General Stanley McChrystal in a recent Foreign Affairs interview profoundly observed that “although to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war.” Despite the immense human suffering experienced by those “at the receiving end” -primarily Pashtuns in the Afghan-Pakistani tribal belt, a recent PublicMind poll indicates that 75% of Americans approve of using drones “abroad” as a counterterrorism (CT) measure against High Value Targets (HVT).
This disconnect begs for an existential exploration of how drone warfare has impacted the collective psyche of the American people and what it says about our national identity. Such an investigation must go beyond issues regarding legality and strategic value and should focus on questions regarding what we have become, what we want to be and how the new American way of war reflects the values we like to espouse.
That a person sitting snugly in an office in Nevada can peer into a PlayStation-like monitor and push a button that actuates a surgical strike from an unmanned aircraft which in turn kills a tribesman eating breakfast in Miranshah, seems wrong at a visceral level regardless how guilty said target might be or how illogical these concerns may seem to “realists.” Per the CIA “signature strike” protocol, all said tribesman has to do to make the “kill list” is exhibit a suspicious pattern of behavior. Even further, the U.S. has argued that all military-aged males within a strike area are legitimate targets (the old guilt by physical proximity doctrine).
Drone warfare violates the warrior code of honor, according to Marine Sergeant Matt Walje, who has written extensively on this topic, especially in the way it dehumanizes the enemy. The warrior’s recognition that his adversary is also a human being goes a long way in preventing atrocities. The crux of the dilemma doesn’t reside in proportionality, success rates, discrimination or the fashion in which these weapons are employed. To Walje, the primary problem is what drones do to the people who use them. Drone warfare erodes the inhibition to use force while physical, psychological and emotional distance from the enemy enables drone operators to assuage “the blood guilt that follows a kill.”
Human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson believes the military deliberately uses terms to dehumanize the enemy such as referring to drone victims as “bug splats” to help operatives overcome their inhibition to kill. Robinson goes further: “the phrase has far more sinister origins and historical use: In dehumanizing their Pakistani targets, the US resorts to Nazi semantics. Their targets are not just computer game-like targets, but pesky or harmful bugs that must be killed.”
To some the invulnerability that the drone program affords does more than simply violate an honor code. Placing oneself above all risk while operating lethal weaponry to Glenn Greenwald is the “definitional opposite of bravery.”
Recognizing the enemy’s humanity can forge a powerful and intimate connection between combatants. Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter makes his students read George Orwell’s essay on the Spanish Civil War wherein Orwell describes hpw how he failed to kill a frightened enemy troop who was pulling up his pants and fleeing: “I had come to shoot at ‘Fascists,’ but a man who is holding his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.”
The sterilized impunity which the U.S. can wage war via drone makes it a near irresistible weapon of choice. Because there is zero risk of American casualties, this antiseptic, unmanned, precision-guided munitions option has become publicly palatable and politically expedient, which causes a true moral hazard, however, because as the saying goes: “to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
The casualty data exposes the myth that drone executions are “clean kills.” The New America Foundation estimates the death toll from drone strikes in Pakistan to be between 1,963 and 3,293, with 261 to 305 civilians killed from 350 drone strikes since 2004 – most of which took place during the Obama regime. The UN reported that in Afghanistan last year alone 506 weapons were released by drones resulting in 16 civilian deaths.
So, as the U.S. expands its invulnerable drone program across the globe, innocent civilians become more exposed. Or, as Walje notes: “a strategy which accepts increased risk to foreign civilians in order to reduce the risk to U.S. combatants is a violation of discrimination.” In addition, drone strike accuracy is only as good as the intelligence that guides it. Ironically the best intelligence usually comes from human intel – but that would require putting boots on the ground.
Drone strikes have resulted in a “siege mentality” in Pakistan amounting to nothing more than a counterproductive “tactic” masquerading as a “strategy,” as Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald explain in their book Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at The Turning Point of American Empire. Counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum vividly capture the logic of drone warfare:
“Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.”
Drone strikes also bear a long-term cost by reducing America’s global standing because not only are they unpopular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and across the entire Middle East, even long-time American allies like Britain, Germany and Japan have majorities thatdisapprove of them.
Meanwhile, White House lawyers scramble to machinate legal opinions to refute the notion that we are committing extrajudicial assassinations as the world watches aghast as America’s senior leadership team continues to play judge, jury and executioner – all in one fell swoop.
We must resist the temptation to politicize this issue any further, for the drone crisis is more than your typical Beltway ruction – it’s a struggle for America’s very soul.