What an impressive article on drones!
Mark Bowden gives much food for thought and pellucid writing in this article in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s becoming clear, as he tells it, that the drone is useful only in very special and specific circumstances and using it outside those parameters “doesn’t work.” That is, you can do it, sure, but what happens is the opposite of what you want: it doesn’t work.
So a good part of it is figuring out where it does work, and why, and whether there indeed many instances where it does. Any?
Anyway, ar article definitely worth reading. You can see a certain amount of “product placement” sort of spin, but very little and so far as I can tell totally supported by rational argument. The problems are not with the good faith of the people doing it, but the inescapable side-effects on the subject population. It’s somehow a big transgression, too akin to the thunderbolt of Zeus, risking impiety—in the serious sense, of assuming responsibilities you cannot control: the socerer’s apprentice with death. It may be that we ultimately decide that the drone is something we tried, and it just didn’t work, except in very special circumstances.
Consider David. The shepherd lad steps up to face in single combat the Philistine giant Goliath. Armed with only a slender staff and a slingshot, he confronts a fearsome warrior clad in a brass helmet and chain mail, wielding a spear with a head as heavy as a sledge and a staff “like a weaver’s beam.” Goliath scorns the approaching youth: “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?” (1 Samuel 17)
David then famously slays the boastful giant with a single smooth stone from his slingshot.
A story to gladden the hearts of underdogs everywhere, its biblical moral is:Best to have God on your side. But subtract the theological context and what you have is a parable about technology. The slingshot, a small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, was an innovation that rendered all the giant’s advantages moot. It ignored the spirit of the contest. David’s weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair.
As anyone who has ever been in combat will tell you, the last thing you want is a fair fight. Technology has been tilting the balance of battles since Goliath fell. I was born into the age of push-button warfare. Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, capable of vaporizing an entire modern metropolis, of killing millions of people at once, was detonated over the Pacific before my second birthday. Growing up, the concept of global annihilation wasn’t just science fiction. We held civil-defense drills to practice for it.
Within my lifetime, that evolution has taken a surprising turn. Today we find ourselves tangled in legal and moral knots over the drone, a weapon that can find and strike a single target, often a single individual, via remote control.
Unlike nuclear weapons, the drone did not emerge from some multibillion-dollar program on the cutting edge of science. It isn’t even completely new. The first Predator drone consisted of a snowmobile engine mounted on a radio-controlled glider. When linked via satellite to a distant control center, drones exploit telecommunications methods perfected years ago by TV networks—in fact, the Air Force has gone to ESPN for advice. But when you pull together this disparate technology, what you have is a weapon capable of finding and killing someone just about anywhere in the world.
Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.
One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.
Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.
The young pilot zoomed in tight on the approaching truck. He saw in its bed a .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that could do more damage to an army than a platoon of Goliaths.
A colonel, watching over his shoulder, said, “They’re pinned down pretty good. They’re gonna be screwed if you don’t do something.”
The colonel told the pilot to fix on the truck. A button on the joystick pulled up a computer-generated reticle, a grid displaying exact ground coordinates, distance, direction, range, etc. Once the computer locked on the pickup, it stayed zeroed in on the moving target.
“Are you ready to help?” the colonel asked.
An overlay on the grid showed the anticipated blast radius of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile—the drone carried two. Communicating via a digital audio link, the colonel instructed the men on the ground to back away, then gave them a few seconds to do so.
The pilot scrutinized the vehicle. Those who have seen unclassified clips of aerial attacks have only a dim appreciation of the optics available to the military and the CIA.
“I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,” the pilot told me later. “I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.”
On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.
“Fire one,” said the colonel.
The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.
“I was kind of freaked out,” the pilot said. “My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, ‘You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,’ so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.”
One of the things that nagged at him, and that was still bugging him months later, was that he had delivered this deathblow without having been in any danger himself. The men he killed, and the marines on the ground, were at war. They were risking their hides. Whereas he was working his scheduled shift in a comfortable office building, on a sprawling base, in a peaceful country. It seemed unfair. He had been inspired to enlist by his grandfather’s manly stories of battle in the Korean War. He had wanted to prove something to himself and to his family, to make them as proud of him as they had been of his Pop-Pop.
“But this was a weird feeling,” he said. “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.”
After slaying Goliath, David was made commander of the Israelite armies and given the hand of King Saul’s daughter. When the Pentagon announced earlier this year that it would award a new medal to drone pilots and cyber warriors, it provoked such outrage from veterans that production of the new decoration was halted and the secretary of defense sentenced the medal to a review and then killed it. Members of Congress introduced legislation to ensure that any such award would be ranked beneath the Purple Heart, the medal given to every wounded soldier. How can someone who has never physically been in combat receive a combat decoration?
The question hints at something more important than war medals, getting at the core of our uneasiness about the drone. Like the slingshot, the drone fundamentally alters the nature of combat. While the young Predator pilot has overcome his unease—his was a clearly justifiable kill shot fired in conventional combat, and the marines on the ground conveyed their sincere gratitude—the sense of unfairness lingers.
If the soldier who pulls the trigger in safety feels this, consider the emotions of those on the receiving end, left to pick up the body parts of their husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. Where do they direct their anger? When the wrong person is targeted, or an innocent bystander is killed, imagine the sense of impotence and rage. How do those who remain strike back? No army is arrayed against them, no airfield is nearby to be attacked. If they manage to shoot down a drone, what have they done but disable a small machine? No matter how justified a strike seems to us, no matter how carefully weighed and skillfully applied, to those on the receiving end it is profoundly arrogant, the act of an enemy so distant and superior that he is untouchable.
“The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, both law professors at Harvard, wrote in their 2010 book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons From the War on Terror. “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”
Is it any wonder that the enemy seizes upon targets of opportunity—a crowded café, a passenger jet, the finish line of a marathon? There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians, but one can understand why it is done. Arguably the strongest force driving lone-wolf terror attacks in recent months throughout the Western world has been anger over drone strikes.
The drone is effective. Its extraordinary precision makes it an advance in humanitarian warfare. In theory, when used with principled restraint, it is the perfect counterterrorism weapon. It targets indiscriminate killers with exquisite discrimination. But because its aim can never be perfect, can only be as good as the intelligence that guides it, sometimes it kills the wrong people—and even when it doesn’t, its cold efficiency is literally inhuman.
So how should we feel about drones?
II. Gorgon Stare . . .