was part of something so benign on one side, yet absolutely terrifying on the other. When I went up to the stage to sit by these people, I was weak in the knees. I was doing everything I could not to start crying again.
The Q&A session went really well. To be honest, I can’t for the life of me remember everything that was said. But I do remember seeing from the corner of my eye when an audience member called Brandon a hero and he looked down in shame. I already knew how he felt about that. I recognized when his tone switched from explanatory to combative. I knew how he felt. I was trying put on a mask up until that point to appear like I was hot shit, able to organize anything so that people would trust me enough to let me. But I had lied to all my Professors by telling them that I was catching up. I still had work due from the previous semester. There was no way I’d finish everything. I was nothing in a suit, just trying to keep my cool long enough before people understood that I was not doing any of this out of academic curiousity, but because I had to.
On April 18th, I made the decision to share with Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism information that I believe was how our system was being used in conjunction with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node to control UAV strikes over Waziristan. This information is at least from what I saw, very much supported the notion that US Air Force personnel were being used for clandestine operations in a country that we were not formally at war with and whom the Pakistani government has a legal obligation to deny. I did this because it was important. I have full faith that Chris Woods will use this information responsibly. I did not do so secretly, I did so transparently to those who would be monitoring such information, although I have not and will not make that information available to any other source. They were mere clues to follow in order to help his investigation. But then the media lab holding the video for the conference was hacked and a virus was installed on the video for the conference deeming it unreadable. I began to sink deeper into my depression. I wasn’t sleeping and when I did, there was this looming chance I’d have another nightmare. I was intent on passing these classes, but I was fairly certain that it wouldn’t happen. I passed all but one. Statistics.
My mother came for a graduation I would never have. We both went and watched Charlotte, another member of the student government deliver the speech I wrote to start the school year which was meant to spark off a series of plans I became too dysfunctional to carry out. I watched Andrew Feinstein, the speaker I selected speak of following what you know is right no matter what and you’ll never regret it. I saw my fellow students, all happy for an accomplishment they worked hard for. I was proud of them. But I knew that road wasn’t for me. It wouldn’t matter anyway, I’d probably be detained at the the New Jersey Airport the minute I swiped my passport.
After “graduation”, I was meant to go to India to travel and decompress. But I had drank away much of what I saved going to bars those first three months of the year. All I had was non-refundable ticket to New Delhi, and from there to Denver two months later. I didn’t have a visa however and I didn’t have the money, time, or ID card to obtain one. Instead, I found a flight to Kathmandu. I had $400 in my bank account, the rest was wrapped up in a stock I had lost almost everything on. My sister’s wedding was in late September. But I was suffering at the time. I would occasionally hang out with friends, but mostly sat in my room starring at the ceiling, counting euro cents, hoping it was enough to buy food. With one of those coins, I started to flip it over whether or not I was going to kill myself when I went to Nepal. I didn’t want to make the decision on my own, I wanted fate to decide that. Every time it landed on tails, I should. It’s pretty messed up but that was kind of a relief to me. I knew you could get any pill you wanted there and I knew hikers disappeared all the time. It was enough having to deal with sleep problems, nightmares, depression, and all that. I was not sure I was ready to do that in prison.
Francesca came and visited me again, to say goodbye. I missed her, it was good bye though. I had spent a considerable amount of time with a friend in Brussels. We kind of kept eachother company and we had something but it never worked out. I helped her move and on the last night we kissed. Sometimes people don’t understand the little things they do that make a difference, but we kissed two more times. Once outside the house and once at the train as she was leaving. I gave everything away, and sold a few other things for extra cash. Then I got on the plane and went to Nepal. When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was picked up by my host Durga. She brought me back to her house in a rusty old taxi. There was something familiar about not being in the west anymore, something refreshing. There I met Nina, and Durga’s son Diwash and daughter. Nina was a Buddhist, who was crazy about singing bowls. She was also crazy about helping people. We saw several of the temples in the first few days and went to the orphanage. When I arrived at the orphanage, I had about ten kids jump on me. I saw that they were plenty loved, they came from hard places but they were happy. The father and his wife who were taking care of them were struggling to support them though. The kids didn’t have any winter clothes and during low seasons they would have issues getting volunteers to provide funding. Nina and I started talking about how to help them, and she managed to raise some money to buy food and cold weather gear for awhile. Seeing those kids and the conditions of the street kids changed me. Perhaps, it saved me. It became sort of my mission to create a conference to get these NGOs to speak to each other about these kids and try to hash out a comprehensive plan. I met a Swiss girl named Octavi, and we set out to interview different NGOs, to see if it would be useful. In fact, the general consensus is that it would, but it would be really difficult to do in a way to make it so.
