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Home Uncategorized A Reading from the Book of Drones

A Reading from the Book of Drones

Kevin Hargaden

Five years ago, on May 23rd, 2013, the American president, Barack Obama, made a ground-breaking speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. His remarks established the next phase in the American “War on Terror”. The nation had spent the previous ten years and, he noted, over a trillion dollars fighting a war that involved two major invasions and countless subsidiary interventions to destroy the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its network. He marked the successes – most notably the assassination of Osama Bin Laden – but also warned that the conflict was not yet resolved: “Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” To deal with changing circumstances around the world, America needed to adapt its tactics. Setting out the first major presidential comment on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Obama insisted that the deployment of drones was effective, legal and “morally constrained”.

The use of these UAV drones became a central component in Obama’s foreign policy. Over the course of his eight years in power, alongside their use in Afghanistan and Iraq, they were deployed in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan on 542 occasions, officially leading to the deaths of 324 civilians. The policy has become an essential American military practice but has been accompanied by little public deliberation. Five years on from his cornerstone statements, in an era when the current president engages the technology even more enthusiastically, it is an opportune time to reconsider this aspect of Obama’s legacy.

In the speech at Fort McNair, Obama described how personally torturous each decision to deploy a UAV could be. Reflecting on the non-combatants killed in drone strikes, he testified that “for me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live … But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heart-breaking tragedies against the alternatives.” This self-reflective and empathic capacity in the president is sorely missed in the age of Obama’s successor, who displays no such vulnerability. It fits with the public image of President Obama as a humanist who was burdened by the responsibilities of power. That representation was informed in the latter years of his reign by his public friendship with Marilynne Robinson, an acclaimed novelist whose books, most famously her fiction but her non-fiction also, are marked by a generosity and breadth of feeling that warms the reader’s heart.

In Robinson’s latest collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, she addresses this public friendship with Obama and briefly touches on the drone policy. These essays offer one angle from which to consider the implications of the president’s use of drones and why their promise of high-tech, sterile capacities proved so irresistible to American culture.

Alongside writing some of the most treasured novels of this generation, Marilynne Robinson has built a reputation as an essayist of some note. By her own admission, she has squandered much of her life in the Quixotic pursuit of reading books the general culture assumes no longer need to be read. Whether it is Marx or Calvin, the contemporaneous writings of the Puritans or even the Scriptures themselves, we find Robinson committed to carefully reading the texts of “greatest historical consequence” which are “more or less entirely unread”.

This sensibility is an explicit theme in What Are We Doing Here? Writing in a context where “we have surrendered thought to ideology”, she seeks to mark out again space for an American self-understanding that does not settle for bromides. Seasoned Robinson readers may well predict the twists and turns that lie in store: rehabilitations of Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin and John Wycliffe, alongside detailed discussions of how Marx, Darwin and Freud are almost as badly remembered because they are practically never read. She declares that “nostalgia falsifies”, and that holds as true for our collective old, dead enemies as it does for our individual good old days.

Yet, one wonders if the attention to detail that Robinson recommends has been sufficiently paid to cover the costs of these arguments. She is never a dilettante, but there is a disconcerting sense in some of these essays that the themes are so well-worn, and the intellectual grooves so clearly defined as to invite the same mechanical habits of thought that she so opposes. Where she skims like this, we get an insight into how Robinson’s thoughts are ordered. They reveal the boundaries that frame her thinking. And by reflection, they allow us to explore the boundaries of the drone regime and question whether “strong oversight of all lethal action” is sufficient grounds for the wholesale embrace of drones that has flowed from Obama’s presidency.

Lord General Oliver Cromwell set sail for Ireland on August 12th, 1649. Having established a parliamentary commonwealth after the trial and execution of the king, Charles I, the London government’s thoughts turned to Ireland, which was a hotbed of rebellious factions and a potential back-door for invasion. Since 1641, English plans had been in place to militarily invade in an explicitly colonial project. Options on vast tracts of Irish land had been sold in advance, requiring a military confiscation at some opportune future time. Cromwell was well-resourced, with twelve thousand men and funds in reserve, to take advantage of this moment.

