In A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama’s new 768-page memoir, the word "drone" only appears eleven times. Of those instances, only six are direct references to his drone war, in which he ordered hundreds of strikes and killed thousands of people, hundreds of them civilians.
Obama’s reflections on his mechanized reign of terror abroad are rather brutal, revealing a cavalier attitude with a dose of self-delusion. Just before diving into his justifications for the drone program, Obama reflects on the aspect of his former job that involved meting out death. Reflecting on a lethal operation to rescue an American sailor for Somali pirates, he says that he wanted to “save” the people he ultimately killed.
"In places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the lives of millions of young men like those three dead Somalis (some of them boys, really, since the oldest pirate was believed to be nineteen) had been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. I wanted somehow to save them—send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead."
He proceeds to say that this reality necessitated “operating an arsenal of lethal drones to take out al-Qaeda operatives” and lauds the NSA for “[employing] new supercomputers and decryption technology worth billions of dollars to comb cyberspace in search of terrorist communications and potential threats.” The revelation that the NSA was spying on American citizens on a massive scale was, of course, one of the defining scandals and legacies of Obama’s presidency.
In another reference, Obama recalls balking at the assertion from Vice President Dick Cheney that "my administration wasn’t treating al-Qaeda as a military threat.” He scoffs at how that “was hard to square with the additional battalions I’d deployed to Afghanistan or the scores of al-Qaeda operatives we were targeting with drone strikes."
Data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism makes it clear that “scores” of civilians were also targeted in Obama’s strikes.
257 drone strikes took place from January 2009 to January 2012, with a minimum of 241 civilians killed. The count is likely much higher. In May 2012, the New York Times reported on a secret drone "Kill List" (which Obama's memoir reveals chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel was "obsessed" with) that Obama seemed to have constructed to avoid civilian casualties. As the article reveals, however, Obama began to classify "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants" and thus "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in.” Any male over the age of 18 was considered “military-age.” In fact, a 2012 article by two Bureau of Investigative Journalism researchers would later put the civilian death toll between 282 and 535 civilians for those three years, with over 60 children killed.
Obama claims he “took no joy in any of this,” saying “it didn’t make me feel powerful,” but those sentiments don’t exactly match his comments in the book and elsewhere. After the extrajudicial drone strike killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, Obama reportedly said, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that would be a strong suite of mine.”
In a rare moment approaching something like critical self-reflection near the book’s end, Obama seems to acknowledge that his drone program cost America hearts and minds rather early on in his presidency. In fact, it’s one reason why he felt the U.S. couldn’t negotiate with Pakistani officials on the ground during the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Near the end of a Situation Room meeting where Obama and senior administration officials are trying to plan a raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, William McRaven (then-commander of Joint Special Operations Command) shares that his plans were premised on avoiding a firefight with Pakistani authorities and if confronted, would likely “hold in place” until diplomatic authorities could negotiate safe passage.
Obama and Gates were deeply skeptical of that, Obama writing that “U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] had been generating increasing opposition from the Pakistani public.”
In other spots, Obama tries to spin the United States’ role or downplay it all together. When Obama takes a moment to condemn the invasion of Iraq, for example, he also defends it as comparatively humane.
“I considered the invasion itself to be as big a strategic blunder as the slide into Vietnam had been decades earlier. But the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq hadn’t involved the indiscriminate bombing or deliberate targeting of civilians that had been a routine part of even “good” wars like World War II; and with glaring exceptions like Abu Ghraib, our troops in theater had displayed a remarkable level of discipline and professionalism.”
While “targeted” in the most absolute sense, the first Obama-era drone strike—three days into his presidency—didn’t even hit its intended Taliban target and instead hit an unrelated home, maiming a child and killing three of his family members. The same precision was on display when a deadly 2013 drone strike on a civilian wedding procession in Yemen killed at least 12 men and injured another 15. These are just two examples of many.
It is hard to read Obama say he "wanted somehow to save" the people he killed before clarifying that "the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them" and not think of the justifications for Spain’s conquest of the Americas.
Take the 1550 debate on Native rights in Valladolid, Spain. In one corner, defending indigenous peoples in the Americas was Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish missionary who first-hand witnessed and grew disillusioned with the brutality of Spain's New World conquest, enslavement, and genocide. Still, Las Casas viewed American natives as inferior to Spaniards:
“God created these simple people without evil and without guile. They are most obedient and faithful to their natural lords and to the Christians whom they serve. They are most submissive, patient, peaceful and virtuous. Nor are they quarrelsome, rancorous, querulous, or vengeful. Moreover they are more delicate than princes and die easily from work or illness. They neither possess nor desire to possess worldly wealth. Surely these people would be the most blessed in the world if only they worshipped the true God.”
One opponent, Ginés de Sepúlveda, painted the indigenous population in a sharply contrasted light that still rhymed with Las Casas' defense:
“In prudence, talent, virtue, and humanity they are as inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults, women to men, as the wild and cruel to the most meek, as the prodigiously intemperate to the continent and temperate, that I have almost said, as monkeys to men.”
These two viewed America’s indigenous peoples in slightly different lights: one as human beings who God created to be subordinate to Spaniards and the other as animals who God created to be subordinate to Spaniards. And yet, the question of whether Obama ends up resembling Las Casas or Sepúlveda doesn't really matter to the civilians he killed.
What matters, Obama writes, is that he “couldn't afford to look soft on terrorism.”