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Monday, November 12, 2012


In this post, I am going to ask a question that has been puzzling me for some time.  It is a question that is guaranteed to evoke violent and angry comments, and quite possibly no serious or thoughtful replies at all.  Nevertheless, I shall ask it, and hope that at least some of you will be willing to discuss it calmly.  Let me say two things at the outset:  First, this is not a rhetorical question, to which I already think I know the answer.  It is a genuine invitation for reasoned discussion.  Second, I will simply delete any comments that are not sober and serious.  So hold your invective and scorn please.  I am not interested in reading it.

The question is this:  What is wrong with America's use of armed drones?

Let me begin by setting aside a question that can easily be confused with this one.  I am not asking whether it is right or good that America pursue an imperial foreign and military policy.  I have already expressed several times my belief that it is not.  Presumably, anyone who thinks America ought not to use military force to impose its will on other nations also will be opposed to America's use of missiles, aircraft carriers, land mines, manned fighters, special forces units, and every other instrument of military power.  But that is not an argument against drones per se.  The drone, on that view, is simply one weapon in an armamentarium of weapons, not in itself distinguishable from any other.  It is useful to contrast the use of drones with the use of torture.  There are good and sufficient reasons to oppose the use of torture even if one approves of the military and foreign policy in whose service it is employed.  I am asking whether the same is true of the use of drones, and if so, why.

What prompts me to ask this question?  Quite simply, I ask it because a number of people on the left who in general supported the re-election of Obama consider his increased use of drones an especially black mark against him and his administration, and that fact has puzzled me.

What are the benefits of the use of armed unmanned drone aircraft, in the eyes of the military or civilian war planners?  There seem to be three that weigh in the calculations of those planners who choose to use them.  First, drones are much, much cheaper to build than manned aircraft, for a variety of obvious reasons.  Second, they can be used without risk to American pilots.  And third, they cause less "collateral damage" than bombing raids and missile attacks, and hence are less likely to increase opposition in the countries attacked to the United States.  The first two of these are manifestly true, the third is at the very least debatable.  There are other secondary considerations that incline military planners to use drones.  They are smaller and lighter than manned aircraft, and therefore can fly slower, maneuver more tightly, and remain aloft longer.  As a consequence of high tech instrumentation, they can monitor an area as effectively as manned aircraft, if not more effectively, and they can be controlled from a trailer parked in Arizona as easily as from a command post close to the target.

What are the special costs or defects of the use of drones as opposed to any other weapons?  Perhaps the most obvious is that they are a cheap and easy way to violate the territorial sovereignty of other nations.  Not the only way, heaven knows.  The special forces raid that killed Bin Laden did not use drones.  It used helicopters and a small team of armed Navy Seals.  From a purely practical policy point of view, the manned attack was preferable to the use of a drone, even though it was both riskier and a much more serious violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty, because it yielded a wealth of intelligence data and the absolute certainty that Bin Laden had been killed.  But one very powerful argument against the use of drones is that by making violations of national sovereignty so much easier, they make such violations more likely.

Now, let me speculate [and inevitably incur the wrath of a good many readers].  I suspect that there are psychological and cultural reasons why there is so much opposition on the left to the use of armed drones.  Mind you, I have absolutely no evidence that any such reasons are in play, so I offer these observations simply as a speculation.  I suspect that many people are uneasy with the use of drones because their use seems unfair, cowardly, bullying.  To hunt down and kill an enemy [assuming for the moment that you grant that America has enemies] without taking any risk to oneself seems unmanly.  [Yes, I am using this loaded word because I suspect it is at play in unacknowledged ways.]  The Seals, after all, risked their lives going after Bin Laden, but a Spec-4 sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Arizona is not risking anything save boredom.  At least those whom we attack have rifles or shoulder-fired missiles with which they can attack the drones, but they do not themselves have drones that they can launch against American cities, so using drones is not -- fair.

Put openly in this way, the objection to drones seems fatuous.  War is not a boxing contest or a pro football game.  Nor is it a knightly quest out of the Chanson de Roland.  Surely no one fighting a war has any obligation to take unnecessary risks just to satisfy some antique British fetish with fair play!

