A flimsy pretext for a post: drones and The Drones

The Drones are a powerful band on many levels.  One of their powers in my case, is that they helped me get over my case of cultural cringe (the belief that Australian cultural products are inherently inferior to those produced overseas, particularly in Europe and the United States).

The Drones in the bush

The Drones aren’t great and cool despite being Australian, but because they’re Australian.  Their Australian-ness is itself a crucial part of their shtick and of their attraction.  Lead singer Gareth Liddiard’s accent is almost comically ocker (I said almost).  And although their sound, at least on the first couple of albums, harks back to many non-Australian forebears like the swamp-rock psychobilly of The Cramps and the noisy punk-metal sounds of bands like Black Flag, there is still something quintessentially Australian about the music, beyond Liddiard’s vocals.  It sounds like isolation, dirt and big, empty space.  A prime example of this Australian sound is ‘The Island’ from their first album Here Come the Lies.  “By day the flies came, by night the mosquitoes” has to be the best nine-word description of Australia ever thought up.


The United States first conducted experiments with auto-piloted planes, aka drones, during World War I.  But it is only since Obama assumed the Presidency in 2008 that they have been used regularly.  Under the Obama administration, drones have become a significant element of the US military machine.  Most famously used in Pakistan, they are also deployed in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.  The US is not the only user of drones: the UK and Israel have some too.  Drones’ most controversial function is their ability to launch missiles, although only five per cent of the US fleet actually has that capability.  Most drones are in fact used for surveillance.

The debate over the relative merits of unmanned and manned aircraft is so hot right now.  There are those who claim that drones are morally preferable to manned aircraft because they do not endanger a pilot’s life.  Proponents also argue that drones are more precise than their manned counterparts meaning that, despite perceptions, they result in less civilian casualties.  On the other side of the debate, there are those that say that the complete removal of risk to one side of the human conflict is unfair, that the rules of war are based on the precept of mutual mortal risk, and that drones are hence morally reprehensible.

One particular worrying aspect of drone warfare is that they may make it easier for governments to give the go ahead to acts of violence or even war.  The removal of direct peril to aggressor governments’ citizens may make those governments feel less answerable to those citizens (although they would still be spending huge amounts from the public purse).  In this way debates about whether to enter a conflict could be short-circuited.  Despite the current debates in foreign policy circles, unmanned warfare certainly gets less public attention than conflicts in which American troops are serving and dying on a daily basis.  That gap has been recognised but not yet addressed.  An effort to increase the public visibility of drone warfare, an app that maps drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was recently rejected by Apple.

Drones app?

The Drones deal with Australian history a lot, but given the entirely flimsy premise of this post is the fact that their name coincides with a controversial weapon of war favoured by the Obama administration, we’ll turn instead to their songs concerning war on terror politics.  Discussing his 2010 solo album Strange Tourist, Liddiard questioned why no musicians were writing about the politics of terrorism: “No one else seems to write about anything like that. Even though there’s all this bullshit, terrorism, things like David Hicks.  The shit’s everywhere, but why does nobody take it up apart from journalism?  It’s fucking bizarre… I just think that its fucken weird that no one else does it. So this is kind of like ‘hello! What are you fucking doing?’”

The opening track to The Drones’ third album Gala Mill is the eight-minute long ‘Jezebel’.  The song drones on and on, hurling horror and despair about a world that “prefer[s] a civil war” to a tyrant.  The long, repetitive verses are interspersed with a simple, strangely sweet chorus, composed of just one line “I….I would love to see you again”.  The lyrical highlight of the song comes though when the narrator shoots “a woman in a headscarf” who asks, “does my bomb look big in this?”

Drones were first used in Pakistan in 2004.  The South Asia Terrorism Portal database has recorded 251 such attacks, with at least 2,371 killed.  The New America Foundation counts 330 strikes and 3,171 deaths.  The drone attacks in Pakistan target members of the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  They have been highly successful.  Since June this year drones have killed Al Qaeda’s 2nd in command and the Haqqani network’s 3rd in command.

