The Buzzing Wasps

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Somewhere between predatory self-interest and insanity lies the drone.

The war on terror, the testing ground for drone technology, may be no more than the threshold of a brand new, barely imagined form of human hell: hell that buzzes like a wasp. How long before the technology comes home to our own neighborhoods?

An exhaustive new study released this week — “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” a collaborative research effort by the New York University and Stanford schools of law — rebuts pretty much every argument drone proponents, including the Obama administration and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, have made for their continued and extensive use. They kill lots of civilians and very few “high-level targets,” stir continuous animosity against the United States and thus guarantee steady recruitment by “violent non-state armed groups.” They don’t keep us safe. They prolong the war.

Their use is so illogical, one has to wonder whether prolonging the war isn’t maybe the point. Without hypothesizing a secret, shadow government that actually pulls the strings, I can imagine the self-delusion of present and future Beltway politicians, convinced with all their hearts that the “war on terror” is noble and necessary even as profits from it accrue to their friends and benefactors. The best way to wage a war without end is not to realize that’s what you’re doing.

“Living Under Drones” makes it harder to maintain that illusion. The book-length study involved nine months of research, two trips to Pakistan and more than 130 interviews with drone experts as well as victims and witnesses to U.S. drone strikes. The project began in December 2011, when the British human rights organization Reprieve contacted Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, suggesting it conduct an independent investigation into the effects of drone warfare. NYU later joined the project.

The study’s primary contribution isn’t in resolving the endlessly disputed data over “insurgent” vs. civilian deaths from drone attacks. There will probably never be agreement on such numbers. Relying on work by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it puts the number of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes from June 2004 to mid-September 2012 as between 2,562 and 3,325, listing 474 to 881 of them as civilians — i.e., innocent bystanders — with 176 of them children. However, only an estimated 2 percent of those killed were “high-level targets,” according to the study.

But such numbers are mere abstractions, emotionally meaningless — how many Pakistani children are we allowed to kill in the name of peace? — without some accompanying depiction of the human suffering America’s videogame war is causing. “Living Under Drones” brings home just that, making clear that the suffering is widespread and profound. With our 24-7 drone surveillance of the region, we’re terrorizing the entire population of Waziristan, some 800,000 people.

From the executive summary: “U.S. drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”

Indeed, the drones “emit an eerie sound, earning them the name bangana (buzzing wasp),” writes Reprieve founder Clive Stafford Smith, who compares the U.S. terror campaign in Waziristan to the Nazi V1 blitz of London during World War II.

And it gets worse: “The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times,” the executive summary continues, “and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.

“Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals.”

And, oh yeah: “One major study shows that 74 percent of Pakistanis now consider the U.S. an enemy.”

Let’s pause a moment here and reflect on the multiple-strike policy: taking out a target with a Hellfire missile, waiting a few minutes — the injured begin screaming for help — then blasting the same spot with another missile. Could there be a crueler, more hellish way to torment an entire community? How would we feel, for God’s sake, if some distant superpower were harassing us in such a way? In such contemplation do I begin to wonder whether the policymakers have a larger end in mind than “terrorist removal” — that is to say, the maintenance of permanent war.

This is the “peace” we’re creating with drone technology and the limitless war on terror: a peace that will always be under dire assault from those who hate us and want to make sure we understand that what goes around comes around.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.