It is important not to confuse the question of the special objectionableness of drones with the larger question of the legitimacy of the military effort tout court.  Obviously, if you think America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda, then you will also think that America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda with drones.  But I am deliberately attempting to set aside that larger question in order to focus entirely on the question whether Obama's increased use of drones is somehow especially reprehensible.

Well, there it is.  I would be genuinely interested in what people have to say about this precise question:  Why is Obama's increased use of unmanned armed drones a special black mark against him and his administration?


hj said...

I can immeditately think of two objections to drones that you did not mention:

a) Detaching soldiers from the purported war situation they are in (e.g. by having them fly drones from far away from Oregon), also detaches them from the moral reality of the situation they are in. It undermines their natural empathy. It's easier to kill someone you only see through remote cameras in some obscure part of the world by pressing a button, than being on the spot and doing it there.

b) Drones are unmanned. Unmanned means no human casualties, and so their general use makes the military force option less politically poisonous in a democratic society.

hj said...

I realized that I left some arguments implicit. Perhaps it's best I spell them out:

Given a), I think we may expect drone killings to be even less discriminating than the usual kills of the US military.

Given b), if the US can wage war without any danger (or greatly reduced danger) to its citizens, it is more likely to do so.

But this is just speculation, of course. Both of these are big ifs .... but surely there's something to it?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Both of those are good points. The first applies also to manned bombers, as many people have noted. Bomber pilots in WW II were much more removed from the reality of what they were doing than foot soldiers. It is also, of course, true of those who use rifles as opposed to those who use knives and swords. The question remains: if you are in favor of the military policy being pursued, do you want those carrying it out to be more rather than less aware of what they are actually doing? Why?

The second point seems to me especially pertinent if you are opposed to the policy being carried out, but less so if you are in favor of the policy.

It is interesting to compare this matter with the issue of the draft. If you are, as I am, opposed to America's imperial foreign policy, then you will want the draft reinstituted, because the existence of a universal military draft makes it politically more perilous for an administration to launch a war.

It is interesting to ask this question: If the United States used its military power to support progressive regimes overseas, to overthrow repressive regimes, to curb the harmful effects of capitalist expansion and advance the cause of socialism -- impossible to imagine, to be sure, but just suppose -- should I be opposed to the use of drones in pursuit of that policy? I do not see why.

P. J. Grath said...

I cannot see the objection of cowardice as fatuous, precisely for the hj’s point a), the psychological effect of personnel (somehow I cannot bring myself to refer to them as “soldiers”) operating the guidance systems. You call the cowardice objection “fatuous” because war is not a game. But operating unmanned killing machines from a distance and watching them on a screen exactly turns the operation into a game—and, as you say, a game in which there is little if any risk for the drone operator. The greater risk, I would think, is to our country as a whole, its people’s safety, and its reputation in the world. My thought of our reputation, I should add, is not merely that people in other countries will see us as cowards but that they will see us as entirely heedless of the lives of people who are not Americans, willing to treat territories not our own as nothing more than game boards. To my mind, this objection is anything but fatuous.

P. J. Grath said...

I would like to add that directing our military in cowardly, inhumane, other-disregarding behavior and becoming, as a public, more and more accepting and even supportive of such behavior will shape our national character. Do you think shaping in that direction could possibly improve us as human beings? As Americans? (And are you playing devil's advocate?)

Kewball said...

War? Huh? Good god y'all: Why are we talking about war when the majority of drone killings occur in Pakistan? Last I heard, Pakistan was neither an ally or an enemy. Was it War when Obama decided to kill American citizens in Yemen by drones?

Much like the Saturday Night Special for gangsters, or Tasers for the police, unmanned drones are seemingly irresistible for the deciders in the White House.

Chris said...

One of the primary reasons you get rabid responses from people like myself, regarding Obama, is something you've overlooked in his drone policy.

Obama has now made it law that any males in a strike zone are labled enemy combatants until proven otherwise. What this has led to is drones LEGALLY bombing grocers, and parts of villages all over Afghanistan and Pakistan, in attempts to get one serious target, and taking out 10. So long as those 10 are males, the Obama administration says "those are enemy combatants." Of course they aren't. But now the legal proof is on the victims family side to prove otherwise, and obviously that case will never be taken seriously by anyone in Washington with actual power.

So it turns out that Obama's use of drones has led to a rapid increase in "ambiguous" killings, all the more likely innocent people, rendered enemy combatants, just for the sake of covering their own ass.

