The biographer Plutarch tells an anecdote that, in the fourth century B.C., the Spartan King Archidamus, at the sight of a revolutionary new catapult, cried out, “By Herakles, it is the end of manly virtue.”
Almost every new military asset, from gunpowder to the machine gun, elicits condemnation that such innovations are somehow unfair, if not devilish, in their ability to increase body counts and erode individual battlefield gallantry. Novel aerial weaponry—the catapult, the crossbow, the longbow, artillery, planes, and missiles—proved especially controversial in their respective ages. Unlike the bayonet or tank, projectiles ushered in death unannounced from the air, without commensurate risk to the attacker. They eliminated the ground level, first-hand killing with edged weapons and rifles. New airborne technology brought into question not just existing tactics and strategy, but even more controversial issues, from the laws of war to perceptions of infantry obsolescence.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
The historian Thucydides records the story of an anonymous, defeated Spartan who lamented that Athenian arrows—weapons supposedly outlawed in early Greek hoplite warfare—at the Battle of Sphakteria left no room for courage, their rain of indiscriminate death taking down the heroic infantryman along with the coward. Such unfair randomness, if not cowardice, becomes a theme as early Homer’s Iliad, when we hope in vain that the sweaty, dirty, and brawling Achilles can finally get his hands around the neck of the pretty boy bowman Paris, who cleanly kills better men from afar.
“The bomber always gets through” was British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s scary warning in 1932 of probable blitzes against Londoners to come. Of course, in the subsequent world war, even “Flying Fortresses” did not always get through. When bombers did, they did not wreck Germany alone, or even prove strategically effective—until 1944, when B-17s and B-24s had long-range fighter escorts and the Luftwaffe had been nearly annihilated.
The Promise of Drones
The emergence of remotely piloted drone bombers at the millennium has set off the same sort of confusion and misinformation. At first, the United States and the West in general were delighted with early predator drones and their related models of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In the post-modern age of optional ground interventions, conventional wisdom held that affluent Western forces could not endure casualties. Mass media proved a force multiplier of battlefield losses, eroding public opinion with just a brief video clip from Fallujah or Kandahar beamed into American living rooms.
Western, war-weary publics rarely saw how helping the Vietnamese or saving the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein or prepping the Afghans from the Taliban was worth the price of losing suburban American kids in god-awful places like the Mekong Delta and Sadr City, to booby traps and horrific improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The public sometimes was even unimpressed at reports of lopsided “body counts,” as if killing far more of the bad guys somehow made the far smaller loss of the good guys understandable.
Yet what if a new machine—no pilot, relatively inexpensive in comparison to manned aircraft, uncannily accurate with its video-fed targeting system, often operated remotely from the quiet of U.S. territory with legal teams in attendance—meant that we could “surgically” take out the enemy and not lose any Americans in the bargain? No wonder that, at first, airborne drones seemed a godsend—especially in their initial primary role of battlefield support, hitting a terrorist enclave down the block from a trapped American Marine squad, or in advance of Humvees blowing up enemy IED teams at the next intersection. UAVs were mostly non-controversial, a cheaper, safer version of an F-16 or A-10 close ground support mission.
As drone technology grew exponentially each year during the Afghan and Iraq wars—ever longer airtime, greater distance, more accuracy and payload—and to the degree that the Bush administration expanded drone missions beyond the battlefield, Americans still remained happy with the results.
The West for decades had been lectured by the radical Islamic world that its suicide bombers and terrorists loved death more than Westerners loved life. Supposedly ruthless invisible enemies bragged that they were unstoppable as they blended in with indigenous populations. As zealots, they claimed that they did not mind going up in smoke with their American targets. In short, the suicide bomber was not just spooky, but he flummoxed Western soldiers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to focus their vast conventional powers against otherwise premodern killers.
Drones seemed to square that circle, using the sophisticated technology and know-how of the West to outdo the terrorist’s own unconventional methods. If suicide bombers and IEDs came out of nowhere, then so could we—our Hellfire missiles bringing more accuracy and more lethality than their cobbled together, cast-off ordinance. If the terrorists seemed to target Marines sleeping in their barracks or a United Nations envoy at his desk, then we could vaporize a Taliban member on his dining room prayer rug or an al Qaeda operative text messaging in his courtyard. The hubris of terrorists bragging that the enemy may always be among us could be trumped by the nemesis of having their leaders constantly searching the sky for deadly missiles with their names on it.
Again, there was little controversy over drones extending their mission beyond the conventional battlefield to nearby Pakistan—at least as long as the missions were relatively few (about 50-70 during the two Bush administration terms) and were thought to be mostly adjunct operations in the ongoing ground war against the Taliban.
