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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Drone Wars

President Obama has escalated the use of drones begun by President Bush in fighting the Long War. And he continues to do so, not only in terms of frequency, but now extending them outside the original theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter of which has included Pakistan) to Yemen. Given the mobility of terrorists, we could end up chasing them with drones across the world. Jeff Mirus notes how problematic that could be, despite the obvious advantages, or, perhaps because of them:
Drone strikes have the advantage of being quite precise, and their limited firepower tends to cause less collateral damage than clumsier options. The technology enables the United States to target specific individual persons at known locations and send in a drone to “eliminate” them. Such surgical strikes have one other great advantage to the United States: They are completely robotic; they do not put our own personnel at risk. At least not directly, as part of each specific mission: the overall results may be very different.

But there are dangers, I think, in the separation of warfare from risk. Bomber pilots have long commented on the oddness of dropping their payloads on the nameless and faceless, which is so different from hand-to-hand combat. And now sending robots against living persons raises a new set of questions about what it means to be dehumanized.

And do drones make presidents trigger happy? It seems that some “terrorists” have been targeted who have not been guilty of anything but advocacy, and today’s policy of “intelligence signature strikes” permits drones to be sent out when a combination of sources indicates the presence of a member of al Quaida. One wonders how often the requirement for a “clear indication” is stretched. One wonders how often innocent persons are inadvertently targeted. It is not so long since we’ve fought an entire war based on faulty intelligence reports.

Another problem with this and other very precise military operations is that they blur the distinction between war and police work, between fighting a battle and executing a criminal. Of course, terrorism itself blurs this distinction. But the whole situation is too easily used to morally justify actions which lie outside of the just war tradition, such as preemptive strikes, whether against individual persons or nations as a whole.

Moral dangers exist on every side, including the danger of redefining enemies as criminals. One may attempt to establish friendships and alliances with enemies; one would not ordinarily do so with criminals. And when it comes to combatting terrorism, it would seem obvious that establishing friendships is at least as important as military efficiency. Which nation, I wonder, appreciates having America’s robotic drones zipping in and out whenever America wants to take out a target?

The war against terrorism is complex and many-sided. None of this is simple. But even if some drone attacks are justified, as they almost certainly are, this is a very dangerous path. Once we’ve gone down it, will we be able to return?

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