Anti-drone protesters hold signs before the start of the Senate intelligence committee hearing on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director. (Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA)The armed drone is being heralded as the next generation of American military technology. It can fly overheard with its unblinking eye, almost invisible to its targets below. Without warning, its missiles will strike, bringing certain death and destruction on the ground. All the while, the military pilot, sitting in a cushioned recliner in an air-conditioned room halfway across the world, is immune from the violence wrought from his or her single keystroke.
While the debate about drones in this country swirls around the precision of the weapon, the sometimes faulty intelligence behind its unleashing of a missile, the ability to keep American boots off the ground, or the legality of the strikes, few take into consideration the morality of the weapon and the damaging effects of its use on both the people targeted and the individuals operating it. The ripples of the drone strikes are felt far beyond those killed or wounded in the actual strike.
Americans are just now becoming dimly aware of the problems and dangerous precedents being set for the future.
The drone is destabilizing the small tribal communities of the Pukhtun, Somali, and Yemeni with their ancient codes of honor, making it difficult to implement any long-term peace initiatives in the volatile regions already being pounded by their own militaries. Too many stories have filtered into the media of innocent men, women, and children being killed.
People have fled their families and their homes due to the constant violence and are forced to live as destitute and vulnerable refugees in the slums of larger cities. They are lost without the protection of clan and code. The drone is also feeding into a growing anti-Americanism, becoming a deadly symbol of the United States, and fueling the recruitment of future terrorists.
At one stroke, the drone has destroyed any positive image of the United States in the countries over which it operates. It has contributed to the destruction of the tribal codes of honor, such as Pukhtunwali among the Pukhtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this immorality and destructive nature reflects back on those who use it, harming the warrior ethic of the American military so critical to battlefield bonding among soldiers in combat.
The warrior ethos may be largely a myth but, like most myths, it protects something very important: the psychology of killing in the name of the state. That killing becomes nothing less than murder when the soldier doing it is utterly invulnerable. Most US citizens, so long divorced from any responsibility to take up arms and fight and kill, do not understand this. Soldiers – good ones – do. Such understanding was behind the recent cancellation by Secretary of Defense Hagel of the valor award for drone operators.
Moreover, remote-controlled killing is a dishonorable way of fighting battle, not simply because it often results in the deaths of women and children and removes the combatants from face-to-face combat. It is making war more like a video game and giving technicians the dissociated power of life and death for the figures on the screen before them. It is making war into murder.
After over a decade mired in a seemingly endless war against a methodology as old as time, it is clear that the extension of military force is increasingly counterproductive.
However precise the weapon, this is the reality and the price on the ground, destroying the codes so vital to both parties involved – those who are targets and the people who see them die and the operators at their computer terminals. The use of the drone is creating more problems than it is solving.
Americans are just now becoming dimly aware of the problems and dangerous precedents being set for the future. We have read reports of drones the size of a mosquito, police gaining possession of potentially armed domestic drones, and violations of the laws of privacy in the United States. These are apart from the fact that many foreign powers, many of which are hostile to us, will soon have broad access to drone technology without any mechanisms or international agreements to regulate its use.
Washington has plunged blindly ahead, neglecting law – both domestic and international – protocol, and ethical codes. We find it distressing that the debate on the drone, which has now picked up in the United States, remains so narrow – with none of these points being raised except in esoteric circles. The debate has been enmeshed in the emotional responses to the war on terror: if you like the drone, you are pro-American; if you don’t, you are anti-American. It has, unfortunately, become a definition of patriotism despite its destructive nature on both sides.
After over a decade mired in a seemingly endless war against a methodology as old as time, it is clear that the extension of military force is increasingly counterproductive. The United States needs to pursue political, economic, diplomatic, and law enforcement solutions.
Instead of sending missiles and funding military operations that destroy societies, the US and its allied central governments should be funding education projects and development schemes and promoting honest and just civil administration. In this effort, we all should be guided by the Jewish shibboleth tikkun olam, to go out and “heal a fractured world”.