by Dean Hansen
Over the past ten years, the use of pilotless drones has steadily been increasing, first for clandestine surveillance purposes, and finally with lethal payloads, allowing us to kill targeted enemies by remote control, with the not infrequently troublesome results spewed out in the incidental and euphemistic military language of collateral damage, ordinance deployment miscalculation, and extra-judicial killings. Now we are experimenting with domestic use of drones to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border.
One can only wonder when the expanding surveillance machinery of the military will be adopted by civilian police forces for monitoring streets, yards, and bedrooms with night vision cameras deployed at a quiet and inconspicuous distance above our homes. Will they ultimately be armed, as their foreign cousins are? Does the prospect make you feel comfortable and secure?
Since their use in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, the drone has become almost a cornerstone of our military’s tactics and policy in areas of the world where our jurisdiction and control are in dispute or where we are in outright conflict. How are we to weigh the sovereignty of a nation’s borders against the “humanitarian advance” of killing targeted people with such stealth and ease? Or the zero-sum equation of diminished unnecessary casualties? Is this all it takes to make us comfortable turning off our moral sense? We have slipped into a comfortable and convenient indifference to the drone’s ubiquity. President Obama has already relied on them over 150 times and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Drone warfare is another proof of a little-discussed fact of war. We want a distancing mechanism that shields us from the horrors of conflict without robbing us of participation in a blurred and ill-conceived idea of victory. Isn’t war hell? It used to be. It still is for anyone on the business end of a weapon. Yet, here is a scenario where it ceases to be hell for the combatants on one side in the conflict. The “soldiers” are no longer soldiers but technicians in darkened rooms. Soldiers of an earlier era would have repudiated this style of “fighting” as dishonorable and cowardly.
Haven’t we fumbled the ball somewhere? When technology succeeds in severing the feedback loop that reminds us of the physical and psychological cost of murder, then war becomes a cost-effective write-off to the engineers who’ve turned it into a capital gains calculation, factoring out whatever post-traumatic stress their imagined immunity may have helped them avoid.
There should always be a cost for actions made vile by the endless justifications that undergird them. That cost should burn its way into our skulls, no matter how efficacious or necessary we convince ourselves it is. It should remind us that this is not the normal course of action for a people claiming cultural and moral provenance. When we are moving toward real and severe jeopardy, the cost factor should boldly appear on signposts pointing in the other direction. And what if the jeopardy disappears? If war itself is not horrible enough to stop war, will it become invisible enough for one side to promote its seemingly endless continuation without oversight? War should never be a scramble for new “toys” to amend the slaughterhouse of human depravity by shielding us from its horrors. Kill, and you risk being killed. That should remain the unmoving tenet of a harsh reality. Alter that dynamic technologically, and everything changes for the worse.
This distancing mechanism in the form of a drone is an illusion. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that war has somehow been made acceptable if we can cut our losses and increase the cost to the latest enemy. War is therefore an ongoing excuse for maintaining and improving the machinery that makes it happen, as well as for promoting new and more threatening enemies as each previous one is beaten into imaginary submission. Remember the Maxim machine gun? The inventor earnestly believed that the horror of the weapon would turn people off to war completely. His was an embarrassing miscalculation in a field of endless miscalculations. Remove the danger from the equation without removing or remedying the equation, and you have a perpetual growth industry, unchallenged by the real agonies of conflict.
There’s another growth industry which is far more perilous and urgent to our imaginary safety: the absolute, unrequited, poisonous hatred and loathing that these weapons generate exponentially in their victims. Is it really the policy of this country to make enemies of everyone in the world? What happens over the course of time as our enemies find ways to equip themselves with the same advantages, thereby leveling the playing field? The history of military conflict proves that the immunities we achieve through technological superiority are never more than fleeting at best.
The first pilotless drones were large, expensive, cumbersome, and impossible to aim. Collateral damage was the whole point. They were also used by a regime that spoke German and wore swastikas on their uniforms. What was intended to coerce the British into surrender only strengthened their resolve and increased their determination to keep fighting, which they did until they were joined by allies who utterly defeated their common enemy, despite its “superior” technical ingenuity.
What future allied powers will link their destinies against us in an effort to blunt and neutralize the comforting illusion we’ve fastened to our neck like an albatross? Time, along with reverse engineering, will most likely tell.