Update 1 below
IWM insists that it has complete editorial independence from its funders. Therefore, the £10,000 or more annual donations and event hire contracts accepted by IWM from arms manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing UK will not influence their work. Nor, by the same logic, will the £20 million or so annual grant from the British government sway IWM to favour British military actions.
A test of this policy will be IWM’s approach to covering drone warfare. The arms industry is increasingly involved in the manufacture of sureveillance and armed drones. In 2009, 1 in 20 missiles fired by Coalition forces in Afghanistan came frome a drone. In January 2013, it was 1 in 5. Chemring Group, a company involved in producing munitions and pyrotechnics, supplies chemical explosives for Hellfire missiles fired from US drones. Chemring is the most recent sponsor of the “Annual Defence Dinner” staged at the Imperial War Museum’s main branch in London.
If IWM is truly unbiased it will frankly examine the “huge implications” of killing “remotely from a leafy suburb in your own country…” as Lord West of Spithead, former security minister and current IWM Trustee put it, in a call for international regulations on drone warfare.
Britain is stepping up its use of armed drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan; At the end of April, the MOD announced that for the first time, missile-carrying Reaper drones have been operated from the UK, using the newly built RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire.
The British military has had armed drone capability for five years and has been operating them from the Creech airforce base in Nevada, US. The Stop the War coaltion reports that 350 British drone weapons have been fired in Afghanistan, including Hellfire missiles. Now these Reaper drones, along with a further five purchased by the RAF, can be operated directly from the UK.
Britain has also been partnering with US drone strikes actions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan by “embedding” pilots with the US to fly US armed drones. ‘This muddies the waters completely, risks turning the people of Afghanistan against us, and creates a joint liability for both the UK and US governments,’ Rehman Chisti, Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham said.
Drone warfare is often presented as a no-brainer option for the military, saving soldiers’ and civilian lives through clinical strikes against known terrorists. The evidence contradicts this. Drones have been used to assassinate mere suspects, rather than known terrorists. Sometimes, the suspicion is based on suspicious behaviour, rather than identity, in what are known as “signature strikes” carried out by the US (and, possibly, embedded British pilots).
The US has conducted follow-up strikes which have struck at rescuers and mourners of the initial victims. The inevitable outcome is mass civilian casualties and injuries. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates civilian deaths in Pakistan, where CIA drone strikes in the last decade have been most intense, may range between 411-884, with over 1000 injured.
Naturally, drone attacks and their “collateral damage” are radicalising populations. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” according to General Stanley McChrystal, former ISAF commander in Afghanistan, in charge of US drone warfare.
British officials insist that their drones are used predominantly for surveillance in Afghanistan; and where they are fired, it is in support of British troops fighting the Taliban. Such claims come free of concern, let alone evidence of the effects, psychological and physical, for the lives of civilians who cower whenever their hear a drone flying overhead. Moreover, British claims rarely discuss the currently unclarified role they play in the US’ targetted assassination campaign in a number of countries, including Afghanistan.
Lord West claims that repatriation of British drone operations to Lincolnshire will enable better control over them. However, he said: “The same issues of legality, authorization and appropriate levels of decision-making remain.”
If the Imperial War Museum is to fulfil its public duty of recording and informing on the course and consequences of war, unedited by funders, then it would seriously examine the drone war issue.
Since writing this piece, I have learnt that when IWM London partially re-opens, on 29th July 2013, it will be showing a video art piece from the perspective of a former US drone operator entitled “5,000 Feet is the Best“. The film, created by artist Omer Fast, is the first showing in IWM’s new ‘IWM Contemporary’ arts programme. Embedded below is a 10 minute excerpt from the 30 minute film.
Having watched the excerpt and read two online reviews (by Lucia Simek and Alex Chatelaine) it seems quite clear that, whilst it is to be welcomed that drone warfare is on IWM’s radar, this artistic piece does not tell the full and necessary story of US and British drone warfare.
The first thing to note that is that it is an artistic piece, not a factual documentary. Using an interview thread, it splices together fiction with reality. It is from the point of view of an apparently real former US drone operator who refuses to talk about ‘live fire’ missions, instead, focusing on technical aspects – and a fictional operator who, filling the gaps, does discuss more, but in the form of parables.
Crucially, the film does not give a voice to the real major victims of drone attacks – civilians who have been murdered and maimed. The focus of the film, the reviews would suggest, is the pain inflicted on the drone operator. As one of the reviews says: “The stress suffered by these pilots is often frowned upon seeing as they are in no actual danger. The fact of the matter is, even though they are no danger, they live, feel and participate in the same war as the other soldiers. They see death and bring it to the enemies and sometimes to harmless civilians (unintentionally). These pilots are put through the same things as any other foot soldier who travel to these war zones. The risk of death is lower which may decrease the intensity of their PTSD, but nonetheless, they are put through and deal with a great amount of stress and fear.”
And, Lucia Simek’s review: “He (the former drone operator) speaks at length about the details he could see on his targets, even at a height of 5000 feet—the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture. Indeed, despite the distance between him and his targets, the pilot struggles to convey his own war wounds in light of witnessing the personalities of the people he killed.”
Even when the film does depict murdered civilians (in a fantasy world where the strike occurs in the US) the actual drone strike is shown to have been aimed at genuine terrorists – in a far away place where definite terrorists with guns are planting, it is suggested, an IED. The civilians were, sadly, just in the wrong place at the wrong time as the drone operator struck at the bad guys.
The reality is that drone strikes strike homes and target people who are far from proven terrorists. As mentioned above, US “signature strikes” attack suspects on the basis of mere suspicious activity – their names need not be known. All drone assassinations violate any number of legal principles, not least, when they hit the intended target, the right for individuals to receive a fair trial. One of the most notorious drone assassinations carried out by the US was the murder of 16 year-old US citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen, in 2011. He was the son of a radical Islamic preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, also killed by US drone in Yemen. The assassination of the father was controversial but the killing of the son went further, for no evidence has ever been presented that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki held any extremist views whatsoever. The US continues to refuse to explain the killing.
Again, it is a small step forward that IWM is considering the heinous effects of US and British drone warfare. But it is obliged to go beyond Omer Fast’s piece and critically consider Britain’s role and the impact on the victim populations of Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are the major victims, not drone operators.