Friday, December 21, 2012

Kuehn is Mistaken on Drone Warfare

I usually appreciate Daniel Kuehn's critique of libertarians. His posts are usually well thought out and constructive. His point about drones, however, really makes my stomach turn:

Indeed, this is exactly why I've said that it's good that the war on terrorism is transitioning from a conventional to a drone war. It kills less Americans and it kills less innocent non-Americans than conventional war. How could I not support that?

So drone bombing is, on the margin, better for everyone. (If I'm interpreting this incorrectly, please let me know.) I find this absurd on its face. Let's consider the implications that Kuehn has not confronted.

1) The danger that war poses to American service men and women is an important factor that restrains support for war. Action in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Kuehn writes specifically about Afghanistan) carried out by drones have received less attention than intervention carried out on the ground. My intuition tells me that when the U.S. soldier count does not rise, Americans are less likely to care about foreign intervention. The logic is simple, the cost of the war decreases, resistance recedes.

2) Drone warfare also separates the individual in control of the drone from the bombing he or she takes part in. As is the trend with most state interventions, foreign or domestic, economic, social, or military, drone warfare creates yet another degree of separation between those who coerce and those who are coerced. A recent article published by German Magazine Via Der Spiegel tells of a former drone pilot who quit upon realizing this problem:
Modern warfare is as invisible as a thought, deprived of its meaning by distance [italics mine]. It is no unfettered war, but one that is controlled from small high-tech centers in various places in the world. The new (way of conducting) war is supposed to be more precise than the old one, which is why some call it "more humane." It's the war of an intellectual, a war United States President Barack Obama has promoted more than any of his predecessors.
If state force is obscured by a video game like environment, events will, on the margin, be interpreted more as though it is a video game than otherwise. Remote pilots will be more likely to engage in actions like double tapping.

I am not suggesting that this does not or cannot happen with humans in a real cockpit. I am only suggesting that, whether intentional or not, drone warfare has a sterilizing effect on one's perception of death and destruction. This holds terrible potential for the future of warfare, especially if we engage in a war between nations where each side has engaged in propaganda to dehumanize the "enemy."

Kuehn's final point bothers me most:
The problem that Doherty skirts around is we have twin evils, of course. There is collateral damage from war and that's bad (but certainly not murder), and we have the evil of terrorists and totalitarian Islamist governments. The trade-off between those two is quite difficult - much more difficult than Doherty is suggesting. A step in the right direction, in my mind, is moving forward in a way that reduces the first evil while still combating the second. I can't imagine how that could be controversial or suspect.
Kuehn reveals the assumption under which he operates: drone attacks will make us safer and minimize loss of life. Never mind a decrease of restraint and concern. Never mind the extensive research highlights the dangers of blowback. (A commenter on Kuehn's blog linked to a nice op-ed and article about this problem in Yemen. There are plenty of books and academic articles on blowback that you can find without too much effort.) Never mind the poor incentives that governments face when executing a war. Never mind the manipulation of statistics and definitions that make war seem less heinous and more innocuous than it actually is. Drones make us safer and minimize loss of life.

Or maybe drones encourage continual, mid-intensity warfare that increases ill-will toward the United States and help spread terrorist tactics from the radical Islamists to those who would otherwise remain unassociated. In theory, Kuehn might be right. Real world incentives and perceptions make may prove him incorrect.

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