Drone Follies: “We Can’t Kill Our Way Out of This Mess”

by Siamak T. Naficy

President Obama’s recent condemnation of the horrors of the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, has provoked comparisons with his attitude toward the children killed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones). In his eloquent Op-Ed for The Guardian, George Monbiot argues:

“It must follow that what applies to the children murdered there by a deranged young man also applies to the children murdered in Pakistan by a sombre American president… If the victims of Mr. Obama’s drone strikes are mentioned by the state at all, they are discussed in terms which suggest that they are less than human.”

Sadly, Monbiot is right. From the drone pilots’ descriptions of casualties as “bug splats” to Obama counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel’s lawn care metaphors (“you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back”), we must acknowledge that dehumanization is not just a manner of speaking – it is a manner of thinking. It is a form of self-deception: It allows one to disengage, to pretend the people being killed are not people, are not children, after all. Then, if they are not one of us, they do not deserve the same depths of empathy we feel when one of us is harmed.  This is undoubtedly a key to understanding what is at work in the minds of those that find the drone strikes morally acceptable. For those who see no moral dilemma in the 176 children killed in Pakistan alone by drones – they, the Pakistanis, are not us. Not really.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.

Numerous studies have shown that within- and between-group conflicts are perceived quite differently. There is a strong correlation between the kind of conflict imagined, say a soldier in war (between-group) or a police officer fighting crime (within-group), and the persona considered admirable, say a vengeful slayer or honorable defender. While we would certainly be outraged if police action routinely caused “collateral damage,” we may tolerate civilian casualties in war. Humans then may treat warfare and crime with different psychological systems. If so, each system may include different principles for evaluating the morality of behavior.

This explains why the heroes of old, who specialized in war, were not always particularly moral. What we tend to call “history” is largely an accounting of inter-group conflicts. Classic historical works, from the Old Testament to the Iliad, are war tales. Most of human history involved anxiety over whether neighboring bands, clans, tribes, city-states or nations were planning something. In such a context, where dangerous neighbors loomed large, the human tolerance for what warriors could do in war also loomed large.

Achilles and other men in the Iliad discuss honor only with regard to their own sexual access to women, typically captured through warfare. The Holy Bible, Quran, Old Testament, and the Mahabharata are full of examples. Moses instructed his army to rape and slaughter women and children (Numbers 31:17-18). Psalm 137 may be a beautiful biblical text, but also includes the line: “O daughter Babylon…Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

Though rape and pillage may have been morally acceptable in times of warfare against “outsiders,” they would be considered immoral if perpetrated against those “inside.” The question then is whether in the 21st century, the people of Pakistan, an ally, and other innocent human beings in general, are included in the administration’s conception of humanity as us, or if are they outside it. To locals, certainly, drone attacks demonstrate that the U.S. devalues the lives of people in other countries.

The Obama administration’s stated rationale is that the drone strikes do not “involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.” This explanation is weak and disturbing because it conflates expedience with moral justification. The fact-value distinction from logic asserts that statements of fact do not imply statements of value. “Can” does not necessitate “ought.” To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that we ought to.

What we have is an effort by our government to wage a more sanitized war unburdened with the inconvenience of American casualties. However, it is unclear if the President’s calculus has taken into account all of the costs. From the rising PTSD among drone pilots, to possible human rights violations, to perceptions of an American double-standard and beyond, the drone war has been costly. People in countries where we use drones wonder if Americans would tolerate drone strikes on American schools and religious centers, even if militants were hiding among civilians.

Drones cause fewer casualties than “carpet bombings,” the napalm used in Vietnam, or the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States. But drones are far from being “surgically precise” or other Orwellian propaganda euphemisms used to distract us from the blood and gore. Moreover, in the hands of secret organizations like the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), they covertly expand our wars. Unknown to most Americans, our Afghan war bled into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. We have had drone strikes in Iraq and the Philippines, and with plans to use them in Nigeria and Libya, we are building new drone bases around the world.

This spread of drone warfare sets a dangerous precedent for the United States, which since 9/11 has labored to sharply distinguish war from terrorism. While there is no universally accepted definition, the U.S. defines a “war” as a military action by a nation-state, whereas “terrorism” is a “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” (see Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f[d]). This definition identifies war as an action of nation-states exclusively and suggests that the same act of aggression that would count as “war” if instigated by a nation-state, is “terrorism” if carried out covertly or by a subnational group. So where does that leave the covert drone program? Furthermore, if we are to rationalize such brutalities because we are “at war,” then how can we continue to call enemy atrocities “acts of terror?” “Terrorism” itself becomes a word with little meaning – a trashcan label for violence committed by “the enemy”; a term that would never apply to our own acts of carnage.

With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration had terminated almost everyone who was involved in 9/11. Arguably, we should have been almost finished with “the war.” Mistakes were made along the way – we killed many Iraqis and Afghans who had nothing to do with the atrocities of 9/11, but the administration could have plausibly maintained that we finished our job of punishing those culpable. Instead, we are still out there, now with a next-generation targeting list complete with another Orwellian term, called the “disposition matrix.” We are killing, but creating enemies faster than we can kill them. Mitt Romney said it and President Obama agreed: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” But drones have become a substitute for a coherent strategy to solve the root causes of militancy. The problem is that the militants are not just a bunch of “evil-doers” without cause. Drones kill people but do not kill ideas. Such attacks arguably amplify the voices of those who denounce foreign intrusion and demand local control. So, even if drones kill militants, they help legitimize militant ideas. Consider that the new Taliban and al-Qaida recruits were around ten years old at the time of 9/11. The only thing that they know about America is that we are killing their people with drone strikes.

Siamak Naficy is currently a senior lecturer in Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, with a PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. He considers himself a social scientist that frames human behaviors from a natural science perspective. In this way, he views the human social phenomena as part of the natural world, with natural though not necessarily “simple” explanations. Largely speaking, he is interested in the interplay of socio-cultural and evolutionary processes in how they shape human adaptive features, especially choice architecture and those that produce identity, within-group favoritism and between-group conflict. Furthermore, he is fascinated by the ways in which we adjudicate perceived advantages, disadvantages and deservedness. In particular, he is interested in the psychology of “fairness” and the tendencies to either side with or against those perceived as weak or disadvantaged. If such biases exist, and there is good reason to think that they do, then how a group is framed in terms of an advantage or a disadvantage will play an important role in our sympathies.

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