Who is responsible if a drone kills my child?

Swedish author and intellectual Sven Lindqvist talks about the strong and the weak, aerial warfare and empire

Sven Lindqvist sitting in his home office in Stockholm
Hanna Sistek for Al Jazeera America

Stockholm, SWEDEN —  “Can you see those wings?” Eighty-one-year-old Sven Lindqvist is pointing at the sky. Above his head, a seagull is dancing with the wind. Off in the distance, the islands of Stockholm fill the horizon. 

“In all times people used to dream that they could fly like that. Then came the airplane, in 1908. Three years later, the first bomb was dropped from the sky.” We are on Södermalm, Stockholm’s southern island, walking down a narrow road perched on a cliff over the sea. It is one of the prime spots in Sweden’s capital and close to Lindqvist’s home. Widely recognized for his writing on colonialism and its aftermath, Lindqvist has published 35 books, 10 of which have been translated into English. 

Lindqvist was born in 1932 and grew up during World War II. In those years, the threat of destruction by bombing was a daily reality. How does one equip a bomb shelter? With sandbags for the windows, an ax and a jimmy in case the house collapses, food supplies, wet blankets in case of fires and a security door. If possible, it should be gas proof. These problems occupied his childhood, fueled his fears and later came to inform his work as a thinker and writer.

Lindqvist’s writing journey began when he was just a boy, in the spare waiting room of the Södermalm train station on his way home from school. “The train station house here at Söder used to hang like a swallow’s nest above the street level, and it was so insanely boring,” Lindqvist remembers. But one day, he says, “I started seeing the people who sat there. They were lonely men, and housewives who had been shopping. I started smelling the smells: wet wool, urine, sweat. I started listening to the sounds. There were sounds of scraping and of shoes and ski boots and of trains. I started translating it all to words.” It was then that he realized the world would never be dull again. 

When the war was over, Lindqvist made his first independent trips through Germany. He saw cities bombed into ruins and recalls locals running along the train tracks following Allied convoys and screaming, “Brot! Brot!” (Bread! Bread!). The destruction and misery he witnessed during his travels strengthened his decision as a teenager to swap military service for factory work when he returned to Sweden. He took a job in a paper mill, feeding the furnace. While working there, in 1955, he published his first book, Ett förslag (A Proposal). 

Lindqvist was fascinated with German author Hermann Hesse and his 1943 anti-fascist novel, The Glass Bead Game, which questions the role of intellectuals in society, especially in times of crisis, and warns against xenophobia. Inspired by the lead character, Joseph Knecht, Lindqvist went to China to learn the language. He arrived in the early 1960s, in the midst of the Great Famine. He worked as an attaché at the Swedish Embassy in Beijing and remembers seeing students at the elite Beijing University so hungry they drank dishwater. 

The hardships he witnessed triggered Lindqvist’s interest in the social sciences. They also led to his international debut as a writer, with a feature series on Mao’s China published by several leading Western newspapers. His wife at the time, the photographer Cecilia Lindqvist, took the pictures. Living and traveling in Asia deepened Lindqvist’s identification with the poor and the marginalized, a concern that has endured. 

After two years in China, the Lindqvists moved to India. Once there, they shipped a Volvo to Calcutta and drove across Asia, all the way back to Sweden. En route, they encountered extreme poverty and Lindqvist came to see heartlessness as a common coping mechanism for the sort of suffering and subjugation he had witnessed. The experience in China led to his ninth book, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu, which was published in 1967. Part poetry, part travelog, interspersed with social observation and political criticism, it is the kind of book many set out of write, but in the end they do not succeed. By contrast, many consider The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu a masterpiece. It describes how the Chinese use their children to plow their fields and tells of the CIA’s efforts to recruit him as an agent. It offers memorable depictions of body shapes in the bathhouse in Hai Dian and descriptions of how retribution was meted out to striking union members in a Chinese factory. The book is written in the spare, direct style of a writer who loves language, is a master of his material and trusts his readers. The book ultimately became a classic in Sweden and has never been out of print.  


Lindqvist argues that racism is an incubator of genocidal violence and has been a core component of Western civilization

Still, it took 15 years to publish The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu in English, so unconventional was Lindqvist's writing style. His volumes are typically a patchwork of short chapters or “thought poems,” often derived from correspondence with friends and lovers. They are blended with facts and framed with literary references. Lindqvist wants to understand the world and educate the reader. His patchwork style stems from the way letters are typically structured. “In letters you can jump from one topic to another without it seeming strange,” he points out, “so why not do the same in a literary text?”

After Asia, the Lindqvists visited Latin America. In the same Volvo, they crisscrossed Latin America for nearly a year, this time with their two-year-old in the backseat. They saw Che Guevara in a coffin and spent time in the countryside. The trip resulted in three books: The Shadow: Latin America Faces the Seventies and two volumes collected under the title Land and Power in South America, published in the early ’70s. From his years in China, Lindqvist understood the importance of agricultural reform in developing nations. Without it, people starve. His feature series on the problem of land reform in South America was awarded the Swedish journalism prize Stora Journalistpriset.