The town of Drogheda lies about fifty kilometres north of Dublin. It was a stronghold for the alliance made between the Irish Catholic Confederation and anti-|Cromwell royalists. A sea-port on the east coast, it was a strategically crucial component of Cromwell’s plan to subdue Ireland, and as such was a primary target. His forces surrounded the town in early September. When a call to surrender, issued on September 10th, went unanswered, he began his assault at 5 pm on the following day. The walls were soon breached. The massacre began. The only surviving eye-witness account is from an Anglican cleric, Dean Bernard, who wrote of how his parishioners gathered in his manse for protection. They came under sustained gunfire, which was stalled when the soldiers of the New Model Army recognised them as Protestant. The historian Micheál Ó Siochrú writes:

According to Bernard, the soldiers fired on civilians sheltering indoors, which belies claims that the parliamentarians only targeted those in arms. Moreover, the group was only saved from further harm when an officer recognised Bernard and identified his companions as Protestants. The implications of this sequence of events for the town’s Catholics do not require any further explanation.

Conclusions differ as to the exact number killed. A contemporaneous parliamentary report settled on 3,552, while a decade later Irish records were suggesting 4,000 civilians alone were put to death. Modern accounts suggest that something more like 1,500 to 2,000 may have died. What is certain, however, is that Cromwell himself intended to show no mercy and that he saw this act, in which Catholic priests were special targets, as divinely sanctioned:

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands with so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions which cannot otherwise but work remorse and regret.

Cromwell is remembered as a military genius and it seems the brutality displayed at Drogheda did have the intended effect. It was depicted as an exercise of devastating, overwhelming force for the sake of a greater good. The effectiveness of the tactics in Ireland validated the entire parliamentarian agenda. In the week following, Dundalk, Newry, Carlingford and Trim all surrendered without a fight. The war in Ireland was not over, however. Massacres recurred, infamously at Wexford. Tens of thousands of Irish people died in battle, more again because of the famine and plagues that followed the war. The forced removal of Irish people from their land under lethal threat – “To Hell or to Connacht” – was a form of early ethnic cleansing that would have devastating implications centuries later during the Great Famine of 1845–50. The penal laws, which particularly characterised the eighteenth century, had an effect which persisted into the Northern Irish Troubles.

Cromwell remains a nightmarish figure in Irish popular imagination. Yet he is widely regarded as a hero in England, where historical knowledge of past dealings with Ireland is rare, as the present negotiations around Brexit and the Irish border painfully remind us. To the group of people who authorised his actions, he is seen as righteous man, burdened by the responsibility of power, who sacrificed himself to serve the common good. To the group of people who suffered the consequences of his decisions, he is remembered as a bloodthirsty tyrant, intent on implementing his ideological vision regardless of the human cost in death and misery.

In the longest piece in Robinson’s new collection, at the heart of the book, we find an essay entitled “Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself”. By way of introduction she notes that she has “spent a great part of my adult life working to rescue wounded or discounted reputations”. She proceeds to introduce us to various under-appreciated historical details about the emergence of the factionalised entity we know today as the United States of America, including a surprising digression into film criticism (Spielberg’s oft-forgotten 1995 feature Amistad) and a fascinating aside on how Tsar Nicholas II sent fleets to San Francisco and New York during the Civil War to ensure that the Confederates would not receive the support of France or Britain. It is striking to be taught that a century before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authoritarian monarchy of Moscow was lending military support to the republic of Washington. America’s conversation within itself might well be improved if it more fully embraced such strange complexities of history.

But does Robinson follow through on her own advice? She warns against the easy and common habit of holding “truth-excluding encapsulations” and promptly turns the reader’s attention to a figure whose “cultural and, in many cases, literal descendants” established Yale in New Haven and became a founding force for abolition. The figure in question is Oliver Cromwell, presented as yet one more patient to be admitted to the Robinson Centre for Historical Rehabilitation. The massacres in Ireland are not the material to be reconsidered, but the bad reputation that goes with being seen as the granddaddy of the joyless, priggish Puritans. We are guided through various important biographical sketches that all too clearly betray the instinctive bias against the Puritans, leaving Cromwell as an ill-defined “giant monolith on the darkest terrain of unhipness”. In Ireland, few would think to include a lack of cool in the charge-sheet against the leader of the New Model Army.

