Singing the Virtues of Drones

From The Sky
Let us sing of the virtues of drones! Sure, they can be used to kill and destroy. Still there is a melody in the air inspired by drone warfare. Yes, there are some discords in it. How could it be otherwise? After all, there is no doubting the fact that some innocent lives have been taken and people maimed, though numbers are in dispute. But the virtue of drones is so clear that this is bound to put a song in many a heart.

Okay, the singing is off-key and the song remains an ugly one. Nevertheless, drones are like music to the ears for those not inclined to entirely turn a deaf ear to the sounds of battle. When it comes to instruments of war, drones are about as good as it gets. As one reluctant defender of drones put it, “They’re the worst form of warfare in the history of the world, except for all the others.”

Considering how horribly destructive and indiscriminate some weapons systems are, drones count as good news. Philosopher Bradley Strawser gushed, “It’s all upside. There’s no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there’s a tremendous value.” So, what counts as the upside?

First, no American pilot of a drone will be shot down, wounded or taken captive. Drone operators sit behind a console thousands of miles from those they target. They can count on returning home to their families at the end of the day.

Second, drone strikes are less costly in terms of noncombatant lives lost. While some opponents of drone warfare have complained that thousands of innocent lives have been lost in Pakistan and elsewhere, there is no basis for such numbers. The highest realistic estimated figures of noncombatant killings come from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Even these figures indicate a much lower ratio of civilians to combatant deaths than seen in any recent war.

Related: The Myth of Redemptive Violence – by Shane Claiborne

Third, drone strikes are less financially costly than other forms of warfare. And anything that reduces the dollars and cents cost of war strikes me as a good thing. Money can better be spent on things that support life.

Fourth, because drone operators are able to target individual leaders they can cause greater damage to enemies with less overall violence. Does “leadership decapitation” work? Perhaps it does. Time will tell. But there certainly is evidence that targeting leaders shortens the lifespan of terror organizations.

Fifth, an argument for drone warfare is that “drone strikes are less costly in terms of objections in the court of public opinion. Insulated by technology, the strikes appear to us — and more important, to those around the world — on our TV screens as little more than a scene from 24.”

Admittedly, all that is quite a bit of an upside.

That doesn’t mean I’m in harmony with the Obama administration’s claim, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.” But we need to be honest about the fact that a case can be made for the use of weaponized drones. Nevertheless, there are several strong reasons to oppose the use of them. In fact, some of the upsides of drones have downsides hidden within them.

First, the very ability that allows long-term surveillance of suspected terrorists creates a situation in which entire populations get terrorized. Clive Stafford Smith, from the human rights group Reprieve, remarked: “An entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups.”

Certainly, in all wars civilian populations experience a degree of terror. When the sound artillery rumbles or the overhead noise of approaching aircraft on a bombing mission is heard, fear is the immediate response from the people living nearby. But this comes and goes. With drones the threat is discernible and ongoing, like a clinched fist cocked back and poised in front of your face.

Ghulam Rasool, a stooped elderly man who choose to leave behind his home and cattle to escape the threat of drones, said, “They are evil things that fly so high you don’t see them but all the time you hear them. Night and day we hear this sound and then the bombardment starts.” In some areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan drones are an inescapable presence, a looming specter of death from above. This traumatizes innocent populations and creates an environment conducive to the radicalization of people who otherwise would not be inclined to be so.

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Second, in an essay that largely justifies drone warfare, Mark McKinnon writes , “Drone attacks subvert the rule of law — we become judge, jury, and executioner — at the push of a button. This seems an acceptable risk right now, when the technology for drone strikes is ours, not the enemy’s.” In April of this year the Obama administration refused to send anyone to a Senate hearing on targeted killings, though the President more recently has again promised greater transparency. Still, the criterion for the “hit list” that has been generated at the highest levels of government has not yet been disclosed. Neither has there been a publicly disclosed statement of the safeguards that have been put in place to protect the innocent. There is no judicial review of the process. This has led a former legal adviser to the State Department, Harold Koh, to declare that the targeted killings by drones is a program that is “illegal, unnecessary and out of control.”

A third, and perhaps the biggest reason, for concern about drone warfare is that it removes a very important deterrent to war, the loss of American lives and the negative public reaction to this loss. The United States is surely right to seek to minimize American casualties, but if war can be waged by one side without any risk to the life and limb of its combatants, a vital form of restraint been removed. It is very likely that military intervention will be used where it would otherwise never be considered.

In a recent New York Times editorial Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy observed that war has been made easier since the end of the Vietnam war. One important factor is that less than a half percent of the population serves in the armed forces and far less among the wealthy and powerful, including the children of those in Congress. Furthermore, the public has been shielded from immediate financial impact of wars that would be felt if there was a levying of special taxes, rather than borrowing, to finance “special appropriations” for wars. Additionally, reliance on technology has made war less costly militarily and has fostered apathy and complacency about the use of force.

They note that the Congressional Research Service has identified 144 military deployments in the 40 years since ending the Selective Service draft in 1973, compared with 19 in the 27-year period when the draft was in effect following World War II. “An increase in reliance on military force traceable in no small part to the distance that has come to separate the civil and military sectors. The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it is somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.”

The use of weaponized drones is another way to make war easier. They are not simply being employed instead of “boots on the ground” to more effectively protect civilians. Drones are used where the U.S. would otherwise never send in ground troops (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan), where wars have not been declared and where the U.S. would not consider intervening by conventional means. As a result, drones are advancing, not limiting killing. And without American casualties being reported in the news and with the violence being inflicted far from the eyes of reporters, it is likely that the threshold against lethal action and war will be lowered.

Also by Craig: Death, Violence, and America: Is God the Answer or the Problem?

In response to this concern, Strawser has argued, “There could be an upside. There are cases when we should go to war and we don’t, especially in humanitarian cases like Rwanda.” However, in an essay that seeks to vindicate the right of humanitarian interventions, Harvard Law School scholar Ryan Goodman concedes, “Leading public international law scholars and the great majority of states – including states that have engaged in humanitarian intervention – refuse to endorse the legality of UHI for fear of its abuse as a pretext.”

This reluctance is understandable. We should recall that after the WMD rationale for the invasion of Iraq fell apart, the Bush administration advanced the dubious claim that the war was necessary for a humanitarian reason, to “liberate” the Iraqi people from the oppressive dictator Saddam Hussein. Given this ugly and similar war-justifying lies, hopes for weaponized drones as tools for humanitarian ends should not be high. And Iraq is only one of many U.S. interventions purportedly for humanitarian reasons that were in fact anything but.

So I won’t be joining any chorus singing the virtues of drones. Whatever virtues they might have, the downside is much more ethically troubling. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” (Matthew 5:9), we can be reasonably certain that he didn’t have in mind the operators of even the most sophisticated weapons capable of the most effective surgical strikes from thousands of miles away. Rather he spoke of people who were like him and who know that love does not allow us to stand afar but often demands that we come near to our enemies, even within their reach, not so we can harm them, but to bless them.


Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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