Last month we heard that a drone attack in Pakistan had killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the second-in-command of al-Qaida. Are we supposed to rejoice that these unmanned aircraft are killing enemies of the United States all over the world? Will they make us safer?
A drone, in this sense, is an Unmanned Aircraft System or a remotely piloted aircraft. This machine functions either by the remote control of a navigator or pilot autonomously, that is, as a self-directing entity. The U.S. military is building drones of many shapes, sizes, and capabilities, including increasing numbers that are weaponized. Both the military—especially the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—and the CIA use weaponized drones in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and are expanding that use to Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Nonlethal drones are used much more widely, including inside the US.
The CIA claims that since May 2010 drones have killed more than 600 “militants” and not a single noncombatant. Many familiar with robotic warfare are incredulous about this claim. A British Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded after a long investigation in Pakistan that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes during this past year.
Let’s assume for a second that the CIA report is accurate and that drones have this extraordinary capability of surgically eliminating our enemies. Is this a good thing?
Many in the United States applaud this new science fiction weaponry. In the past two years more than 2,000 armed opponents of the US have been killed with predatory drones. No American lives are lost in these drone strikes. If this is going to be the future of warfare, how should we think about it?
One thing that bothers me about drones is the one-way cleanliness of the killing. Ultimately, however, war is a dirty business. Veterans, artists, novelists, and historians have all reported on the horrors of war. These silent surreptitious killings seem antiseptic, somewhat like playing a video game. We do not hear about the horror and grief these executions create. It will be all too easy for the citizens of this country to sanction these kinds of extra-legal activities when they know nothing about their devastating consequences. The absence of U.S. lives lost may make it easier for us to enter wars in the future.
Some Pakistanis think the United States is a country of cowards. Instead of coming out and fighting mano-a-mano with the enemy, the U.S. sends remote electronic gadgets that in some cases can’t be seen. They make no noise and strike often in the middle of the night. This is “clean” surgical killing, not the protracted horror of war that affects, in addition to those killed, those wounded, their relatives, their neighbors, and their friends.
What concerns me most about the expanding use of drones is the lack of any trial for the accused who is summarily executed for being a terrorist. There is no judicial hearing. In the United States we have a constitutionally determined right to a fair trial for somebody accused of crime. If someone is suspected of terrorism, why not bring that person to trial and prove in a court of law that this person is guilty?
If we no longer adhere to these kinds of procedures, we are in danger of undermining our own rights here in the United States. Civilized nations build up complicated judicial systems to provide fair trials with lawyers, judges, and juries to try the accused. If we abandon these principles, we are slipping down a dangerous path towards barbarism.
We also know from studies conducted in Afghanistan that there are all kinds of informants who have their own motives for naming their neighbors or their enemies as enemy combatants. When the CIA relies on reports it receives “from the ground” from its operatives that so and so is planning some kind of strike against US interests, maybe these reports aren’t reliable and innocent people are made victims.
The scariest thing about our government using pilotless hunter killer aircraft to execute people it thinks are terrorists or insurgents, is an expansion of drone warfare. There are now many different types of drones, some as small as a hummingbird. The U.S. Army has ordered its first batch of small suicide drones that are capable of launching from a small tube, loitering in the sky and then diving at a target upon command.
This technology is re-creatable. What happens when our enemies (our use of drones seems to be making more of them every day) start creating their own unmanned aircraft vehicles loaded with lethality and start aiming them at us flying over our air space? Mass panic. The public will clamor for a whole new generation of anti-drone drones to protect them from predatory drone attacks. A whole new generation of expensive high tech weaponry will further drain public coffers responding to an insatiable need for security.
Throughout our history people have hoped that technology will lead to the end of war. Joseph Gatling who developed the first prototype machine gun (named the Gatling gun) hoped it would reduce war casualties because no person would use it to kill so many people. Likewise, the Wright brothers who developed the airplane thought that their invention would make war outmoded. (If you could fly above the enemy and learn of its movements you could anticipate its strategy and hence attack.) Alfred Nobel posited that his invention, dynamite, was so terrible it would end war. People who developed nuclear weapons thought that they would end war because their devastation is so great that nobody would want to be responsible for that much suffering.
We should not be seduced by the promise of a technical fix that will promote the end of war and its horrors. We should instead demand that our representatives negotiate with enemies to resolve conflicts. The twenty-first century needs leaders who reject war with space age technology and embrace the human capacity for compassion that could move humanity beyond war. That would give all of humankind a real reason to rejoice.
Ian Harris is emeritus professor of Peace Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.