I interviewed several in both rural and social projects. I started to rethink my old idea for Bridge for Humanity, and started to think about what needed to be done locally. I saw NGOs that were being funded to help issues such as street children who were definitely full of well meaning people, but were limited in knowledge and capacity to actually put forth useful steps to solve these problems. I saw Christian NGOs that were focused primarily on normative change via belief systems that promoted healing, but were not accepting of and hardly understood the culture they were speaking to. Much of what they had said was self reinforcing rather than trancescendental change, and limited in capacity to do real good. It was there to reinforce a dependency relationship between victims of other systems and the mission. Efforts such as these I found inherently disingenuous.
There were also NGOs that tried to change their society through mostly foreign paying volunteers, and this was great, only it was illegal, and hardly effective for the funds that were invested in it. I spend a lot of time with an NGO like this, but there was no screening process for volunteers or adequate direction. An organization built on irregular volunteers is the definition of difficult to coordinate. This resulted in children being taught basic English in school, and having no permanently structured learning to progress their knowledge. It looks good, but is inneffective. On an eco project such as the one they had in Chitwan, this system worked, however it was difficult to create any meaningful employment for volunteers without adequate skillsets, and it ended up being a mess.
There were also organizations with great public relations, only it was clear that they viewed their organization as a cash cow. The government was scheduling regular meetings between NGOs, however it was said that these meetings resulted in little headway, and was actually just more of a showcase. What I realized these NGOs needed was assistance with capacity building, and they needed structures that would facilitate cooperation and at the same time create oversight. It didn’t need an NGO that would be an umbrella, but rather one that bridged existing ones, and created a framework they could walk across to share their services and knowledge. They also needed a cost effective and sustainable exit strategy, one that would give them the security to put their full effort behind solving problems rather than letting them linger. This exit strategy had to result in something that would be more profitable for them to pursue than their existing structures and would rather than being a money pit or a burden on government would help strengthen their existing economy.
In international relations, we learned of two approaches I saw a way forward with. On was called global governance (not to be confused with global government) and the other human security. Global governance is the global framework that exists between different entities that are not government but facilitate a political dialogue between civil societies and international organizations. Human security is the existence of structures that provide for individuals all their basic needs and support them in a manner that allows them to pursue their wants. The other concept that is fundamental to a just system is of intergenerational equity. This means that the way of life that is promoted through these two means should promote the third in order to make this sustainable, as intergenerational equity has to do with ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to achieve human security.
We currently operate in a system that is destructive to peace, and thus global governance, and it is destructive to human security overall as it does not follow the principle of intergenerational equity, but rather encourages the destruction of it in favor of an arbitrary measure of a nation’s self importance called power. Indeed, what the United States has been pursuing since 2001 is power, and not just any power, but global power, and judging by the changing structure of this system, not power for all, but power for a few. This is not freedom. Ubiquitous collection of online information can make us more safe from enemies, but in the same way that a sheep herder keeps his flock safe. The NSA is the herder’s staff meant to coerce its population to bend to its will, as when someone feels monitored, they do not act without considering potential retaliation from whoever is in power. These enemies, what most people have a difficult time understanding, are not simply people who mean us harm, but are people who have been the victims of the harm imposed on them since the times of colonialism. This is not at its core about religion, it is about people who fighting for their dignity in the name of Allah. It is about protecting their right to access resources that have been limited by structures of power that began with colonialism, and have persisted to this day. It is not about wanting to regress to a more primitive and controlled way of life, but it is about protecting their system of values from disappearing, which have equal right to exist as our western ones. However, in doing so, systems that are threatened turn inward. They grow paranoid, and certain individuals who profit from this egg it on. In the process, we all became what we most hated from the beginning out of fear for the alternative; we become controlled and subservient to violence. We are no longer free to find ourselves or our God. But certain values are imposed on us, and we are no longer provided the means to make the journey of a life worth living. Therefore, if we are to break from this, the only responsible course of actions is to live for the day. It is to be present, and it is to constantly remind ourselves to think transcendentally.
