Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia 5: Bombs and Drones

American bomber being prepared for flight

American bomber being prepared for flight

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale writeMany people now argue that feminists should support the American and Iranian alliance against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Or they argue that we should support the American and Pakistani armed forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many other feminists, and many on the left, are confused and unsure. But they also talk as if it was a straight choice between IS and the US, or between the Taliban and the US. ‘Both sides are morally repugnant,’ these people say, ‘but if I have to choose…’

This way of thinking ignores the fact that you are not just choosing between two sides, you are choosing between two ways of waging war. How you kill people is important, and has emotional and political consequences. It matters that American bombing from the air is more cruel, more unequal, kills more women, and kills more children than fighting that on the ground with guns.

In Syria, the United States and their allies are bombing from the air. Many of these bombs are 2,000 pound (900 kilo) bunker busters. They kill every living thing over a large area. Even smaller bombs do not discriminate. Dropped on a village or neighbourhood, they kill men, women and children. The politically committed and the uncommitted burn in the same fire.

Moreover, bombs from the air are a special kind of war. Anyone can make a roadside bomb, and choose the targets. But it costs enormous amounts of money to make planes and their bombs. Airplane bombs are money transformed into mass death. They are, in their nature, the rich killing the poor.

No one ever drops a bomb on an incorrect political position. Bombs are dropped on mass movements. They are dropped to defeat organisations that have widespread support. They are dropped on ordinary people, like you and me.

And even if they were dropped only on fighters, those men have mothers and wives who scream in grief. They have daughters whose faces are blank with loss, and fathers who sit silent and devastated on the floor.

When you drop bombs, you make war on a village, a valley, a city, a region, a people – and always you make war on ordinary people.

Everyone who survives a bombing knows all this. Everyone who sees the town the day after knows this. The neighbours who dig through the rubble for bodies, cloth wrapped around their faces to ward off the stench of death, hoping to hear the cry of a trapped child – they know all this.

There are three more things about bombing from the air. It is cowardly, because the killers risk nothing. You cannot see the killers, and you cannot get at them. And they kill your children to stop you resisting.

Bombing from the air also kills more people than land warfare. And it kills a larger proportion of women, and a larger proportion of children. Men with guns can, and do, make choices not to kill women or children. Pilots cannot, and do not, make that choice. That makes bombing a strange way to rescue oppressed women.

Child burnt by American bomb, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2007

Child burnt by American bomb, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2007

In the Pentagon’s phrase, this is asymmetric warfare. It is not a matter of which side you support, but which kind of killing you support.

In November a journalist from The Guardian in London telephoned middle level commanders in the Free Syrian Army and in Islamist, but non-IS, groups in Syria. Mobile phones and Skype mean you can do that now. Eveyone she talked to painted the same picture. Some of the resistance were making open alliances with the IS, some were making covert alliances, and many others were thinking about it.

The reason in all cases was the same. The US and their allies had denied weapons to them for three years. Now the Americans were offering them weapons to kill Islamic State supporters, even as the Americans themselves bombed the IS. And that bombing made it morally impossible to ally with the Americans. Everyone in the Syrian resistance has seen what bombing does from the air, and many have stood under those air raids.


Drone warfare is similar to aerial bombing, and also different. The US is using drones on a large scale to attack Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Shahab in Somalia, and the Pakistani Taliban. (The best book on the drone wars is Jeremy Scahill, 2014, Dirty Wars, London, Serpents Tail.)

In May of 2012 the New York Times carried a report that had clearly been encouraged by the Obama White House.3 It began:

This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces…

“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”

Obama authorised the killings. A special unit tried to collate separate kill lists held by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department – each with thousands of names.  Many of these were killed by drones. Some, when possible, were killed by death squads.

The President continues to meet every Tuesday with advisors to approve assasinations, although more recent accounts suggest he is allowing the CIA and the military more latitude to make quick decisions.

These drones mean the CIA and US Air Force can target much more precisely than with airplane bombs. The ‘pilots’ thousands of miles away can and do watch for weeks, months or years. The cameras have good resolution. The pilots pick a target, and send a missile.

So they usually get the house they want to get. They also get all the other people living in that house – old men, brothers, women, children, and visitors.

However, many missiles kill the ‘wrong’ households. This is not an accident. The pilots are dependent on ‘intelligence’. That means local people on the ground turning in their neighbours. The Pakistani border, for instance, has long been riddles with disputes between powerful neighbouring landlords.4 Sometimes these disputes lead to feuds and shooting. It can be easier, and safer, to say something anonymously to the Americans and let them do the job.

So the large majority of the dead are not the ‘high value targets’ the drones are supposed to take out. And there are things about the drones that drive people mad. They come over for months or years. You can see them up there sometimes – they glint in the sunlight. You know that the Americans are considering killing you, day after day after day for what feels like forever. And you have to go about your life. You are helpless. Your enemy is a coward, and you have to be brave beyond belief to stay in your own home – and put your granddaughters in danger.

This explains – not justifies, explains – what happened in Peshawar in December. Several gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban entered a school for the sons of military personnel. They opened fire and killed 132 children and teenagers, and 9 adults. The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility, and said to the army explicitly – this is in revenge for killing our children.

This attack was not just wrong, it was also foolish. Pakistanis are moral people, like everybody else, and many who supported the Taliban were against killing schoolboys. It is telling that the Afghan Taliban officially condemned. without reservations, the attack on the school. Killing those children was the act of desperate men. It suggests they know they are losing, and increases the odds against them.

The Charlie Hebdo killers in Paris also did what they did, in part, as a reaction to bombings in the Middle East. Again, the drone killings and the bombings do not justify killing the journalists. The killing of three Jews for being Jews is even worse. And again, these killings will make it far easier for the French government to bomb Iraq and Syria, and put French Muslims in danger.

Killing those fourteen adults in France, or those 132 children in Pakistan, is wrong. But everything that makes those killings wrong makes Obama’s drone warfare and the bombings in Syria and Iraq even more wrong.

nato_bombing_victims, afghanistan
Afghan survivor of a NATO bomb

For feminists, and for the left, these considerations are particularly hard to bear. If you kill enough people for long enough, in terrible ways, bombing can win. But what it can never do is to win over the hearts of the survivors. When feminists and the left choose to support planes and drones that turn great wealth into great death for ordinary people, the survivors will hate feminists and the left for generations to come.

Related Posts

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (1)

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (2) ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ in Turkey

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (3) The New Grand Alliance in the Middle East

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (4) McCarthyism Old and New

Gendering Abu Ghraib

ISIS, Sexual Violence and Killing Gay Men

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