Returning to Sweden in the ’70s, Lindqvist turned his eye to the challenges in his own society, especially working conditions. In 1978 he published Dig Where You Stand: How to Research a Job. That title that soon became a proverb, encouraging industrial workers to study their own workplace and its history. A practical handbook focusing on the cement industry, it examines about 30 sources and approaches. Still, it was initially met with skepticism. The common assumption was that industrial workers weren’t interested in their own history. But the book sparked a movement. Thousands of study groups were set up, both in Sweden and abroad, and kept Lindqvist busy for years. 

In the ’90s, after a trip through the Sahara, Lindqvist became fascinated with the inner workings of colonialism. In Exterminate All the Brutes (1992), he uses his travels as a springboard to illustrate how the “extermination notion” was central to European colonialism. From the late 18th century onward, European explorers, writers, missionaries and politicians commonly fantasized that “cleansing” Africa of Africans was doing the work of God and civilization. Many in the European political and intellectual classes believed that “inferior” human races were destined for perdition and that speeding up the process was actually a sign of the “higher” species’ mercifulness. In the book, Lindqvist argues that racism is an incubator of genocidal violence and has been a core component of Western civilization. 

The book came out at a time when political racism had reappeared in Europe. In Sweden’s 1991 election, the populist-nationalist party Ny Demokrati was voted into Parliament and John Wolfgang Alexander Ausonius, a sniper dubbed the “Laser Man,” went on a shooting spree, targeting mostly immigrants. Europe was struggling with reunification after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Exterminate All the Brutes was translated into 14 languages, including English, and became one of the most widely discussed books of the 1990s. Lindqvist’s place on the global stage was established. 

Having examined Western imperialism, it came natural to study its methods for the next book. In A History of Bombing (1999) Lindqvist follows the evolution of the air force and its deadly cargo. The book was written prior to the use of drones, but Lindqvist sees a strong correlation between the development of manned and unmanned aircrafts. “First, they looked really similar, like big insects, when they initially started to be used,” he says. 

Lindqvist's desk
Hanna Sistek for Al Jazeera America

Lindqvist is sitting in the kitchen of his spacious apartment overlooking Stockholm, with a view of pastel-colored stone buildings and black rooftops. Paintings from all over the world cover the walls. Lindqvist’s second wife, gender economist Agneta Stark, makes herself a cup of tea.

“In the beginning, airplanes were used for spying,” he explains, “just like drones.”  Pilots would watch enemies from above and report on the effectiveness of the troops’ attacks on the ground. This was before radio communications, so the captain would write a note, put it in a cylinder and drop it down to an intended recipient on the ground. 

“Soon they started feeling that a piece of paper wasn’t enough when you could drop a bomb,” Lindqvist continues. The first bomb dropped from a plane exploded in an oasis outside Tripoli, in today’s Libya, in 1911.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, kicked off during the war in Vietnam. The idea was to save lives of American pilots. Lindqvist thinks that the UAVs were initially used for spying. Their first combat mission took place in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin in 1964.

After 9/11, the CIA started its own UAV program. Today, Lindqvist believes, drones are primarily used for targeting terrorists. These operations, mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, are controlled remotely by pilots on the ground in the U.S.

“Sitting in Arizona and pulling the trigger in Afghanistan is like playing a video game,” Lindqvist writes in an op-ed piece about drones in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “The robot has become the perfect soldier. Never hungry, never tired and without conscience.” 

Lindqvist is following the evolution of the drone closely. The Predator drone is now being replaced by the Reaper. “They will be able to carry more and more dangerous cargo — just like the manned aircrafts did, until they could carry nuclear weapons that could extinguish all of mankind,” he says. “I don’t see why the drones wouldn’t develop in the same way.” So far, drones have only been used militarily by the U.S. and Israel, according to Lindqvist

“The border between war and peace grows so blurry when it comes to unmanned aircraft. To kill a human being is the greatest possible taboo in civilized states, with a single exception: war. In war, it is considered honorable and justified to kill another human being. But if you, like in Pakistan, start to kill even though no war exists between the countries—they are in fact allies and best friends—what, then, is the consequence? When is it allowed to kill and when is it not if there is no clear line between war and peace?” Lindqvist expects an increase in UAVs, since “the cheap ones only cost a 10th of a manned jet.”

So far, the question of responsibility regarding innocent civilians killed in drone attacks has not been addressed in court. Lindqvist thinks it’s strange that the U.N. hasn’t taken action: “Imagine if Russia or China would take the liberty to send an unmanned aircraft to the U.S. and shoot down a few criminals or political opponents. I doubt that it would be popular with the Americans. They would probably consider it a breach of international law.”

In the past, when two countries declared war, troops were deployed across borders and when the war was won, the occupying forces had to govern, and even rebuild, the other nation. In recent years, this has proved to be complicated, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It’s much more exciting to lead a war without these kinds of consequences, without the burden of responsibility falling on a single person or institution,” Lindqvist says. He asks: “Who is responsible if a drone kills my child? The operator in Nevada, the contractor, the buyer or the military or political leadership?” 

As technology evolves, people are increasingly replaced with robots and capital. Newer UAVs, like the Global Hawk, operate almost autonomously. The soldier on the ground merely hits the buttons for takeoff and for land, while the UAV gets directions via GPS and reports back with a live feed. It doesn’t even need a pilot. Lindqvist believes that technological development drives our history. What becomes technically feasible, he notes, tends to happen. “Imagine a drone war fought entirely without soldiers, just with drones terrorizing the civilian population. Where will that take us?”

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