On the 9th of September, I had lived for two months a free individual. When I finally determined that my own life is no longer worth living, I began to think of a life that was. While at times I punish myself for my past, I remind myself that the only time that exists is now, the past is a ripple of a ship, and the future is the culmination of the life we choose to live on a day to day basis. It became my mantra to work on what I felt to be the most important thing I thought I could do that day. I met a girl in a hostel in Kathmandu. There was only two days left for what I was preparing myself to be the last two days of my life as a free individual. On the last hours of the last night of staying up and talking about life, we kissed. In that kiss, I felt home for once in many years. When I boarded that plane, I felt no fear, because something was telling me that it was going to be ok.
I got home, and I went to my sister’s wedding. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I started to understand that when that coin flipped and told me I was supposed to kill myself, I was. Only, it was not the self I had imagined it to be. It was the part of me that would have felt ashamed and afraid to share this information.
Over that month, I began talking to Brandon more, and we both agreed that now was the time for solutions and for truth. A few days later, he asks me if I would be available for a conference call regarding the start of Project Red Hand. In the course of two months, I spent being with my family, I also spent it trying to think about the most important thing I could be doing today. I contacted Dr. Eric Hodges, a major proponent of the field of Veteran’s Studies so that Brandon and I can speak about what they are now calling moral injury. We believed that it was important to further the understanding of people who have been exposed to war, though the system would have you believe that our experience is atypical. There is a great injustice happening to the veterans of this nation. We have to improve the understanding of returning veterans to ensure that our society is able to grow from this suffering rather than collapse in our own fantasies. We were promised change, and we were promised a more peaceful world would come of this. But a decade down the road, there is only surveillance, a more militarized police force, an increasingly automated military, and well meaning policies that are financially unsustainable. Our future generations will be burdened with debt that was created by bankers who still roam free, and for what? We have still not heard an adequate explanation for this. As it currently stands, the only actions that have come from this was criticism of those who serve the state. I say that this is not a matter of people, I believe that people are for the most part guided by what they think is right, as misguided as that may be sometimes.
The problems are these illusory structures that we have built for ourselves, these structures that guide our actions, of which, we have mistaken for reality. But we can change these structures ourselves, there are solutions out there. Last Saturday, I left my father’s house unexpectedly in the middle of the night. I did not know where I was going, I was anxious and I felt like I had to go. I told him I was going to Taos, New Mexico. I got in my truck and I drove three hours south, and camped in the back of my truck in the middle of the desert. That morning, I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was going to do, it just felt right. I had heard of Earthships and I was intent on seeing them for myself. I went to McDonalds to see what the address to it was, and I met a man who was going through the academy there. I told him I was camping in my truck, just trying to see what was up with them. He offered to let me see his, and to show me around. We drove into the desert and almost five miles down a poorly maintained desert road. It was a cold early morning, and I was skeptical of what I was about to see. I’ve been talking about earthships for the last few days with the Project Red Hand group. We were all very intrigued. But when I walked inside, it was warm and there were plants growing inside. I went to the tap, and there was clean water from the rain pouring out. I have been living in one for over a week. There are plans designed for every climate. As I am writing this, it is below freezing outside, and I am wearing a T-shirt.
Today, there are homes available that are 100% self sustaining. They can sustain a family of four indefinitely. They are extremely low impact to the environment, in fact, they are for the most part built from recycled materials that our society has had a difficult time finding uses for. You can build a home for four people for $20,000. What many do not understand about this concept is that while yes, this is forty years old, there are thousands of homes that have been built by them and this concept is evolving. In order to change society and prevent war, we have to find a way to provide human security and intergenerational equity. This concept is the most advanced system for overcoming the issues we will have in the future yet. If people can have access to their basic necessities of life, there is no need for a welfare system, the structure itself is a welfare system. When there is massive unemployment due to improvements in technology and our inability to retrain people into new skill sets fast enough, people will have food, water, energy, and a roof over their heads. We can connect these homes to a grid, and combine it with a self sustaining system, and we will have power feeding back into the grid, and we will have redundancies for whenever for some reason or other, the grid fails. This is not only human security, this is economic security. This is the ability for the American people and people around the globe to control and monitor what impact they have on the world. On a planet with human security, pressure is alleviated from governments to send their people to war over security of trade in resources. While I do not claim that this alone is the be all end all of war as we know it, it is a necessary step in the right direction to ensure that at the end of the day, people are safe. Safe people are happy people and they are people who will have more time following their passions and less time doing menial work like flipping burgers. This system will allow people to be curious and ingenuitive, because people have always been that way. In a world of greater automation, systems like these will ensure that humans can still be in the game, and contributing significantly to the knowledge of our planet. We will continue to need government to provide those things that we cannot provide ourselves, but in a free society it should be the mission of government to give those things over to people they can provide for themselves, by integrating them into our daily lives in a way that is sustainable and user friendly.