Drones are, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in Pakistan.  A survey conducted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2010 found 90 per cent of respondents were against US army activity in their region and over 75 per cent opposed US drone strikes.  As The Atlantic points out, drones are helping the US lose the “war of perception” in Pakistan.

An airstrike doesn’t need to be unmanned to be controversial though.  By far the most controversial attack in recent times was the November 2011 NATO air strike that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan-Pakistan border.  In response to the attack Pakistan closed its Afghanistan supply route to ISAF forces, stating it would not reopen it until receiving an apology.  And a guarantee that the use of drones on its territory would be stopped.  US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton finally gave the apology in June this year and the supply route was promptly opened.   US drone strikes on Pakistani soil have however continued unabated since.

The final song on Liddiard’s debut album is ‘The Radicalisation of D’.  D is for David. David Hicks, convicted Australian terrorist who spent six years in Guantanamo after being picked up by US forces in Afghanistan.  Actually Hicks’ story is just a springboard for the story of D.  The song is not really political at all, instead it’s a compelling portrait of a young, lost, impressionable, empty, lonely boy, and an attempt to explain why ordinary people are pulled into strange pursuits in the search for belonging and meaning.  It is eminently relateable and that, in the end, is its message.

Drones have been so successful in Pakistan that it is running out of high-level targets.  Yemen on the other hand is “target-rich”, with the White House declaring earlier this year that the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is the biggest terrorist threat to the US.  The Brookings Institute warns not only that the US has no clear strategy for its undeclared drone war in Yemen but that it risks entanglement in brooding civil unrest in that country.  Yemen’s insurgents are closely allied with Yemen’s terrorists – by attacking them the US implicitly supports the current Yemeni regime.  It may be that supporting the Yemeni regime is something the US is comfortable with, but that is a conversation that has not yet taken place.

Some suggest US drone activity also encourages sympathy towards Al Qaeda among Yemen’s population: although drones may have reduced AQAP’s leadership ranks, it has not had the same effect on the rank and file.  AQAP membership in Yemen is said to have more than doubled since drones started to be used in 2009.

As a postscript, there are Australian dimensions to this story: the ABC recently ran a sensational report on the use of a South Australian airbase by US drones, a fact only made public after being spotted by amateur aviation enthusiasts.  It has also been revealed that the Australian Defence Force deploys unarmed Israeli-owned drones in Afghanistan and that it may have intentions of buying its own.

Embattled Leaders via The Drones

 
Soundtrack for this post:

Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots !!!! ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!’ by The Drones.

Disclaimer: The Drones are my all time favourite band and I don’t know that I can write about them without gushing pathetically.  To try and focus myself, I’m going to concentrate on just one song for this post (their songs are long and dense, so one is enough for the purposes for post accompaniment anyway).  Given this admirable restraint, I reserve the right to post about them again.

My good, bad and ugly of world politics this weeks concerns leaders in trouble: two are recently unemployed and one is facing the fact of his political mortality for the first time (even if the inevitable death is still a while away).  ‘Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!‘ has the desperate melancholy of a powerful man losing his grip.  The worldiness and world-weariness of the lyric brings to mind Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner) and the anguish of memories’ extinction he represents.  Some illustrative lyrics below, and also see THE GOOD.

I have seen mountains stop short of the sky

I’ve seen continents reach the oceans and shy

I have had beauties and charred fire breathers

I have drunk whiskey and your methylated spirits

I have seen harder men shrivel and flake

A common theme in Drones’ songs is how hard it is to make rent.  In this song financial indiscretions are more dire and dramatic: “I have spent thousands, most of it loaned”.  In these economically depressed times this brings to mind structural rather than individual difficulties: ie. the sub-prime crisis and, by extension, Europe’s current economic travails.  See THE BAD below.

I particularly like the line “We were shat from a wormhole, to revere your face” and the refrain, “you were not easy to break”.  Without wanting to over-analyse, to me, the subject in this song is unstable.  Sometimes the subject and object seem to coincide, sometimes they don’t.  The idea fits well with the final line of the chorus “admit you were only two inches away from zero control, again”.  See THE UGLY below.