Robinson makes a direct connection between the ethical generosity attempted by the New England Puritans, and their seventeenth century forefather. In their legal code they established a distance between their legislative authority and what obtained under the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which represented “an extremely clean separation of church and state, depriving the church of powers to coerce that were still very important elsewhere”.

As a sort of roughly sketched intellectual and political genealogy, this may well be unobjectionable. But Robinson goes further than simply claiming that “American culture sprang from English dissenters”. She goes on to make claims about Cromwell himself; claims that bring the efficacy of her entire Centre for Historical Rehabilitation into disrepute. “Again,” she states, “it should be noted emphatically that under Cromwell no one was executed for his religious beliefs.”

In Drogheda, Catholic clergy were considered combatants and those who sought sanctuary in St Peter’s Church were burned alive. Under the Act of Settlement, to be a priest in Ireland became a capital crime. If Robinson is using a technical definition of “executed” which excludes wartime assassination of non-combatants, or perhaps is limiting herself geographically to England, there is no clear indication of this for the reader.

Robinson maintains that “in his letters Cromwell advocates consistently for freedom of conscience”. As shown above, in a letter that refers to Catholics as “barbarous wretches”, this claim can only be defended by means of remarkable qualification. On plain reading, it appears to be a truth-excluding encapsulation.

Christopher Hill is helpful here when he explains the cultural moment in which Cromwell operated. He writes “that the native Catholic Irish should be subordinated to England was common ground between both parties” – Parliamentarians and Royalists. The belief that “the Irish were culturally so inferior that their subordination was natural and necessary” was so widespread that “only a few intellectuals of the radical left in England seem to have been exempt from this appalling attitude”. Equipped with the technological capacities made possible by his New Model Army, and operating in a general cultural context where Ireland and the Irish were maligned, Cromwell was freed to act as brutally as he deemed necessary to achieve his nation’s aims.

And here we can see that the problem with presenting Cromwell as Robinson has done is not just how misleading it is as a matter of fact, but how it closes down an angle of interrogation that could dramatically strengthen her arguments about America and how America should talk about itself. To the extent that the abolitionist movement arose in Puritan New England, it did so informed by its cultural sources and in rebellion against its historical sources. Calvin’s Geneva was a sanctuary for refugees, but Cromwell’s rule in Ireland was grounded on explicit racist ideology. On Robinson’s own terms, what America needs is an account of its shared past that acknowledges how the best impulses went awry and how vicious impulses were intermingled there from the start.

Instead we are offered an argument that presents Cromwell as an unrecognised father of the best abolitionist impulses in American history, and which fails to mention that the same Lord General deployed British navy fleets to the West Indies in the hope of cornering and securing the Atlantic slave trade to English benefit. The direct heirs of Cromwell’s thought are not the brave souls who built the Underground Railroad, but the unremembered souls buried in mass graves in the Irish boglands. Hill makes this all quite clear when he writes (in 1970, at the height of apartheid) that “a great number of civilised Englishmen of the propertied class in the seventeenth century spoke of Irishmen in tones not far removed from those which Nazis used about Slavs or white South Africans use about the original inhabitants of their country”. There is a fascinating story to be told about the road travelled from the Roundheads to the abolitionists, but Robinson is silent on it.

Barack Obama has repeatedly praised Gilead as one of his favourite novels. Towards the end of his presidency, The New York Review of Books published a lengthy, two-part conversation he had with Robinson that roamed with a breadth that one would expect when two humanists of such stature sit down to deliberate about novels and everything else that matters. That they had struck up an authentic friendship over the years of Obama’s tenure in the White House was apparent and in the eighth essay in What Are We Doing Here? Robinson seeks to reflect on that fact.

Obama, we are told, does more than unite “in his person the two races that are shorthand for difference and division within the society”. Presumably in reference to his early years spent in Indonesia, Robinson notes (somewhat problematically) that he has seen “the effects of lawless government on the lives of good people”. Robinson reflects that to have been gifted by providence with a leader of such uncommon poise and learning was a great blessing to America, not just because of how he could enter into the fraught conversations internal to the nation. Turning to the wider world – and implicit in this essay is the assumption that America’s essential role in some sense entails turning to the wider world – Obama was a president “for whom other societies are not abstractions”. Rather, he knows that “the children of our enemies are as silly and lovely as our own children” and this makes him “well suited to helping us live more consistently with our values, granting all the obstacles history” places before the USA.