We need to create solutions that can last, within communities that support them. We can create a better world free of coercion and connect globally at all levels, that includes those who currently sit in positions of power. I will work from my end to help make this a reality. I only ask that those who read this consider working from theirs.
Thank you for your time.
Hand outstretched somewhere on the side of the road in southern Kyrgyzstan, I was on my way to Osh. Osh was a city that was known for being a major trading post along the silkroad, but it was also the site of a bloody massacre of Uzbeks just a few months prior. It was said by locals that there were over 2000 people killed over the span of a couple of weeks there, and over 100,000 people displaced. Official estimates only say there were around 420 deaths, but those were just in hospitals. This event was mostly overshadowed by other news, partially due to the US and Russian air bases that sit in Bishkek, so not many of my loved ones were aware of the fact that I was on my way to a city full of potential genocidaires. They most certainly had no idea that my plan was to re-enter Afghanistan through Tajikistan and travel to Kandahar, just as one of my personal heroes Rory Stewart had chronicled in his book “The Places in Between” on his journey from Herat to Kabul. I had an English- Dari dictionary that I picked up in Bishkek, and a list of phrases. Against the advice of a former Russian soldier I had met in Karaganda, who fought in the Russian- Afghan war, I was still going to brave it. I was under the naïve impression that all my fears I had of people were unfounded, and to reaffirm my beliefs that most people were essentially good. My journey thus far was living proof of this. After months of testing this by riding with complete strangers across countries I had been told were dangerous and that I would surely be knifed down, I was treated mostly with respect except for a few corrupt policemen trying to get money out of me. But I didn’t carry it to give. While I cannot speak for the general nature of humankind, I can speak for my experience.
My experience was… that I had been to Kandahar before, in the United States Air Force. I was with a squadron whose main purpose was to set up a site that would designate all communication between aircraft in Afghanistan to their respective parties around the globe to be directed and controlled. We had a hand to play in everything from medivac to the Beast of Kandahar, a formerly classified surveillance aircraft that made international headlines when it was grounded over Iran. Initially, I proudly worked on what I knew to be something that was going to save lives by making communications more reliable for people in danger. It was the first time in US history that a system had been set up of this sort to allow for warfare to be directed over a network in the way we did it. We had worked tirelessly to get this system up and running, and with each rocket attack, it re-confirmed to me the value of this mission, a part of me was worried that it would never work… Then one day it did… and I will never forget when my boss proudly announced the fact that we were now killing bad guys.
Truthfully, I was not prepared for those words… I wanted to believe that we were so far removed from what was happening there, that it was not my fault for what happened on the other end. But I couldn’t help imagining airstrikes as they went down in my head. Transfixed, I must have stared at those radios for over an hour, just staring. What was connected to those green blinking lights, I knew were the electrical extension of whatever happened on the ground.
Moreover, I had no idea what the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) did, or who they worked with. They had connected with us, and we were not allowed to touch their equipment. As far as we were told, they flew an unmarked private jet with equipment that served as a signal amplifier and universal translator for radio and data frequencies over remote areas. It relayed its messages through us so that we could transmit it long haul to places such as, but not limited to the Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Air Base. What I found troubling was the priority these people had. I would only later learn why.
After everything was set up, we had very little to do except for maintenance checks, our programs, and building up the work tents. Each time a soldier would die in Southern Afghanistan, we would go to the flight line and salute their caskets as they were carried away to the C-130. Soldiers, airmen, and marines from around the world would drop what they were doing if it wasn’t critical and we would show our respect. The first one was… emotional. I stood in the front row, and I watched grown men carrying caskets trying their best to hold back their bitter tears. I’d see men standing across from me with tears in their eyes while we all saluted and the bagpipes played. When the Chaplain read the eulogy, a more detached part of me felt like I was experiencing history. It was an honor I thought to die for your country. As days and weeks went by, I realized that there is no honor to be had. Honor was just a way to help people cope. What I was watching was broken families… I was seeing the preview to the worst phone call a mother could receive… It was a father regretting his decision to support his son becoming a soldier. It was a son or daughter who wouldn’t have a parent anymore. I was watching soldiers who would one day put rifles in their mouths, and blow their brains out. There were over fifty coffins taken away that I stood and saluted. Whatever my system did, I was not seeing less people getting taken to those airplanes. It was a time of a 30,000 man troop build-up, so people were pushing further out… Then I thought about the unseen… I was not seeing the families ruined by the machine I helped build. I was not seeing the child crying over the bodies of her family. I was not seeing the father and husband who lost his wife and child, embittered by what we called a miscalculation or a mistake due to faulty information.