Utopian Yuri said...

two objections.

1. an acquaintance of mine, who specifically cited drone warfare as his reason for voting against obama, made it clear to me that he was most offended by the "double strike" phenomenon, where drones return and bomb the same location a second time, mopping up the people who are involved in rescuing survivors and cleaning up the damage from the first bombing.

assuming he is correct that this is a phenomenon associated with drone warfare in particular, i can understand the revulsion for drones. there is something particularly insidious about bombing people who are in the midst of saving other people's lives.

this may not be an intrinsic characteristic of drones, and is certainly not exclusive to drones (i believe some palestinian groups, for example, used this tactic during the second intifadah using ordinary bombing techniques), but if the two things correlate, as my friend thinks they do, there may be a valid but unknown factor which makes double strikes easier when using drones. in that case, there would be an objection to the use of drones per se based on its facilitation of this particularly insidious sort of terrorism.

2. this is a tough one to make, but a new technology that makes it easier to conduct targeted killings of political opponents while minimizing collateral damage could be a bad thing in the hands of an imperialist power. as a student of eqbal ahmad's writings, i believe that revolutionary and anti-colonial movements have crucially relied on the indistinguishability and inseparability of their leadership from the population in which they are found. it is therefore a source of power to be able to force an imperialist power to choose between either not attacking the leadership of the enemy, or attacking but risking the political consequences of harming civilians.

again, this is not an intrinsic characteristic of drones, but it is an account of why an exacting weapon in the hands of an imperialist may be more objection than more conventional weapons.

to be clear, this is not at all about the revolutionary merits of the people being murdered by the U.S. in pakistan and elsewhere.

Jerry Fresia said...

I can't get past the impersonality of it all. My short answer is that it truly magnifies the "banality of evil," if I understand Hannah Arendt.

Do you remember the 80s joke where the notion was floated that if the "football" or nuclear trigger were to be implanted in the chest of someone who followed the president, and the president would have a knife at the ready - to carve out the trigger from the chest of the carrier, there would never be a nuclear war? The personal, bloody killing of a single individual would be so gruesome that no president would do it.

From 1971-74, in my effort to avoid going to Vietnam, I ended up as an intelligence officer for the USAF in Korea. My clearance was Top Secret SIOP ESI; ESI stood for "extremely sensitive information" and SIOP stood for "single integrated operations plan" which was the nuclear option in that part of the world. So my job was to brief pilots (as to what they would encounter) who were to fly nuclear armed F-4Ds to the targets, that would be evaporated, in North Korea and parts of the then USSR. The thing that struck me most was that these targets, these cities, were selected by higher-ups who met in Hawaii (CINC PAC) yearly. So at some swankey air conditioned place, generals sat around selecting cities as nuclear targets. Can you imagine if they actually had to have a dinner in the home of any of the people they were going to evaporate before they selected cities? What they would do?

The same is true of drones. Might as well have 12 year olds who are great at computer games. I understand that they are coming up with all sorts of combat medals for these drone pilots.

I'm really stuck, even in the case of the most perfect socialist regime fighting against whomever. Maybe I have become a pacifist, although I don't think so. But if Obama, for example, wants to do in Chavez, I would prefer that they have a sword fight, but not before they yelled at each other for an hour.

Bottom line: if whatever tactic one employs - and innocents are killed - please step forward and volunteer your loved one or yourself.

Jerry Fresia said...

PS I think the question comes down to, are you in favor of utilitarian ethics or not?

Steven Wagner said...

