Week End Update I.

In Western Civilization there is a deeply ingrained dread of human inventiveness. Witness the stories of Prometheus (fire) and Icarus (flight). Former reporter and novelist Dan Fesperman applies this lesson to contemporary drone warfare in a novel grounded in facts. The plot centers on a drone attack gone-awry in Afghanistan. A dozen civilians are killed and others are gravely wounded. Darwin Cole, the controller who fired the “Hellfire” missile on orders from some mysterious above, comes apart at the seams after the attack. Booted from the Air Force, abandoned by his wife and children, and seeking solace in the proverbial bottle, Cole is approached by a team of journalists. They’re snuffling after a war-crimes story wrapped in a war-profiteering story hidden inside a corporations-own-America story. Having escaped the proverbial bottle, Darwin Cole soon encounters the proverbial scientist-tortured-by-guilt. This scientist, Nelson Sharpe, provides the means to voice Fesperson’s research into drone technology: it isn’t that complicated, it’s readily available to whoever wants to use it, and governments can’t control it any better than they control firearms or drugs. Islamist fanatics, Mexican drug lords, Montana militias, and private military companies all can—and will–seize this terrible technology. Then they’ll hire a bunch of pimply gamers to fly the things—probably from Arkansas trailer parks converted from meth labs, instead of from “secret” command posts in Nevada.[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myhnAZFR1po

Well, probably. However, the next story to consider is that of likely counter-measures. On the one hand, one can envision hordes of little fighter-drones circling in constant Combat Air Patrol over sensitive sites, unnoticed by the people below until there is a sudden flash of light in the sky as some approaching danger—or flock of seagulls—is eliminated. On the other hand, one can envision a further expansion of the “requirements” lists submitted to the NSA. Anyone who expresses an interest in unmanned aerial vehicles on-line should expect to have his or her name added to a watch list. So, you might look at Dan Fesperman, Unmanned (Knopf, 2014).

 

For good and ill, the United States military isn’t what it once was. The end of the Cold War led to big cuts in forces. Contractors took over many support functions, then spread into providing security services. For budget reasons, they’re here to stay. However, their mis-steps attract a lot of bad press. So the question becomes how to harness the contractors for the benefits they provide while limiting the damage they can do. One approach has been to try to create international norms for the use and behavior of private military contractors. In September 2008 the United States and sixteen other countries signed a pledge to require companies to “comply with international humanitarian or human rights law.” A 2010 document asked private military contractors to follow well-defined standards of behavior, to maintain transparency, and to be held accountable for their actions. The number of companies that have “taken the pledge”—as my Welsh grandmother used to say of temperance oaths—is a good measure of the spread of private military contractors as a form of business. Seven hundred as of 2013. Most are small companies that sub-contract work from the big boys: Xe (the re-labeled Blackwater), DynCorp, and Aegis.

If private military contractors are a business, will “regulation” prove successful? In any event, Ann Hagedorn, The Invisible Soldiers (Simon and Schuster, 2014), provides a lot of interesting information on the private contractors.

[1] This is probably bad news for any out-of-work airlines pilots who sign on the fly drug shipments into the United States. One more career avenue closed off.

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