Dissent on Drone Attacks

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Ben Cohen
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On Friday, I wrote a post about the moral argument for using drones. I argued that while technically they may be safer with less civilian casualties and fewer deaths over all, they actually signify a much more alarming trend - the outsourcing of war to robots that further removes the meaning of violence from the countries using them. Matt Osborne of 'Osborne Ink' and commenter Frederic Poag left the following responses that are well worth reading:

Writes Matt:

Rot. If you want immoral death tolls, try sending 5th Group Rangers on a raid. You'll have potentially 100s or 1000s of extra casualties afterwards, but you'll "feel better" because it was more sporting or something, right? That's essentially a description of the Battle of Mogadishu. Indirect fire is responsible for the vast majority of casualties in the wars of the 20th Century, and drones are just the latest tech to deliver that indirect fire. I saw drones called "cruel" the other day; I laughed, because if you want real cruelty then send the Marines to Fallujah. Drones are practically kind by comparison.

To buy this ridiculous argument that drones are "immoral" because they make war too clean or remote or whatever, you have to swallow the neocon's thesis that wars are won through manly virtue -- like the Governor of Georgia

ordering 10,000 pikes at the outbreak of the Civil War because he thought they would maximize each citizen's power to whup ten Yankees at once. Unfairness is THE POINT in war. It isn't like an Olympic event, where false starts can disqualify you. Getting a false start in war is the smart, fair tactic.Vietnam didn't end because of high casualty counts. If that was true, then WWI would have ended in 1914. In fact, a public opinion majority still favored the war in SE Asia until 1975. What ended America's role in the conflict was Nixon's appreciation for the limits of military power, and not just its utility -- IOW, his realist approach to command. The Bushies were never realists.

On the idiots-with-pikes axis, there are two extremes: neocons who never admit the limits of firepower, and peaceniks who never admit the power of fire. Neither group has real experience in, much less an understanding of, armed combat. Put another way: could you personally ask a squad of soldiers to risk their lives in a lawless tribal zone because you don't like the idea of using a drone?

And here's Frederic's take:

Ben I disagree. I understand the moral and legal problems with a kill list, and the violation of sovereignty problems. I'm with you on on people in society being removed from the threat of war making them much more complacent with our overseas operations. In fact I'll go a step further and say without a draft we lose one of the main obligations a democratic society must have if it is to reach full equality.All that aside I think the comparison that war isn't brutal enough makes us desensitized is weak. A massive death toll never deterred nations from aggression. If that were the case we would've just had the Great War and it would've been done. In fact that fear of aggression was the motivation for Neville Chamberlain, who was a fairly good Prime Minister, to commit one of the worst acts of appeasement in modern history, and has led to all sorts of counter-factual speculation.Strawser's point is on the money. Drones have led to more accountability, and less collateral damage over all. However we can argue whether or not killing terrorists is an effective deterrent or not. You can even use Vietnam as an parallel with Westmoreland's "Search and Destroy" strategy. In fact Attrition strategy has rarely, if ever, been effective in modern warfare. Now fighting Al Qaeda might be a bit different, but it depends on what the goal is and I think that's where the argument should be. Drones are a tactic, a weapon, and a precise one all things considered. But are they necessary? Are they keeping us safer? Are they effective in fighting the war on terror? What does that even mean anymore? Do terrorists deserve the same consideration as soldiers under Just War Theory? If not, why not? If so then why? These are the questions we should be asking.

I think both Matt and Frederic make strong arguments here. However, I disagree with Matt that Vietnam stopped simply because Nixon realized the limits of hard power. That was no doubt a factor, but Matt must take into consideration the gigantic public opposition that made continued attacks on the country politically suicidal. Slavery and colonialism didn't stop just because the powers that be decided to - there were several factors, some of them being the actual movements to stop them from those enslaved, and also public's increasing distaste for brutality. I'm not suggesting that by re-instating the draft, war would automatically stop - I'm just saying it would be a lot harder in the modern age to wage war without a damn good reason. If war is completely outsourced to lethal robots, what exactly does our society become? If there are no human sacrifices on our part, it just becomes a video game played by sociopathic war planners. We'll see more and more of it with less accountability and no cost to the aggressor. Americans are already desensitized to violence, and coupled with an instinctively xenophobic view of the rest of the world, it is a recipe for disaster. Sending robots to countries you've never heard of takes about as much thought as turning your television on. War does not need to be made more convenient for Americans. Also Matt's suggestion that there are no rules in war is also flat out wrong - it is just like a sporting event in most cases with agreed dates and rules to abide by (that isn't to say they are always followed). I do understand where Matt is coming from - I have friends in the military, and I'd much rather a drone was doing their job as I'd have a guarantee of seeing them again. But that's not how policy is, or should be decided. To argue that I'm explicitly asking soldiers to go out and die when there are safer alternatives is not fair.

I think Frederic's proposal that we need to be asking different questions is the more rationed response. I can buy the argument that drones are a tactic, but the trend behind them are a lot more worrying.