Droning on: The politics and wisdom of UAV warfare

The problem with drones is not 'cowardly politicians' nor 'cowardly soldiers'. It is rather the fact that the way in which we look at these questions needs a completely new set of rules and principles

A US Soldier prepares to launch a 'Raven' drone in Iraq
Charles Crawford
On 1 February 2012 10:18

Just when you think that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has finally run out of Left/collectivist subjects on which to drone, he surprises you with finding another area of low expertise matched by sky-high indignation. This time it’s drone warfare. After displaying his literary prowess by citing Zeus’s thunderbolts and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, George quotes the rather more prosaic UK Ministry of Defence:

Citing the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, [the Ministry] warns that the brutality of war seldom escalates to its absolute form, partly because of the risk faced by one's own forces. Without risk, there's less restraint. With these unmanned craft, governments can fight a coward's war, a god's war, harming only the unnamed.

Curious that he seamlessly equates a coward’s war with a god’s war. And that he thinks that ‘only the unnamed’ are targets. And that he damns the Americans as ‘cowards’ for killing people from afar, but does not seem to damn in similar terms someone like Abdel-Monem al-Fathani who took part in the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole which killed 17 US sailors. Abdel has at last been sent on his way by a skillful US drone attack in Yemen.

Here by contrast is a notably more thoughtful piece by David Bell at The New Republic, who uses a wide range of examples to remind us that for hundreds of years the chattering classes have been fretting that remote weapons are somehow unfair or illegitimate. He also points out that these days those US soldiers who do fight on the ground necessarily get very close to the enemy:

Since 1975, the United States, with the exception of the two short campaigns against the army of Saddam Hussein, has largely fought against irregular, insurgent forces and terrorists, and actual combat has mostly taken place at much closer range than it did for the average infantryman of either world war.

This development ought to serve as some solace to the critics who worry about the moral and political implications of anonymous, long-distance killing: Those soldiers who do remain on the battlefield—and none more than the special operations forces that the administration plans to rely on so heavily -- are more likely to see their enemies up close than their grandfathers did, and to run very great risks indeed.

What should we mere taxpayers make of this debate?

It definitely is disconcerting to see how Unmanned (but not necessarily Unarmed) Aerial Vehicles can be controlled from thousands of miles away. Many YouTube videos show the destructive force of these machines as applied to the targets. Watch this gripping yet chilling video to see how it looks from the controlling end.

Yet for all the claims that a disproportionate number of drone victims in Pakistan and elsewhere are civilians, we need to remember the staggering numbers of civilians who get killed in ‘conventional’ conflicts. Not that long ago Europe’s parents and grandparents were being blown to bits in their tens of thousands by bombs simply dropped from planes in the general direction of the target. The sheer precision of modern weapons has saved countless more innocent lives caught up in armed conflict than, alas, still get taken.

One perverse result of this development is to give new life to Stalin’s reputed infamous observation that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”. Precisely because so few people are now killed in modern warfare, the numbers of those who die shrink to the point where individual deaths of unarmed civilians can be ‘personalised’, and attacks on specific military targets start to look more like ‘assassinations’ or common law murder than war. At what point can (or should) we start to think about war and the legal parameters of it completely differently?

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