Sunday, 28 April 2013

‘Joystick aces’ fighting wars without conscience

This week the Royal Air Force began flying unmanned drone missions from its base in Waddington Lincolnshire. Previously the ten Reaper drones were flown by RAF personnel from a USAF base in Creech Nevada, the aircraft are used for surveillance missions but have the capability to attack targets on the ground if required.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week retired Chief of Defence Intelligence Air Marshall Sir John Walker said that ‘having a capability like the drones on the order of battle can only be a good thing,’ he likened them to the UK’s nuclear arsenal, saying they provided a strong deterrent without being used to take offensive action.

Several campaign groups including, CND, War on Want and the Stop the War Coalition opposed to the use of drones took part in a protest outside RAF Waddington yesterday.

Kat Craig of Reprieve told the BBC that the use of drone aircraft was a form of ‘aerial occupation, almost a form of collective punishment that causes huge concern and distress’ to the communities being observed.

Chris Nineham of the Stop the War Coalition said there was ‘something sinister and disturbing’ about the use of drone aircraft and that it gave governments ‘carte blanche to fight wars behind the backs of people with no public scrutiny or accountability.’

It is easy to romanticize aerial combat as a sort of high tech joust where honour is all, an image fuelled by media images of the heroics of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. The reality is, as always, very different.

War, in the air or anywhere else is always hell. A brutal marathon of crushing mental and physical exhaustion that all too often summons up the very worst in human nature. Just occasionally though in this dark maelstrom of violence there glitters the tiniest speck of conscience, a recognition of shared humanity transcending manufactured divisions shown, for example, in medics treating enemy combatants alongside their own and sailors rescuing the crews of ships they have sunk.

Creating a situation in which combat missions are flown from an office suite in Lincolnshire, by ‘pilots’ wearing according to some reports wings they have no right to, snuffs out that small speck of conscience. War then becomes what silly people have always thought it was, a sort of rough game for boys where nobody; meaning nobody on our side anyway, really gets hurt.

On one level I agree with Air Marshall Walker, having a squadron of drones in the RAF order of battle is similar to having a fleet of submarines armed with Trident missiles; but not in a good way.

Both feed the delusion that by owing such expensive military toys Britain is somehow still a ‘great power’ and encourage our politicians to adopt an imperial mindset that allows them to interfere in the affairs of smaller nations with impunity. You might think that a decade of deadlock in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taught us that this is seldom the road to success; but, of course it hasn’t.

Two years ago the UK joined America in intervening in Libya and when Colonel Gadaffi fell David Cameron was keen to present himself, ludicrously, as a great war leader. He’s rather less eager to take responsibility for the violent chaos the country descended into afterwards.

Now we look likely to intervene in Syria if reports of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons can be halfway verified. Do you think the results will be any different? I don’t and neither do most sensible people, unfortunately we seem to be governed by silly people.

Once upon a time political leaders understood the horror of war because they had often seen it at first hand as young men. That didn’t prevent them from making foolish mistakes; Anthony Eden fought in the trenches of the western front but still allowed hubris to take Britain into the shambles of Suez. You can’t help thinking though the experience of being under fire must have influenced the sealed orders someone like Edward Heath say wrote, as all prime ministers do, to be given to the commanders of submarines carrying Trident to be opened in the event of the UK being taken out by a nuclear attack.

David Cameron, like Anthony Blair before him, has never been under fire or faced any hardship worse that the wine being corked at dinner. Give politicians of his stripe the illusory means of fighting ‘clinical’ wars where only the bad people ever get hurt and they will find ever more entangling foreign wars to fight from the safety of their armchairs.

When, as is always the case, it turns out that there is no such thing as war without tears and far from helping troops on the ground misplaced drone attacks actually fuel resentment and act as an effective recruiting tool for the insurgents don’t expect David Cameron to follow the example of Anthony Eden and resign in shame.

Like the drone pilots of RAF Waddington our push button PM operates at a safe distance from reality and the consequences of his actions.

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