After last week’s plethora of drone related news, I can’t help but think that the JSL was really on the pulse with this one. The consensus in most of what I’ve read since then is that the so-called “white paper” was released in order to clear the way for Brennan’s nomination hearing but I’d been thinking it was released in order to get out ahead of the UN drone investigation. Well it turns out that Brennan has been endorsed by Ben Emerson, the lead UN investigator, so I’d say the Obama guys have played their hand pretty well since it seems to serve both purposes. So what do I make of it? And how do I sort it out without devolving into obligatory liberal handwringing, paranoid runnathemill conspiracy theories, or self-important moralizing bombast? (Though now that I think about it, what’d be the point of blogging at all if at least a little of each of those options weren’t still on the table?) I’ve been beating my head in all week trying to figure that out and I’m not sure I’ve gotten anywhere. I’ve started and deleted this post at least 5 times and I have just as many partial drafts typed below. I’ve read every piece on drone warfare/technology/ethics/morality I could bring across multiple reading screens. I currently have no less than fifteen tabs open on the screen in front of me in order to help jog my memory when I lose a thought. I’m beginning to think I’ve gotten in over my head. People have written powerfully about this topic and just like Barack has a much better handle on the English language than I do, so do the journalists and bloggers I’ve been reading – especially this guy. But alas I’ve set myself the task of completing at least two posts a week and I’m already one behind… so here goes.
When I think about drone warfare in an historical context, I contrast it with two developments: the end of mandatory military service and the atomic bomb. (Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s that big a deal.) Once the draft had been brought to an end, the economic elites were less and less likely to take on the burdens of war. The alleged hyper-efficiency of drone technology bears a promise quite the opposite. Instead of politely suggesting the poor, working and lower middle classes shoulder the burdens of war (as the deinstitutionalization movement of the 60s inadvertently did), drone technology offers to relieve all classes of people from such burdens – all, apparently, except a few “informed high level officials”. Whether these officials are the president and a few military and CIA officials or members of a court who will agonize over putting someone on a kill list (and bomb the piss out of them once they’ve done so) is irrelevant because war is not hell – no matter how great the agony – when it is no more real and much less realistic than the latest installment of Call of Duty. Just ask yourself if PTSD or a suicide rate resulting from drone operations would be anything close to what we’ve seen in relation to on-the-ground active duty over the past few years. Drone warfare is arguably an attempt to curb those effects – if only for Americans. So I’m not suggesting we reinstate the draft like James Inhofe and some other conservatives do. Hell, I can’t even say that I think more of us should volunteer. (Someone close to me floated the idea of joining the military recently and, as diplomatically as I could, I replied, “Why don’t you think about becoming an electrician before venturing down that path?”.) I’m just thinking through the social and historical contexts in which drone warfare has emerged.
If the past few years of the Obama administration are any indication of how an administration will act when freed from asking citizens to endure the hells of war, state sanctioned murder is the way of the future. The president said so himself when vaguely addressing the distinct nature of a stateless enemy in the State of the Union a couple nights ago. “The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations”. Not when we lead the world in drone technology and warfare we don’t. But hey, it’s not as if drone technology is nuclear technology. It’s not like we’re turning the entire Middle East to glass as a few of the knuckleheads I work with say we should. No, this technology is different; it’s surgical. Sure, I’m using a definition of ‘surgical’ that implies malpractice suits are unheard of in surgery but in the spirit of fun with words and what we’d like them to mean I figured I’d play too. The point is, we’re being as accurate as the technology permits and we’re not writing off entire groups of people in the name of national security by wiping out entire cities. Oh, wait… what was that about “young men of military age”? That’s a pretty broad brush. So the technology is different but not us. Imagine.
Here it is. After three posts I think I’ve sorted out my problem with Obama’s use of drone warfare. It allows us to operate under the illusion that we’ll somehow be more effective in the war on terror than the war on poverty or, even more fitting, the war on drugs. It’s alleged accuracy acts as a justification for killing a certain type of person (brown, bearded, angry, and Muslim) just as the war on drugs laid the rationale for oppressing a certain type of person (poor, black, male, and American). I have difficulty believing either ‘war’ does much more than perpetuate what it aims to eliminate. And I hope – in spite of the president – it doesn’t take us forty years to figure it out this time.