The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is changing warfare as we know it. And although John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing raised questions about the logistics of drone warfare, the American public has yet to take the implications of this change seriously.
Drone use, in the sense that it reduces the costs of engagement and keeps American troops out of the line of fire, is unquestionably convenient. However, increasing the ease with which we wage war may prove to be a danger in its own right. Here are some potential objections to the drone revolution.
The disassociation of soldiers from warfare, the killers from the killing, obscures our moral culpability for the latter. It is a good thing that the average man is troubled by committing violent acts; this disquietude can prompt him, when possible, to restrain from using lethal force, to capture rather than kill, to show some form of mercy. However, for those fighting insurgents in Yemen from a drone base in Saudi Arabia, this possibility is non-existent; as targets become blips on computer screens, the human element of violence disappears and it becomes perhaps too easy to pass judgment on others’ lives.
Furthermore, the ease with which we can wage war may make conflict more common. Through decreasing the cons of a potential engagement, the expected pros required for its implementation decrease as well. As a result, it seems to follow that we will engage in more locations and more often.
Arguably, frequent combat is necessary to protect ourselves from harm, given the nature of our nation’s enemies. That may be true, but this argument case fails to take into account that the United States does not have a permanent monopoly on drone use. Today, seventy countries have some form of drone and both China and Iran have armed them for combat. It is therefore not unreasonable to speculate about a future in which, just as most countries today maintain an army, most countries twenty years from now maintain an armed fleet of drones. As the latter is easier to maintain than the former, this may be inevitable.
This should be a cause for alarm as the stability of our current international system depends largely upon the premise that warfare between developed nations is too costly to be worthwhile. If general access to drone use upsets this assumption, this stability of our structure could suffer.
Barring fears about future conflict, the increasing ease of waging war has immediate implications for our democracy. Our system of government limits our military’s engagement through placing the power to declare war in the hands of the people’s most direct representatives. The idea is that, because the American people know that every conflict endangers the lives of their family, friends, and neighbors in the military, they will reject unnecessary engagements and carefully monitor whatever they do approve. However, through keeping our troops free from direct harm, drone strikes seem to circumvent our democratic check on warfare. To see this effect in action, consider the media’s coverage of our drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; aside from a recent spark of interest tied to the Brennan confirmation, the latter is almost non-existent.
By no means do these objections mean that we should suspend our drone program; because the United States continues to face enemies abroad, immediate protection of our soldiers’ lives may outweigh more abstract concerns. In fact, in the coming weeks, it is perhaps most appropriate to focus on the more limited questions raised in Brennan’s hearing. Can we reduce the civilian casualties of drone use? Has the Obama administration provided a sufficient legal justification for when it can assassinate American citizens? Going forward though, we ought to give serious consideration to the moral and practical implications of this drone revolution.
For better or worse, the nature of warfare is changing. It behooves us to adapt accordingly.