Drones and the Need for Political Context

by Daniel Luban

Earlier this year, William Saletan published a typically contrarian piece titled “In Defense of Drones”. The subtitle — “they’re the worst form of war, except for all the others” — gives a good indication of the general line of argument; Saletan suggested that the collateral damage of the drone war has been far smaller than in past US military campaigns, and that drones remain a necessary evil far preferable to conventional bombing.

This view of drones as comparatively precise and surgical may be too optimistic; one recent study of the war in Afghanistan by a US military adviser suggested that drone strikes were actually “an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement” than attacks from manned aircraft. And there is also some evidence to suggest that drones exact a psychological toll on civilian populations over and above conventional bombing that is not reflected in raw casualty statistics.

But for all that, I think there’s something to Saletan’s argument. That’s not to say (as he seems to) that we should be okay with the way the US is waging the war on terror. It’s merely to say that we shouldn’t attribute all the evils of the war on terror to one specific weapon (drones) in a way that implies that conventional bombers or cruise missiles or commando raids would somehow be gentler or more humane. (In fact, all of these remain key parts of the US repertoire.) Similarly, we should be wary of insisting on the unprecedented brutality of the drone war in ways that minimize the far greater tolls exacted by conventional military actions in the past.

Any critique of the war on terror, in other words, should focus less on means and more on ends. The key question is whether the US should be engaged in assassinating large numbers of suspected militants around the world; the weapons by which it does so are of secondary importance. Public discomfort with drones makes it tempting to put them at the center of the debate — but if the upshot is simply that the US should stop killing targets with Predators and double down on killing them with special forces, this would be a hollow victory or even a Pyrrhic one.

I get into these issues in more depth in a recent review essay for Dissent, where I tried to put the war on terror in a somewhat broader historical perspective by examining three very good recent books: Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife. A brief excerpt:

[T]here is some risk of fetishizing The Drone at the expense of a wider view of the American War on Terror. The visceral creepiness of the new technology has been crucial in raising awareness of the human consequences of this war, but it can distract us from the fact that Predators and Reapers are simply one type of weapon by which it is being waged. Americans may shiver at the thought of Hellfire missiles falling out of a clear blue sky, but most continue to thrill to the exploits of Seal Team Six, and the latter is just as fundamental a feature of the new American way of war as the former. So, too, are the Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen on the payroll of U.S.-backed warlords in Somalia and the programmers conducting cyber-sabotage against the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. Technological innovation has been key to American military policy since 9/11, but it has by no means been the only driver of change. As the books under review make clear, we might better view these years as a story of the U.S. national security apparatus gradually breaking free of the restraints—both of law and of public scrutiny—imposed on it in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. It is also a story of the military and intelligence wings of this apparatus becoming increasingly intertwined and indistinguishable from one another. A wider view of the War on Terror may be necessary, but it is by no means more comforting.

Those interested should read the whole thing.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.


One Comment

  1. Humanitarian way of killing humans, be them evil or related. Of course there are going to be those who promote, hoping to share in the prosperity from doing so. The fact[s] that Drones are now being deployed in the U.S., the fact[s] that the N.S.A. is involved in defining who are targets worthy of being eliminated, is a chilling thought. It’s just a matter of time before we hear of an action that blew apart some house that supposedly held some criminal. Never mind that said criminal wasn’t present, but his family and friends were attending a child’s birthday party. Whoops, but no cigar. Oh well, at least we tried. We’ll get him next time.

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