The Irish account of Cromwell is, in all regards, the minority report. As Ireland is the junior partner in the British Isles by size and population, military power and cultural influence, the story that has gained traction more easily around the world is the one which brushes over places like Macroom and Carlow, known to few who do not live here. There is a minority report on Obama too, which similarly finds its roots in villages easily passed over, except in this case they are in the province of Waziristan, not Munster. The same gaze that perceives Cromwell as a man concerned with the rule of England turns to Obama and praises his restraint in the face of Fox News. He is, we are told, “disinclined to hate his enemies”. This will be news to those who were at the receiving end of the over twenty-six thousand bombs he dropped in just the final year of his relatively peaceful reign. The children, as silly and as lovely as our own, who have been raised in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen to recognise the distinctive noise of a Predator UAV and take cover, may object to Robinson’s suggestion that “the president is a philosopher, perhaps a theologian”. Again, it should be noted emphatically that people could have written that about Cromwell in his day.

It is too soon to evaluate the Obama presidency, and we should grant that the bond of love between friends can give rise to blind spots as regards individual failings. Yet there is a connection that must be drawn between the Pollyanna account of the reign of the forty-fourth American president and the whitewashing of Cromwell as republican revolutionary. Robinson is right that there is something desperately amiss with American discourse. But she is desperately wrong to imagine that it is merely a failure to recognise that both sides of the political culture – blue and red – share many assumptions. Rather, in her failure to critique those assumptions, she exacerbates their consequences.

Cromwell’s actions in Ireland were all justifiable in the culture of their day – we have the documentary evidence that straightforwardly does just that – but no serious engagement with them can avoid calling them what they were: genocidal atrocities. When we remember that the campaign was financed by the advance sale of land, it cannot be disputed that it was an imperial project and up to that point, the world’s foremost example of colonisation. Obama’s actions across central Asia are all justifiable in the culture of our day. It is regrettable that Robinson joins in that effort, since no serious engagement can avoid calling them what they are: military slaughter. Scandalously, she suggests that raising protest is merely a form of “disillusionment” with a set of policies which “clearly spare lives”. “Whose lives?” is the inevitable question raised from below the Irish boglands and in the farming compounds of Pakistan.

By 2014, a conservative estimate held that the United States had killed four thousand people through drone strikes, of which “only about 2.5-5% of the targeted killing victims are military leaders”. There has been no slowdown in the use of UAV techniques, and hence, probably no slowdown in the death rates. The numbers are large enough to render impossible any simple calculation that the sacrifice of those lives far away is legitimated by saving these lives at home. But Robinson’s claim that Obama’s drone policy has saved lives must also account for the long-term blowback effects of using such nightmarish technology.

That drones achieve a much greater precision than a bomb dropped from a supersonic jet is undeniable, but there is evidence that their use alienates and radicalises those who encounter them. Baitullah Mehsud was a Taliban leader thought to be behind the assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. His death was brought about through a Predator drone attack in 2009. The technology was undoubtedly effective in that instance. But any assessment of that deployment must reckon with the fact that it was the sixteenth attempt on his life by drone, and that the previous efforts had led to the deaths of somewhere between 204 and 321 victims. People who might vaguely sympathise with the Taliban can easily become firm adherents when faced with such precision technology unleashed with such prodigal barbarity.

It is not at all clear how UAV missions in Somalia or Yemen could have stopped the spate of terror attacks that have been conducted in Britain, France and Belgium in recent years. It is quite clear how those missions would have had an aggravating effect, however. A judgement as to whether this rapidly accelerated policy saves lives simply cannot be made at this early a stage. The risks that Obama’s military experiment will echo in unanticipated fashion through future generations, as did Cromwell’s, means that Robinson’s basic claim rests on dubious grounds.

