UBC professor Derek Gregory questions "surgical" drone strikes

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      UBC political geographer Derek Gregory’s life took an abrupt turn on September 11, 2001. Until that day, he was researching a book about how Europeans and Americans adapted to Egypt in the 19th century. In an interview in Delany’s Coffee House in West Vancouver, he told the Georgia Straight that after examining these travellers’ diaries, he realized how unprepared these westerners were for what they saw.

      Then, he turned on the television set and saw an airplane fly into the World Trade Centre. “It just seemed impossible to go back and work on the 19th century,” Gregory recalled. “But over the days and weeks that followed, I realized that many of the things I had seen in the 19th century were coming up again in the 21st century.”

      He noted that in both eras, there was a prevailing view that Arabs and other people from the East were very different from westerners. “Orientals”, as they used to be called, were either romanticized as exotic or were characterized as threatening and dangerous. Gregory said that this sense of “other”—which permeated popular discourse following 9/11—implied that westerners had nothing in common with Arabs. “I saw those things being verbalized by [George W.] Bush and [Tony] Blair,” Gregory said. “So I wrote a book about that.”

      The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, which was released in 2004, was a critique on the war on terror. Gregory’s working on a new book, The Everywhere War, which will scrutinize the implications of the Americans prosecuting wars with unmanned aerial vehicles. These “drones” permit the U.S. government to project power while minimizing casualties to U.S. military personnel. Machines controlled in Nevada launch attacks on targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, making war appear much more antiseptic to the public.

      Gregory said that The Everywhere War will scrutinize claims that these weapons represent an improvement in how war is fought. Defenders of drones say these machines make conflicts more “surgical” because of their precision-strike capacity. Another claim is that drones are more “sensitive” because enemies are targeted, rather than entire populations. And finally, he noted, these unmanned aerial vehicles are considered “scrupulous” by their supporters, because they’re used in compliance with international law.

      Gregory said with a smile that he didn’t want to offer a knee-jerk response to this triple-S rationalization. “At the same time, it doesn’t mean you have to suspend your critical faculties,” he added.

      So Gregory spent years looking at the history of unmanned aerial attacks, their effectiveness, the ethics of this approach, and why successive U.S. administrations have been so keen to employ them. Essentially, he wanted to figure out why intelligent, powerful people think it’s acceptable to conduct bombing campaigns from the air, even though research shows that this approach didn’t work in the Second World War or in Vietnam.

      On Monday (September 26), Gregory will present a lecture at the Vogue Theatre on the same day that a vociferous proponent of drone attacks, former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, will be speaking a few blocks away at the Vancouver Club. When informed about this coincidence, Gregory immediately laughed, before adding more seriously: “I’m just saddened that the man can travel outside of the United States without fear of arrest.”

      Many people think that drone attacks came about as a result of 9/11. Gregory, however, points out that the U.S. military was experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles in the Second World War. These machines were launched from airplanes. During the Vietnam War, drones were launched in the same way over North Vietnam, where they took photographs that were sent back to the United States. In addition, the U.S. military began placing sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail favoured by the Vietcong as a supply route to South Vietnam. When the sensors were activated—which could occur by human activity or from natural factors, such as rainfall—messages were relayed to a surveillance centre in Thailand. From there, bombers were instructed to fire on specific areas in Vietnam. Gregory said the air force’s key objective was to reduce the amount of time between when sensors picked up the signals and when weapons could be discharged. It was “blind bombing” because the air force never knew what triggered the sensors.

      Nowadays, images are sent back to the United States by a drone, and military officials in Nevada can attack targets from 10,000 kilometres away. People who fire the weapons never come in contact with the overseas civilian population, Gregory noted, so they’re less likely to feel empathy for the victims. Conversely, he suggested they might identify more strongly with U.S. soldiers at risk. In addition, because operators of drones can strike precisely, there’s a temptation to use this weapon in heavily populated areas. “The problem with the smart bomb is it encourages the air force to take on more risky targets,” he said.

      He also said it enables extrajudicial killings, which are morally indefensible in his view. Complicating matters is the Obama administration’s decision to further the militarization of the Central Intelligence Agency by having it oversee drone attacks in Pakistan. Air-force officials, unlike the CIA, must comply with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which regulates military conduct. So this shields the drone attacks in Pakistan from military accountability.

      “I think Obama’s wars are even more shadowy than Bush’s,” Gregory concluded.

      The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies’ Wall Exchange presents a free public lecture by Derek Gregory at the Vogue Theatre at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) on Monday (September 26).

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.