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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, June 03, 2013

DRONING ON AND ON

"I can remember when Obama became president and all those stories about evil Bush-drones that invariably only ever killed women, children and ‘wedding parties’ suddenly vanished..."

A while back I wrote a piece about the use of drones for attacks on suspected terrorists and their camps in Pakistan and other nations.  It came from a study by Stanford and New York Universities and some news bits about drone strikes and the affect they have on people who aren't even targeted or involved in terrorism.
I remember my mother telling me that during WW2 as a child she was terrified when bombers flew overhead in Wyoming because she was afraid they were Japanese or German and they would bomb her house.  Imagine that happening daily, with the drones blowing up parts of your neighborhood or nearby areas apparently without warning.  It can't be easy to deal with, even if you hate terrorism and radical Islam.
But there's another aspect of drone use that is troubling to some.  Waleed Aly wrote a column in the Sidney Morning Herald recently about the use of drones in warfare:
War is a kind of contract. Each side confronts the other, with the risk of death and defeat. In short, war should come at a cost. That contract is shredded when you're attacked by something that cannot itself be killed. It's not remotely a fair fight. It's scarcely a fight at all. For all the horror, pain, and gore of the battlefield, there's something to be said for it. It's one of the very best reasons every nation has not to go to war. The greater the sacrifice, the graver the decision to fight. That's why the Vietnam War – fought by people conscripted into the army – was so much more toxic for the US government than the Iraq War. You're more likely to proceed with a strike based on sketchy intelligence if you're risking only the lives of faceless civilians, and not any of your soldiers. The prospect of waging a war without sacrifice is a  frightening prospect. It makes war that much more disposable; that much closer to being waged on a whim. And no gesture of congressional oversight is going to change that.

Is this the kind of calculus of war we want? The historical record suggests our every military development seems to have made war less and less costly for those waging it, with horrific results. Once, rulers risked their own lives on the battlefield. Then the lives of ordinary citizens, called up by conscription. Now they risk the lives of professional soldiers who make the choice to get in harm's way. And in the meantime the ratio of civilian casualties to those of combatants has ballooned.
And I agree with some of this perspective.  The cheaper, easier, and less dangerous you make war, the more attractive it becomes.  War is sheer hell, as I wrote a few days ago, and miserable to be in.  US soldiers fight to protect who they love and get back home, because going through war is horrific and you want it to end.
But if you make war distant and remote, more like a video game (as many on the left complained when Bush was president, but became suddenly silent when Obama took office), then it becomes less ghastly and more of a reasonable policy choice.  Studies have shown that Democrat presidents are more willing to use drones and air strikes than Republican ones, with the media carefully making sure nobody thinks of this as warmongering.
The main reason, I believe, is because they see no US casualties and thus its okay.  Its not so much that they are opposed to the use of force, rather they are conditioned by seeing coffins come home from Viet Nam to be opposed to casualties resulting from the use of force.  If you can stomp on the target and achieve policy goals without our guys getting hurt, then go to it!  Drones cost up to $10,000,000 to build but that's immensely cheaper than what it takes to train, equip, maintain, and support troops to head into an area because of all those tanks and guns and jets.  One drone can hum its way into enemy territory and nail a target pretty easily and safely where it would take a lot to get soldiers in there (and back out) reliably.
However, you can tell this article was written by someone who really doesn't understand war or fighting at any level.  This isn't a duel where everything is set up as equally as possible.  This isn't a sporting match with rules to give everyone a fair break.  When you're fighting for your life, its not just proper but wise to make sure you get every break and your enemy as few as possible.  There is no "contract" in war, implied or otherwise, and especially not against craven scum who hide among the public wearing civilian clothes so they can throw acid in the face of girls who attend school and burn churches down.  If there ever was such a mythical contract, the other side never even bothered looking at it.
Another problem with this article is that its written by Waheed Aly, who in a previous column declared terrorism a "perpetual irritant" that the world seems to be "maturing" enough to basically ignore.  Aly went on to write "while it is tragic and emotionally lacerating, it kills relatively few people and is not any kind of existential threat."  Aly's argument in the drone column states that drones are bad because civilian casualties are on the rise.  But terrorism exclusively targets civilians; an attack on the military isn't terrorism, its a military strike.
So Aly's calculus seems to be this: 
  • drones used against Muslims -- bad because it kills people and hurts some civilians.
  • terrorism -- an irritant despite killing people and targeting civilians.
Waheed Aly also is tied to Muslim groups, some of which are a bit on the extreme side.  That plus his comments on "maturing" toward terrorism (meaning "stop fighting back") suggests that his problem with drones is less his stated case of fairness and ease of war than being on the other side.
I mean, its hard not to notice the guy's name, its like having Klaus Schultz during WW2 at a major newspaper telling everyone the US military is bad for using machine guns against the Germans, while saying Germans using buzz bombs is an "irritant."  Even if he's not on the other side its certainly going to seem like it.
I agree that the heavy reliance on drones is a bad idea (if for no other reason than the lack of intelligence being gathered) but his arguments seem weak and more propaganda than honest concern.

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