These realizations were more than a source of anxiety for me. I’d watch my radios and imagine all the suffering they caused. The single significant act of my life was this system. It was something to help pilots and operators drop bombs on people. Each time a mortar dropped, I thought about the fear it must create when we blew up their houses. In bathrooms around base back in Germany, we had posters with statistics on the capabilities of aircraft. Some like the Global Hawk were able to fly so high, a person would not even be able to see them. While I have long abandoned the thought of a Christian God as we knew him in the church I used to frequent back home, in my dreams, it was like he was showing me the killer that I was.
When we returned home, we all received an Enlisted Performance Report dictating the impact of our work in Afghanistan. Everyone received a line saying that we supported 200+ enemy kills in our time there. Most of the time, EPR reports are usually fluffed up, but this was true. I was meant to be proud of this… What it didn’t say was that we also supported over 400 civilian deaths since it was installed according to the United Nations. It didn’t say anything about the specifications for what classifies as an enemy in this statistic. Neither did it say anything about the fact that BACN was being used to fly over Pakistan, and that it was using our systems to route UAV traffic. I remember sitting in our office in Germany and watching everyone jump when we heard a car backfire outside. We laughed… But I never talked about my dreams of bombed villages or the people who would never let me sleep. It’s usually seen as a career ender to seek psychological help, so I didn’t. I just put my thoughts into escaping, of travelling the world.
When I quit the military, I burned my uniform in my bosses grill at my going away party. It was as if to say that I am no longer part of this. But it was always a part of me, I could never shake it.
All people I’ve met who travel a long time go either to escape something or to find something. I needed answers. I needed to know why I had blood on my hands, and why I can never forgive myself. In the time I travelled, I only learned of our common humanity through a myriad of different cultural representations. I talked about my life to everyone who would listen, even the unsavory parts. I always expected a conflict, but I think they understood me better than I did myself. When I went to Osh, I had the full expectations of going back to Afghanistan. But as I entered the city, I saw burned out buildings with melted televisions and rain damaged teddy bears inside. I saw the same thousand yards stares I had seen before while I was deployed, and the agitation. I met an owner of a guesthouse who was keeping some Peace Corps volunteers that stopped some men with axes from killing the Uzbeks he was hiding in his house. They came to the door and said if there were any Uzbeks in there, to tell them, or they would go in and kill everyone inside. He told them they weren’t from there and they had no right to come in. They went away. In this action, I saw true honor.
By then my decision to go back to Afghanistan was overshadowed by the Russian veteran I had met a month earlier, who I had shared a beer with in a BBQ stall in the middle of an open market. He spoke for hours about his experiences of gunning down a family because he was ordered to. After I told him what I did and what I planned to do, he took off his sunglasses and looked at me in the eyes. His words probably saved my life, he said: “I know the Americans gave weapons to fight us. I saw many friends die, and we killed a lot of people. There are things I will unfortunately never forget. But we were just soldiers, just as you were. I don’t hate you, because I am you. That’s what happens when you’ve had time to reflect… I see you in myself, and I’m telling you, you will never be able to come to terms with the knowledge of what you did, it will always be with you. You will just go there and get yourself killed, and then what good are you? You’ll be just one more death, a statistic. In America, people listen to the little man. Go back, get an education, and try to change things, just don’t be evil” It shook me to hear a Russian veteran say this to me. Because I knew that for the longest time they were as afraid of us, as we were of them.
The situation in Osh was said to be a product of instability bleeding over from Afghanistan. Some suggested the Mayor was seeking a reason to create an autonomous zone so that they could traffic weapons and drugs in and out of Afghanistan from Tajikistan. In the man I met there, I saw someone who under threat of being killed by axes, stood up for what was right in that moment. A trip into Afghanistan no longer felt like the only course of action. Instead I went into Xinjiang China. The first thing I saw in Kashgar was a group of Chinese soldiers late at night, taking positions and breaking down a door down in an alleyway, out of the window of the car I was in. This was something I was unprepared for, but under the same auspices of eradicating terrorism from their borders, the first event I experienced in China was their troops exerting their power to take control of a region that technically belonged to them, but they never controlled until they decided to develop it for mineral extraction. I was told by a local tour guide who picked me up on the side of the road that right after 9-11, nine hundred political prisoners disappeared from Urumchi. And on my journey throughout China, nobody was aware of this, nor did they think that the Uygher people were anything more than bloodthirsty killers. Their attitude was all too familiar.