Very roughly: (A) "The left": People of the left may vote for Obama, or work for his election on tactical grounds, but on the factual record he is a neoliberal. Moreover some of his main initiatives will appall any decent human being, let alone any one with an iota of democracy or socialism. E.g., pressing toward greater global warming, and preparing for aggressive war, by land, sea, and space, against China. Being left means opposing all this; so if someone claims to have a problem with the drones, but is overall supportive, then they are not of the left, and their "reasons" may well be as Professor Wolff describes. (B) Ethical badness: Yes, anyone who squawks about drones while letting go the wars, the neoliberal devastations of whole countries, the building climate catastrophe, and more, is blind and very likely self-deceived. But you can still argue that drones are a further badness, of a distinguished kind. Thus ... (C) On the aggressors' side: As bad as war is, let alone imperial war (the only kind the U.S. has ever fought), it is still a political, public act. For that reason we've not declared any (of our scores of wars) since 1945, moving the whole thing ever closer to a matter of imperial decree. Yet even so it's within the political process. As ethically corrupt as that process is, it's something. It has set some limits, acted as a brake. In the new paradigm, we ("we") will be able to kill anyone, any ones, anywhere on earth within an hour of some executive decision. World-wide surveillance, biometric tracking, and drone coverage will combine. This is domination of a kind not possible even with nuclear weapons; under complete suspension of the rule of law. And it makes the president a death squad capo, d'Aubuisson gone global. (And already our own citizens are not exempt.) Murder by diktat is not worse than war, but there is a qualitative difference in an executive who can—like Stalin, Hitler, and countless predecessors—rule by killing as he pleases, with his hencemen and -women doing the same. (D) On the victims's side: Indiscriminate killing isn't new. And an aggressor can terrorize a whole population, as in our Phoenix program. But the drone technology means that in target areas literally everyone is in fear literally 24 hours a day. (As recently documented.) There is no such thing as warning, no such thing as relative safety. This is a terror mechanism even wartime residents of Hamburg or Leningrad didn't endure. Again, it's not worse than what we did by more "normal" means in Baghdad and Fallujah, what's inflicted on Gaza and Athens, but it is a novel horror justifying a revulsion all its own. —This is still too short but perhaps serves as a start.

Aaron Greenberg said...

Some comments have touched on this concern but I want to make it sharper. Path dependency theory and, well, common sense should tell us that drones are going to be around for a while. We may trust Obama to exercise moral judgment and tactical restraint in their operation but think *back* six or seven years and think *ahead* a few election cycles: it's hard to believe, Professor Wolff, that you wouldn't share some of the left's opposition when a thuggish, hawkish, Bush-like Republican takes the controls.

Ásgeir said...

No one has mentioned the possibility of an arms race yet. If America keeps using drones, it will not be long until others will also have them. I don't think this is a good thing.

Greg Hill said...

I'm surprised a Kantian anarchist, assuming you still hold this view, would regard the violation of national sovereignty as an argument against drones. Can you explain?

coswisor said...

I would equally object if there were people flying the planes. The objection is to widespread bombing that is imprecise, unauthorized by the recipient country, killing civilians, and creating new extremists. And they count the death toll in Orwellian fashion. I just use "Obama's drones" as shorthand for "Obama's bombing".

Otto Normalverbraucher said...

There was a NY Times opinion piece on this very question in July:
"The Moral Hazard of Drones" by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps

DANIEL said...

There is much to mine in this document on this subject.


LFC said...

"Surely no one fighting a war has any obligation to take unnecessary risks just to satisfy some antique British fetish with fair play!"

No, but someone fighting a war has an obligation to comply w customary and other international law governing the jus in bello, or the legally permissible means of employing armed force (a branch of the law of armed conflict or what international lawyers call, very confusingly, international humanitarian law). So drones have to satisfy the usual standards of necessity and proportionality, and there might be some real question about whether they meet the latter.

There is something, moreover, morally offensive about drones killing children and teenagers, which has undoubtedly happened, and such euphemistically termed 'collateral damage' does seem more offensive with drones than when it happens with other methods. I'm not sure whether this is an aesthetic or a 'fair play' objection but it does seem to carry some weight, at least it does with me.

You pooh-pooh notions of fair play as Victorian antiquities, ignoring that the US military academies *today* strive to instill, unless i'm quite mistaken, notions of fair play, honor and so forth into their graduates. It is hypocritical and offensive for the US military to inculcate doctrines of 'the warrior's honor' and then proceed to send hovering flying robots to kill, at best, mostly second and third-level militant operatives.

Finally, and very practically, the use of drones in the Pakistan border areas has aroused an enormous amount of resentment against the US among civilians in the area and in Pakistan generally, meaning that in the long run the use of drones may be counterproductive. The US shd be applying *real* pressure on its supposed ally-cum- client Pakistan to deal more directly w these issues itself. That wd make drone use less 'necessary'.

LFC said...

Oh yes, one other point: drones terrorize civilians psychologically even when they don't harm them physically. Would you want to live every day with one of those things hovering above your neighborhood endlessly, not knowing when or whether it might fire a missile?