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America's Cowboy Problem in Afghanistan

Logan on Predator camera

If you missed the 60 Minutes feature on Predator drones, you’ll have to get your military propaganda fix somewhere else.

America’s flying death machines do not enjoy a favorable reputation in Afghanistan or among many of our allies. It’s a problem that only seems to get worse. “While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said from a podium in Kabul last year, “it’s clear we have to work even harder.” That was October 2008. More than six months later Afghan families are routinely decimated by U.S. bombs or obliterated altogether.

In the 60 Minutes report, according to the show's website, "Laura Logan discovers first hand how precise the Predator can be.” It’s exactly the message the military needs out there right now: precision, precision, precision. It’s a battle they can’t win, however, if only because war (no matter how technologically advanced) is murderously imprecise.

To the grunts on the ground, war's imprecision is an uncontroversial notion. But the pilots of these deadly machines are different. They fly their drones remotely from a base forty-five miles north of Las Vegas and many worlds away from the particular patch of earth that shakes and burns from their Hellfire missiles and 500 lb bombs.

Not surprisingly, the pilots cleared to speak with Logan exuded confidence:

"What if you get it wrong?" she asks one pilot.

"We don't," he replies.


"That's a tough question." Pause. "Yeah. We have the resources to make sure we're right.”

Precision, precision, precision. A demonstration of the Predator’s exactitude features Logan and her crew caught by the camera of a hovering drone. What better way for 60 Minutes to shill for the military,” writes Michael Shaw at his blog BAGnewsNotes, “than to soften the reality of hell-from-the-sky by focusing on the lovely Laura Logan from 10,000 feet?”

It’s striking how much her two-man camera crew resembles a couple of fighters. And it’s no stretch to imagine how a person trained to kill might have an easier time pulling the trigger from the desert north of Vegas—especially when your combat environment looks like this:

Predator pilot...

In all the talk of America's technological prowess, an important point is lost: Inevitably, people make mistakes. And when the U.S. military makes mistakes, civilians die. When that happens, the military military makes no effort to assess civilian deaths following air strikes, unless a special investigation is called. That job is often left to NATO, which sends soldiers into villages for “battle damage assessments” whenever possible. That means tending to the wounded, counting and photographing the dead, and sitting down with village elders.

Last October I spoke to Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, a spokesperson for NATO forces in Afghanistan, about the mess we so often leave behind: “We need the support of the people of Afghanistan,” he said on an unsteady line from Kabul. It’s “a tough challenge for our leadership to go into a village after force is used in that manner.”

I took “a tough challenge” to be a world-class understatement, but I can’t be certain of course. An anonymous ambassador to Afghanistan was more candid in a statement to Human Rights Watch late last year: “Some Afghans think the U.S. is worse than the Russians. There is a cultural problem with the U.S.—they are cowboys.”

It’s a truth we must face: our Cowboy-in-Chief is back in Crawford, but our cowboy problem is far from over.

Source: BAGnewsNotesNational Catholic Reporter 

Screenshots by Michael Shaw.