At My Real Job: Drone Warfare
Over at Cato Unbound this month, David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame makes the case for caution in drone warfare:
[T]he availability of a particular class of weaponry can influence judgments on the likely costs and viability of military action. U.S. political leaders are able to imagine intervening militarily in other countries because they have advanced weapons systems designed for that purpose. The possession of drone technology increases the temptation to intervene because it removes the risks associated with putting boots on the ground or bombing indiscriminately from the air. Drone systems are “seductive,” writes law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, because they lower the political and psychological barriers to killing. They induce a false faith in the efficacy and morality of armed attack that could create a greater readiness to use force…
A greater readiness to use force may also result from the physical and psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact. Robotic technology removes the person from the emotional equation of war, reducing human targets to images on a computer screen. This has stretched to the maximum what writer P.W. Singer describes as the disconnection between war and society. Scholar Mary Dudziak agrees, “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks.” U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston warns against “a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing” that may induce public callousness and susceptibility to claims about costless warfare.
Along one margin, drones make our soldiers safer — every drone attack is another attack that our soldiers don’t have to conduct in person. But along another margin, drones make our soldiers less safe — more drones may mean more warfare in total, and thus more soldiers in harm’s way.
Drone strikes also breed resentment in the rest of the world, as Cortright notes with the case of Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, who justified his actions with reference to U.S. drone attacks in Muslim countries.
And yes, I’m well aware that we shouldn’t base our actions in general on assuaging the grievances of some nutcase with a carload of ammonium nitrate. On the essentials of American life — things like press and religious freedom, or women’s rights — there should be no compromise, ever. But on relatively optional and morally doubtful things — like bombing a remote village in Pakistan because an informant we barely know anything about told us that it might harbor some Taliban fighters — I’m open to backing off.