It made me think of our own media, of fear caused by ignorance and transmitted to the people of America. I saw a state run media that prohibited social networking sites outside of the state sanctioned Chinese ones. They couldn’t know, unless they were awake to what else was out there. Their minds were programmed that way. But I never judged them, because in many similar ways, we have been becoming them. At current, we have four companies that control 90% media in the United States. Most Americans currently get their information from these four. While espousing different views on cultural and social issues, on matters of foreign policy, they bandwagon behind views that are the most hard lined whenever there is a moment of shock. When there are only a handful of companies competing for the attention of the majority of people, they tend to adopt whatever is the most attention grabbing topic is and run with it. This is what happened during 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq. The net effect was the same. It still produced a xenophobic reaction toward Islamic people, which in turn was used as recruiting material for extremists. It was fuel to be exploited by those who sought to profit on the pain of others.
When we see other countries on the television, we often wonder why people don’t just do what we would do. Why are they so prone to violence, why do they support evil people in power, and how could they be so ignorant of the goodness our way of life has to offer? We see our own soldiers fighting just wars in movies and assume we are the good guys. As access to the internet proliferates we are beginning to see other, more confusing realities that contain a long list of truths we are often too proud to acknowledge and digest. These other truths are revealing. The nationalism and our insular sense of reality, that protected us from the wickedness of life on earth, flew in our face and exposed our ignorance and our pettiness.. This inward- out perspective on politics insulates us from the truth that there is in fact only you and me sitting here. There is no “other”. Bear with me, and try to imagine that instead of killing Afghans, we were killing Americans. Once you can do that you know how I feel. I’ve travelled to over forty countries and there is nothing that makes an American more superior than anyone else. We are all just people trying to make it on this earth. In war, there are only people killing people for reasons neither side fully understands, and those who profit from it. There are defensive wars, but Afghanistan was not one of them, and neither was Iraq. It was a reaction, but it was not the right one. By the time we are set to leave Afghanistan, we will have occupied it longer than some empires owned colonies. It will be the most expensive war in our history, and it will not make our world any safer. Empires controlled territories in the middle-east much longer and still people fought. As most colonial powers have in the past, we are making the same mistake of believing we are liberators from backwards and brutal cultures. But as they have compelled us to become what we most feared – a country resembling an Orwellian state through superior technology – they have formed their own, and a religion of peace grew gnarled fangs. But in the end, we are merely people belonging to a civilization who wish to defend what is most dear to us. Our losses will burn in our memories and our transgressions will be mere statistics, a means to an end.
Statistics however are representative, they are symbols for people, events, and actions so vast and incomprehensible that we would not have the time in our lives to think about in any sufficient detail. Evil hides behind statistics. But I will not, my hands touched the lives of thousands of people. Many say that if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else. That is just a way to cope, it’s a lie we tell ourselves. The fact is that there is only one reality and there is no what ifs. There is only us and what we choose to do in our short time we have here. We could be the man in the guesthouse, or we can be the man who killed a whole family out of fear for what authority might do to him if he didn’t. This was the decision I had to make in my life, I am not alone, but I chose fear and white lies to protect myself from the awful truth of my life’s work. White lies like I saved lives with what I did when I know good and well that these were lives that wouldn’t need saving, if we never reacted like a giant who had his eye poked out… But it was also my choice to sit at this computer, to take this position, and hope someone out there understands.
In my life, I have always been a traveler. For a time, I joined a military that relies on this sense that there are other people out there that would do us harm. But this is true and this is not true. The truth is that there is someone out there that is being told the same thing about us, and up till now, we have done more harm than good. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
From someone who’s lived there for awhile, this is my warning, my plea, and this is the only advice I can give to you as a person. Travel. Learn how to think critically. Experience life as if it was the first day you stepped foot on this Earth and have patience for what is different. When the day comes when I belong to a nation that chooses to understand rather than hate that which harms us, I will come home for good. Until that day, I will make no ties, and I will only stay for a while.
Written by Cian Westmoreland , The Nomad