The title of the song is, as anything that seems so directly aimed at its audience, provocative.  Who is he calling idiot???  And what chorus is he even talking about?  Is he being ironic and referencing that anemic wailing?  (Incidentally, the counterpoint that wailing makes with the hard-man bravado of the verses is another instance of the instability of the song’s subject).  Or is this straight-forward self-deprecation; a reference to the easy emotiveness of exaggerated dynamics The Drones use a lot, particularly on this album?

Taking a political slant, the song’s title could be read as a reference to the group-think that props up music idols and fascists alike.  At a Soundgarden concert I attended in Melbourne in 1997 Chris Cornell yelled something like “you’re all fucking idiots”, provoking cheers of adulation.  While I was bemused, Cornell was amused: he clearly knew he would get such a reaction.  He’s now mellowed, but The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard has been known to utter similarly misanthropic asides on stage.  I could imagine our mindless devotion could be scary when seen from the other side.  Or mildly embarrassing, anyway.

For the first time ever Vladimir Putin is looking slightly less than inviolable.  He is a long way from staring down any kind of barrel, but for a man who officially received 72 per cent of the vote last time he ran for president in 2004, developments since mass street protests were first seen after last December’s parliamentary elections are surely cause for reflection.

There’s always been opposition in Putin’s Russia (bets are any Russian journalist who died in mysterious circumstances over the last decade was a voice for such forces).  This sort of mass mobilisation is however new.  The most recent protest was reportedly attended by around 100,000 frozen Muscovites.

Despite these refreshing digs at Putin’s entitlement to rule Russia indefinitely, his victory in the March 4 presidential election is all but assured due to a lack of a credible opposition figure.  At best, he may be forced to contest a run-off election (required should he receive less than 50 per cent of the vote).  A very optimistic view is that all bets would be off should a run off indeed be necessary.  In that scenario, given a plausible shot at the top job, presumed second placed candidate, billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov – regardless of whether or not he is a Kremlin puppet (no one is entirely sure) – would take off the gloves,  throw caution to the wind and have a real tilt.

Emil Boc resigned as Prime Minister of Romania this week.  He is being depicted as the latest casulty of Europe’s economic woes.  Romania is a member of the European Union, but not the Eurozone (it does not use the euro currency).

Boc increased taxes and cut government wages in line with requirements accompanying an IMF bailout package agreed in 2009 after the country fell into a deep recession.  These moves appear to have set Romania on a positive fiscal track but, as is pretty much always the case with austerity measures, they are deeply unpopular.  Along with now-shelved health sector reforms, they led to mass demonstrations in Bucharest and other cities calling for Boc’s resignation.

Analysts say Romanians are in a deep malaise about all politicians, not just Boc or the current government.  President Traian Basescu is at least as unpopular as Boc.  The role of President in Romania is substantive, sharing executive functions with the government.  The country’s chief spy Mihai Razvan Ungureanu took over the Prime Ministership yesterday.  Elections are due later this year.

Mohamed Nasheed stepped down from his post as President of the Maldives on Tuesday.  In a televised resignation address, Nasheed stated he was removing himself in response to sustained protests.  He said to remain in power he would have to use force; something he did not wish to do.  Nasheed has since said he did not go willingly but was actually forced at gunpoint to relinquish his democratically elected position.  He claims a military-backed coup is what actually occurred.  An army spokesman denies a coup took place.

The current crisis has its origins in Nasheed’s call for the country’s chief justice to be arrested for favouring previous ruler and opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.  Gayoom is strongly allied with Islamist groups who oppose Nasheed’s liberalism.  No matter the reason though, the military detention of a judicial figure is never a good look and the justice was released pretty quickly.

Nasheed came to power in 2008 following the Maldive’s first democratic elections.  His ascension marked the end of Gayoom’s thirty-year reign.  Nasheed, then a pro-democracy activist, was repeatedly imprisoned during Gayoom’s rule.

Fellow former activist and Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan has stepped into the Presidential role and maintains Nasheed’s resignation was voluntary.  An arrest warrant for Nasheed was issued yesterday.  It is not clear what charge he faces – it has been speculated it may be alcohol consumption – and he is yet to be arrested.  One of the key groups involved in the protests that led to Nasheed’s ouster was the police.

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