Since 2009, however, three unexpected developments have raised a national outcry about the use of drones. First, the politics of UAVs became almost surreal. Barack Obama, who ran in 2008 against the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, arguing that they were either without utility or constitutional support, increased the frequency of drone attacks radically when he became president. Indeed, in just four years, he outdid the Bush total of eight years by a factor of six—to over 400 separate missions. Kills were now not just confined to enemy combatants on the battlefield, or even a top twenty cadre from the al Qaeda or Taliban high command, but, by 2013, may have accounted for somewhere between 2,500-3,500 deaths. Strikes blew up suspected enemies from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
Conservatives seemed exasperated: should they cheer on the Obama conversion (the President likewise kept Guantanamo Bay open, and embraced or expanded renditions, tribunals, and preventative detentions), or damn his prior harmful and hypocritical opposition? Should liberals ignore the legal implications of targeting those without uniforms and distant from the battlefield, in fear of imperiling the otherwise progressive Obama agenda? Or should they keep intact their civil liberties fides by faulting Obama as they did Bush? Or should they point proudly to liberals’ newfound credibility on national security?
In addition, there was a political incongruity. The Bush administration’s waterboarding of three confessed terrorists was considered illegal torture, while vaporizing well over 2,000 suspected terrorists by judge/jury/executioner drones was not considered such a drastic anti-terrorism measure.
Drone Policy Under President Obama
Drones seemed uniquely fitted to the Obama administration’s foreign policy. There is no public support for further Iraq or Afghan-like ground interventions. Indeed, the Obama administration left Iraq without a residual garrison and probably wants to do the same in Afghanistan. Our “lead from behind” bombing strategy of intervention in Libya proved a blueprint for nothing—and, after the Benghazi debacle, was not repeated in either Syria or Mali.
For an administration that is keen on keeping Islamic terrorists away from both the American homeland and operational enclaves in the Middle East, hundreds of drone missions—without the risk of losing American lives—were seen as ideal, especially with massive looming cuts to U.S. ground forces and expensive manned military assets. Obama became so comfortable with the idea of drone strikes that, at a 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner, he could joke about sending them against any potential suitors of his two young daughters: “Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.”
Second, no one could claim that the missions were not successful in taking out hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of terrorists planning operations against U.S. interests. The rub came instead from the blowback of incinerating suspects, along with anyone and anything in their general vicinity. Without exact totals, both leftists and libertarians have argued that there might have been over 500 collateral civilian deaths so far from over a decade of strikes.
Meanwhile, counter insurgency orthodoxy postulated that U.S. forces were symbolic fish that had to swim in a civilian sea; did drones, then, pollute the waters for Americans on the ground? No one could quite figure out whether the undeniable advantages of killing enemies before they could blow up Americans, and at no cost in American lives, were nullified by alienating civilians. Does an on-the-fence Afghan lose confidence in the Taliban when the local terrorist operative’s home almost magically goes up in smoke, or does he join them when the well-known compound blows apart with a child, his own car, or a horse next to it?
Finally, in 2011, the Obama administration ordered a CIA-led series of drone missions in Yemen that, on at least two separate occasions, assassinated three American citizens: the terrorists Anwar al-Aulaqi and Samir Khan, and, later, apparently by mistake, al-Aulaqi’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi. While most Americans, to the extent that they knew of the attacks, probably cheered the elimination of such an odious traitor as al-Aulaqi, and more or less ignored the collateral deaths of Samir Khan and later of Abdulrahman, the hits on U.S. citizens far from a theater of battle raised legal and moral questions.
In 1975-76, the country had torn itself apart over the CIA’s role in the Cold War assassinations, successful and otherwise, of supposed hostile enemy leaders. The conclusions of the so-called Church Committee—lauded by liberals, derided by conservatives—led to outlawing assassination attempts on foreign heads of state, and curbed FBI and CIA monitoring of U.S. citizens. Clearly, assassinating U.S. citizens overseas, without trials, much less warrants, hinged on their indisputable identification as enemy combatants, busy plotting in a veritable war against America. Yet the CIA did not claim such status for the young Abudulrahman, only that the hit on an American teenager was an accident; the unstated implication was that his father had no business bringing him to Yemen to consort with terrorists in the first place.
With Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) recent attempted filibustering of the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director—an early architect of the drone assassination program—over theoretical questions of whether the administration has the right to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil, drones have become far more controversial than at any time in the Bush administration. For a risk-averse, budget-cutting United States, seeking to protect itself from radical Islamic terrorists, drones will see even greater use—at least until the collateral toll, hits on more U.S. citizens, or the introduction of enemy counter-technologies renders them militarily, legally, or morally ineffective.