U.S. Drone Strikes Are Even Worse Than We Knew

Plus: The debate over experimental COVID-19 treatments, and the case for allowing journalists into hospitals

Photograph
Bernat Armangue / AP

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET on December 22, 2021

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This week there’s new information in a long-running debate.

For more than a decade I’ve opposed U.S. drone-war policies. Calling drone strikes “surgical” was Orwellian propaganda, I argued. I later urged a drone-strike moratorium due to repeated massacres of innocents, among other reasons. Still, accurate information on many strikes was hard to find––and as it turns out, what the American public didn’t know was additionally damning.

That’s the main takeaway from Pentagon documents that The New York Times reported on last week:

The trove of documents—the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, obtained by The New York Times—lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.

The documents show, too, that despite the Pentagon’s highly codified system for examining civilian casualties, pledges of transparency and accountability have given way to opacity and impunity.

Azmat Khan, who broke the story, characterized her informed impressions in a follow-up analysis. “What I saw after studying them was not a series of tragic errors but a pattern of impunity: of a failure to detect civilians, to investigate on the ground, to identify causes and lessons learned, to discipline anyone or find wrongdoing that would prevent these recurring problems from happening again,” she wrote. “It was a system that seemed to function almost by design to not only mask the true toll of American airstrikes but also legitimize their expanded use.”

Says Norman Solomon at Salon:

What should not get lost in all the bold-type words like “failure,” “flawed intelligence” and “imprecise targeting” is that virtually none of it was unforeseeable. The killings have resulted from policies that gave very low priority to the prevention of civilian deaths.

At Defense One, Jordan Cohen and Jonathan Ellis Allen reacted by questioning the basic premises of U.S. drone strategy:

It is attractive to focus on how drones allow for primacy on the cheap. Yet, by increasing the number of terrorists and psychologically damaging American soldiers—all while allowing forever wars to endure—drone warfare hurts the United States and target countries. Warfare on the cheap is still war, primacy on the cheap is still primacy, and Washington’s policymakers should operate on this reality.

At Reason, Scott Shackford contrasted the U.S. government’s failures to hold itself accountable with its treatment of insiders who attempt to expose the truth about the drone war:

The military has regularly failed even to analyze fully what happened in most of its mistaken strikes. Pentagon's records calculate that in only 4 percent of cases of civilian deaths did misidentification of targets play a role. But when the Times went to the locations of these strikes and investigated, the paper found that misidentification of targets accounted for nearly a third of civilian deaths and injuries …

Right now, whistleblower Daniel Hale is in federal prison in Illinois, sentenced to 45 months for leaking some documentation to journalists that shows these very problems with how U.S. drone strikes operate. To judge from this Times report, Hale’s leaks were just the tip of the iceberg. The Times shows that time and time again, these drone strikes not only kill innocents but fail to take out the insurgents being targeted. Even under the cruel calculus that innocents may end up as collateral damage, this is a failure: Sometimes those innocents were the only people killed or injured.

Chip Gibbons covered that particular drone-whistleblower case extensively earlier this year at Jacobin. “Daniel Hale’s revelations about the brutalities of US drone warfare didn’t harm any Americans or make them less safe,” he argued. “But his prosecution for whistleblowing and recent sentencing to nearly four years in prison was a blow against democracy.”

In The Week, Ryan Cooper recently made the case that an apparent reduction of drone strikes during the Biden administration has gone largely unnoticed and is underrated in its significance.

Provocation of the Week

Americans generally support privacy protections in health care, and most of us would be upset if we found ourselves confronted by a television camera in our doctor’s office or hospital room. Nevertheless, there is a case for allowing journalists into hospitals to report on the COVID-19 pandemic and other public-health matters. Here is Peter Maass making it at The Intercept:

The general exclusion of journalists from U.S. hospitals early in the pandemic meant that there were scant photos or videos of patients afflicted with the virus. This paucity of graphic imagery came at a malleable time when Americans were making up their minds on whether lockdowns and other anti-Covid measures were truly necessary. While it is impossible to say whether stronger visual evidence would have diminished the skepticism that took root in the early days, a number of academics and doctors believe that would have been the case.

The pandemic has exposed how the documentation of what’s unfolding in an emergency room or intensive care unit can have a real impact … In less fortunate countries that have been consistently rattled by war or natural disasters, hospitals are common locations of newsgathering, because that’s where the casualties and their truths are found. If climate change and political turmoil in the U.S. lead to a greater number of mass casualty events, hospitals will increasingly become contested spaces where corporations come into conflict with journalists trying to report the news that’s unfolding behind their closed doors.

More on the Pandemic

At Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander makes the case for an unusual COVID-19 treatment––and for doctors courageous enough to prescribe it. RealClearInvestigations highlights doctors who argue that more experimental COVID-19 treatments would have saved lives.

In Vox, Anna North found it noteworthy that Americans kept working during the pandemic:

For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism. A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.

Of course, working during a pandemic is not a new standard for humanity––it’s the norm in human history. And in a contrasting article in the Financial Times, Robin Harding argued that the wealth that capitalism has generated is what made this pandemic different in wealthy countries:

Our very prosperity is what makes the virus so disruptive. Advanced countries are willing and able to pay a high price to save a small number of lives. Fifty or 100 years ago, life would have gone on as normal while the disease ripped through a much younger population. Whether lockdowns were good or bad, we could afford to make the choice.

On Social Media

A sentence to ponder from C. Thi Nguyen:

Twitter rewards high-context speech, and then gives us the perfect tool to decontextualize that speech. Twitter is designed to invite our vulnerability, and then punish it.

What would you like to see discussed in this newsletter in the coming year? After today’s email, Up for Debate will be on hiatus until the new year. So rather than ask a timely question and post your answers later this week I thought I’d inquire about what you want to think about in 2022. Are there any questions you’d particularly like to see posed to readers? Or particular debates that you’d like to see me survey and distill, presenting smart insights from multiple perspectives? Let me know at conor@theatlantic.com, and have a safe and joyful holiday season!

See you next year.

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This article has been updated to correctly identify Azmat Khan’s gender.