The badge of the MQ-9 Reaper drone bears the image of a Grim Reaper, sickle dripping in blood, pointing a skeletal index finger out at the observer. The text underneath reads “That others may die.” The brutal logic of war is rarely so explicitly stated. Wars are won by killing more of them than they kill of you. The drone allows death to be dealt from afar in a way that dwarfs the advantage of the machine gun or the sniper rifle. Even if insurgencies do not arise to trap American military forces in Yemen and Somalia in the same way as they are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even if it can be shown that they have no causal impact on terror attacks in the West, the drone prompts a significant shift in the deployment of just war. The use of double-tap attacks, where the drone returns to the scene of the assault as survivors are being pulled from the rubble is one notable example of how the deployment of this technology may not be as cautious as Robinson and others believe. The possibility of a war without obvious end is made more likely now that war can be conducted without moving human flesh onto the field of battle. Drones are a technological platform, an evolution of pre-existing military hardware, neither inherently heinous nor virtuous. Their deployment as a matter of political policy and military strategy is what is at stake in Robinson’s blithe approval. Just as any assessment of Cromwell must pay heed to the context and details of his military career, any endorsement of Obama which does not acknowledge the complexity of his commitment to the UAV is bound to fall short.

Robinson depicts Obama as a philosophiser and a theologian. His embrace of the drone policy displays a commitment to short-term tactical success at the potential devastating long-term cost of strategic failure. Her oversight on this matter is a mirror to her oversight with Cromwell. The praise of Cromwell which is not qualified by a word about his victims and the valorisation of Obama without reference to his high-tech, high-altitude assassinations could well be seen as an example of the “vulgar, mean-spirited noise” which Robinson decries.

Doubts about this particular essay of Robinson’s do not quite prove that her elaborate rehabilitations of other much-maligned and under-read figures are on shaky ground, but they might suggest that we should test her claims with closer scrutiny. It is hard to believe that Cromwell was driven by a profound commitment to religious tolerance. It is harder still to believe that Obama’s drone campaign has, in the end, saved lives. Cromwell may have tolerated the religious convictions of those who were Protestant like him and Obama’s campaign may have saved the lives of those who are American like him, but such a calculation is of a kind with the very cost-benefit analyses that Robinson rails so consistently against.

Nostalgia falsifies. This is as true for events of recent memory as for those of the distant past. Robinson’s fiction is lit by the same gentle humanism that often marks her essays. But there is nonetheless a violent seam that runs through her political reflections. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that her political reflections demand that a violent seam be dislocated elsewhere, away from her page.

It is a violence that is common to much American discourse, and is perhaps the true source of the toxicity she seeks so resolutely to oppose. Robinson’s achievement in rehabilitating these figures is made possible only because of her failure to discuss their victims; in the same way, Obama’s legacy can only be understood to be a success so long as the devastating consequences of drones remain obscured. It is the violence of empire which leads one to read the story of history on the terms of those who get to write it: Cromwell and his learned followers in New Haven, who were wise and kind enough to rebel against his worst impulse, Obama and his literary friends, who are blinded by his brilliance, especially compared to his direct predecessor and successor. This imperial gaze can be quite precise in diagnosing problems it has the will to address. Within the frame, all kinds of progressive initiatives can be supported. Robinson, like Obama, is a keen critic of the racist structures that prevail within the United States. But the empire can become suddenly blind when it wants to. Outside the frame, places like Drogheda in Co Louth in the east of Ireland or Haider Khel in Waziristan in the north of Pakistan can fall off the map, and with them the unfortunates who lived there. They do not have wounded or discounted reputations to restore; they were never acknowledged in the first place.

Decades ago, Robinson argued that “the great antidote to morality is cynicism” and that “if it is true that morality is a form of autonomy, then social conditioning is more likely to discourage than enhance it”. There is a cynicism embedded in contemporary American discourse, more pernicious than its liberal critics recognise. In fact, it is their social conditioning that makes them blind to it. Attending as much to the lives lost, not saved, by drones, and as much to those priests burned by the New Model Army as to presidents, may go some way to restoration. By rereading those lives, we might come to entirely different conclusions about drones, and the president who embraced them.


Kevin Hargaden is the social theologian for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. He lectures at Dublin City University and the Irish Bible Institute. His next book, Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age, will be published in winter 2018.



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