Drones: What Are We Doing to Ourselves?

Aiken, South Carolina, February 23 -- We're hearing more in the media these days about drones, which I suppose is an improvement on 2009, when an audience member at a church in Seattle asked me, "What's a drone attack?" I don't have much to say about drones that isn't being said, except that -- as my late grandmother, may she rest in peace, would have put it -- they're just plain wrong.

I've been wanting to say that for a while, but it's hard to get a word in edgewise, what with all the other people who have things to say about drones lately. I happen to be writing this in South Carolina, home state of Senator Lindsey Graham, who just the other day caused a ripple in the national and international media by telling a small-town Rotary Club, "We've killed 4,700 [with drones]. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we're at war, and we've taken out some very senior members of al Qaeda."

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph described Senator Graham's comments as "the first time a politician or any government representative had referred to a total number of fatalities in the drone strikes, which have been condemned by rights groups as extrajudicial assassinations." Graham may or may not regret having spoken unguardedly, and I don't doubt that he does hate the fact that drones kill innocent people. I do too, and so do you, whatever your views on the issues drones are supposed to be helping address. Drone pilots do too, which is why, as the New York Times tells us, they "get mental health problems much like those of pilots deployed to combat." One or more of the big pharmaceutical companies might well be working on something to help drone pilots deal with their "stress disorders" (I quote the quasi-medical cant phrase from the Times's headline), but no pill can fix their -- or our -- real problem, which is not medical or instrumental or even political, but moral. Drones and drone strikes are just plain wrong.

The other New York Times headline that has me up writing this at four in the morning is "U.S. Opens Niger Drone Base, Building Africa Presence." It's necessary to live in the world as it is, and I know that whatever I say or write will have no effect on the deployment or use or effects of drones; they will now be used in Africa, and the Times is doing what the Times does as the house organ of the American establishment: just letting us know. As a friend of mine said in a different (but not so different) context years ago, "'You are powerless, you have no power.' That's what they're saying."

The message is that drones are here to stay and that, by definition, if you're not prepared to get with the program, you're on your own. It can be dispiriting to be reminded of this, but it's also a simple statement of the obvious. Evil deeds, such as terrorism and drone attacks, arise out of the dark depths of human nature, and each of us is intangibly but inevitably implicated in them. And They -- whoever They are -- are not asking for our approval or advice, but requiring our acquiescence.

So why not simply acquiesce? Because, as the American writer Wendell Berry said in a different (but not so different) context years ago, "Protest that endures ... is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence." In other words, the requirements of self-respect should trump those of Them. My late mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit told me Vietnam had taught him that "all governments are bad." Or, as he put it in the foreword to his 1975 masterpiece The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China, "The Vietnam War is a textbook example of history's lessons: that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern."

I included both of the quotes above in my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, which was published nearly ten years ago now. My point in both quoting them then and wheeling them out again now is that, amid all the sound and fury of this or any other time, some questions and truths are in fact unchanging, and if we don't hold onto these, we risk destroying not only each other but ourselves. Such truths are universal, and they also have particular national and local applications. As someone who has been blessed for nearly two decades by the friendship of many Pakistanis and of Pakistan as a society, the word "sickened" is far too mild to describe how I feel about the damage drone attacks are doing in and to Pakistan. And as an American who loves my own country, I'm concerned with the question of whether America is a free country -- which I was raised to believe was the point of America -- or some sort of consensual military dictatorship.

Which is why I find myself left utterly cold -- chilled, even -- when, as happens routinely these days, airlines invite active-duty military personnel to board planes ahead of the rest of us, along with pregnant women and people rich enough to buy first-class tickets. Or when, as I did last Thursday night, I pass beneath a huge banner reading:

The State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta

Welcome Our Troops Home

I have at least one relative and several friends and acquaintances who are serving or have served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You probably do too. I don't condemn them for being there, and whatever they think, in the privacy of their own thoughts, about what they're doing is their own business. I look forward to welcoming them home safely. But I have enough hard-earned, ground-level authority in that part of the world and elsewhere to know how tragically unhelpful their continuing presence there is, and I don't like being bullied into expressions of pious jingoism by craven politicians and commercial airlines.

But at least the soldiers are there in person. The rest of American society is using them to keep our dirty work at arm's length, exactly the way a young man with a joystick in Nevada uses a drone flying over Pakistan. No wonder we're all suffering from stress disorders.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called "magnificent" by Ahmed Rashid and "wonderful" by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010) and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) and co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). His next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans. Join his email list here.