On The Perils Of “Signature Strikes”

For those uncomfortable with the concept of “signature strikes” in President Obama’s assassination-by-drone program, listen to your gut instincts, and this passage from a powerful Nation magazine piece by Nick Turse in December 2008 about the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division’s targeting of alleged Vietcong guerrillas in South Vietnam:

During Speedy Express, Maj. William Taylor Jr. saw Hunt in action, too, and in a September interview he echoed the Concerned Sergeant’s assessment. Now a retired colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Taylor recalled flying over rice paddies with Hunt: “He said something to the pilot, and all of a sudden the door gunner was firing a .50-caliber machine gun out the door, and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ He said, ‘See those black pajamas down there in the rice paddies? They’re Vietcong. We just killed two of them.'” Immediately afterward, Hunt spoke again to the pilot. “He was talking body count,” Taylor said. “Reporting body count.” Later he asked Hunt how he could identify VC from the helicopter, without seeing weapons or receiving ground fire. “He said, ‘Because they’re wearing black pajamas.’ I said, ‘Well, Sir, I thought workers in the fields wore black pajamas.’ He said, ‘No, not around here. Black pajamas are Vietcong.'”

So in Vietnam, if they were wearing black pajamas, the order of the day was “Waste ’em!”–and today, if a funeral crowd gathers in Yemen after “suspected” militants have been obliterated by drone-fired missiles, more missiles fly because, according to the NYT account of current policy, all military-age Yemeni males are considered “militants”.

Obama’s expansive view of his power as commander in chief mirrors that of his Vietnam-era Republican predecessor–Richard Milhous Nixon, who also authorized an assassination program as part of the counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam…the infamous Phoenix Program.

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