By Dan Gettinger
In the early afternoon of November 5, 2009, Major Nidal Hasan walked into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, with two pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition. According to witnesses, Hasan, who worked at the Processing Center, drew an FN Five-Seven pistol with a high-capacity magazine, and began to shoot at his fellow soldiers. Major Hasan stands accused of killing twelve of his fellow soldiers and one civilian in the ensuing rampage. In the early stages of his trial, which began in June, Hasan attempted to declare himself a combatant fighting for the Taliban against the United States. Hasan, who is representing himself in court, said in his opening statements earlier this week that the evidence will show that he is guilty, and that “war is an ugly thing.”
Hasan tried to invoke “defense of others,” a self-defense legal rationale, explaining that he was acting in defense of members of the Taliban. However, Colonel Tara Osborne, the presiding judge in the case, ruled against this argument on the basis that it would offer Hasan an opportunity for religious and political tirades. Had Col. Osborne accepted that defense, Hasan might have been classified as an “unlawful enemy combatant” instead of a criminal. The case of the “Fort Hood Shooter” raises questions about the increasingly problematic and convoluted distinction between “combatant” and “non-combatant.” With the rise of counterinsurgency and drone strikes as the preferred methods of fighting terror, the boundaries that traditionally defined theatres of war no longer apply. The line demarcating the areas of conflict and areas of peace is shifting from the plains of Kandahar to those of Killeen, and beyond.
Hasan is not the alone in demanding that the incident at Ft. Hood be treated as an episode of war. The survivors and the families of the victims have brought a case against the Obama administration for defining the shooting as “workplace violence” instead of an “act of terrorism.” Under the designation as a criminal act, the victims and survivors do not qualify to receive the Purple Heart or other benefits that come with being wounded in action. A Pentagon position paper argued that to call this an act of war would “undermine the prosecution of Major Nidal Hasan by materially and directly compromising Major Hasan’s ability to receive a fair trial.” The group bringing the case against the Obama administration, on the other hand, point to email communications between Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American al-Qaeda preacher who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2012. The victims say that this evidence, combined with with Hasan’s alleged intent to disrupt the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, provide sufficient conditions to declare this to be an act of war.
Hasan claims that he “switched sides,” and that he was fighting for the Taliban against the “illegal and immoral” war being perpetrated against the Muslim world. In this regard, Hasan is in the company of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who is now serving a life sentence for his attempted bombing of Times Square. It is believed that Shahzad was motivated by the drone strikes in his native Pakistan, some of which he witnessed first hand during his training with the Taliban. Both men are believed to have been in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki. At the heart of their presented motivations is an anger against what they perceive to be a cowardly way to wage war: drone strikes. According to a paper by Michael J. Boyle, “The Costs and Consequences of Drone Warfare,” Shahzad told a judge during his trial, “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, [drone operators] don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody.”
Unlike most Americans, the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan have long been aware of the burden that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations place on them. In counterinsurgency wars, the civilian population are the center of gravity; winning its support is crucial to denying ground to the insurgency forces. But counterinsurgency forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to contend with the fact that it has at times proved difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The explosion in popularity of surveillance drones was motivated in part by the frustrations incurred by an enemy that blended so easily within the civilian population. However, in a paper titled “Hell-Bent on Force Protection: Confusing Troop Welfare with Mission Accomplishment in Counterinsurgency,” Major Trent A. Gibson USMC argues that the trend to minimize risk has its own side effects:
“Attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats… shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace. In doing so, we have lifted that burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it – the civilian populace.” (Geographical Imaginations Blog)
Because of the increasingly intense domestic public reaction to the deaths of soldiers in foreign wars, field commanders are less inclined than ever to risk the lives of their soldiers in military operations. This caution has led the military to invest in technologies, most notably the drone, that reduce the risk to soldiers. Trent criticizes the shift because it physically and psychologically isolates the American force from the civilians; the whole point of counterinsurgency is to build trust between the military and civilian populations. More importantly, a strategy that focuses on killing insurgents, rather than building the trust of the host community, transfers the risk to the civilian population who, as a result of high intensity operations, are more likely to be killed in greater proportion to the counterinsurgency force.
One example of this so-called paradox of force protection was the proliferation of armored vehicles like the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) to protect soldiers against IEDs (improvised explosive devices). While they added security to American troops, in response to these measures the insurgents deployed IEDs in greater number and strength, shifting the burden of casualties from Americans to unprotected civilians. Last year in Afghanistan, IEDs accounted for the greatest cause of civilian deaths — 42%.
“In this century, as the United States has had a resource advantage over each of her adversaries, firepower and technology have evolved as substitutes for precious manpower. Indeed, the Army even has a statement for it: ‘It is better to send a bullet than a man.’”
– Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam
The armorization of counterinsurgency forces, combined with a shift towards counterterrorism with “hunter-killer” weapons such as Reaper drones, transferred the burden of risk to civilian populations. However, at the time of the “surge” in Iraq, there was a clear effort within the American military to repeal the culture of risk aversion. Maj. Trent Gibson credited the strategy of Gen. Petraeus to “Clear-Hold-Build” for reducing civilian casualties. This strategy required the dedication of a large force which, in the case of Afghanistan, appears to have been partly substituted by force protection and multiplication technologies. In a summary of Grégoire Chamayou’s Théorie du drone, Derek Gregory explains how, with risk-transfer and technological dependency, “the safety of ‘home’ is illusory and … war cannot be contained within external ‘danger zones.’”
Grégoire Chamayou fears that the ongoing effort to reduce risk by relying on technology such as drones will invite more attacks on civilian populations, including attacks from within the United States. Part of the motivation for these attacks stems from the feeling among insurgents that the Americans are fighting unfairly by employing technologies that enhance force protection and multiplication. Shahzad and Hasan’s objection to the seemingly indiscriminate war on Muslims waged by U.S. drones is a function of the pressure that drones and other risk-minimizing technologies place on civilian populations. Shahzad and Hasan are evidence that this feeling is shared by many outside of Afghanistan. In an op-ed for The Guardian in January 2012, George Monbiot argued, rather extravagantly, that drones have enormous PR costs. “With these unmanned craft,” he writes, “governments can fight a coward’s war, a god’s war, harming only the unnamed.”
One of the ways that drone strikes blur the line between civilian and combatant is the American government’s method of recording and reporting casualties. Recent reports have indicated that, with the rise of the much-criticized signature strikes, perhaps one quarter of the casualties of drone strikes are unidentified. Classified as “other militants,” these unnamed dead are at the heart of the increasing criticism of the President’s counterterrorism strategy. The signature strikes, in which a drone engages unidentified men who appear to fit certain “signatures” of militant behavior, further blur the line between combatant and civilian.
“… every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or a mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the center of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles.”
– Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: a Brief History of the Car Bomb
Will our war against risk come to haunt continental America just as it haunts the hilltop villages of northwestern Pakistan? Hasan, Shahzad and the Tsarnaev brothers all cited the collateral deaths of civilians as a motivation for their attacks inside the United States. However, it would certainly be unfair to say that American soldiers act with anything close to cowardice, because they are forced to rely on technology to supplement an all-volunteer force. While a characteristic of American military action during this time has been to stringently avoid directly causing civilian casualties, the asymmetry of these conflicts combined with a reliance on recent warfighting technologies, such as the drone, make parsing the difference between combatant and civilian particularly difficult.
“We got down at the people level and are staying.” – Gen. David Petraeus