War ethics of drone strikes

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Martin Blank
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Martin Blank » Sun Jan 06, 2013 2:36 am

"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." -- Robert E. Lee, observing the aftermath of the Battle of Fredricksburg where the Union Army, twice as strong as the Confederate forces, took twice the casualties before retreating
Baron Munchausen: What's this?
Vulcan: Oh, this is our prototype. RX, uh, Intercontinental, radar-sneaky, multi-warheaded nuclear missile.
Baron Munchausen: Ah! What does it do?
Vulcan: Do? Kills the enemy.
Baron Munchausen: All the enemy?
Vulcan: Aye, all of them. All their wives, and all their children, and all their sheep, and all their cattle, and all their cats and dogs. All of them. All of them gone for good.
Sally: That's horrible.
Vulcan: Ahh. Well, you see, the advantage is you don't have to see one single one of them die. You just sit comfortably thousands of miles away from the battlefield and simply press the button.
-- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, discussion between the protagonists and Vulcan in his weapons factory
I wonder about the use of drones in warfare. I understand their utility at a basic level. Many of them can stay for a day or longer, loitering until a target comes along. They're relatively cheap and easy to maintain in no small part due to the lack of a crew; they're easily replaceable; and training is much simpler. They are almost a perfect weapons platform, especially as the Small Diameter Bomb and other limited-radius weapons come into use to limit collateral damage.

But at the same time, one of their major successes, that of removing the risk to US forces, is perhaps also their major failure. A drone is a simple thing, mostly an airplane with a radio remote control. Even small countries are now fielding them for reconnaissance, and soon many will have them armed. And all it takes to kill a blotch on a screen is to press a button. The pilot watches on the screen until there's a puff of debris, and it's done.

It started, of course, in Afghanistan, expanded in Iraq, and has been used most frequently in Pakistan. But that's not the only place it's been used. US drone strikes have been all but confirmed in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are suspected in other countries.

The US public supports the strikes overwhelmingly, with more than 80% approving. Even I am in that category, though for more complex reasons than the most common one, that no US personnel are at risk.

But with this removal of risk and the ever-expanding capabilities of drones (the F-22 and the F-35 may be the last completely manned fighters in US inventories), do we risk turn war so bloodless for our side that it becomes the default option, a cudgel with which to beat down anyone who disagrees with us?
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Sun Jan 06, 2013 4:35 am

Not really, not any more than snipers are disconnected compared to ancient sword fighters. I don't think it removes the consequences for a nation much more than the many thousands of miles between us and he desert already does. Reporters will still report. It's not like anyone in the Pentagon will confuse warfare with video games.
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Re: War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Martin Blank » Mon Jan 07, 2013 3:08 am

Snipers are definitely in the danger zone. They perform one of the most dangerous jobs out there, are frequently well behind enemy lines scouting even if they don't have a specific target, and are still regarded as cowardly in many areas.

Compare this to the drones: local pilots handle take-off and landing (though even this is automated in newer drones), they're handed off to someone on the other side of the planet, and the mission is carried out. Stories like this that discuss the burnout without most of them getting the support they need suggest that the Pentagon might, in fact, be confusing warfare with video games.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Mon Jan 07, 2013 5:09 am

No, I understand what you're saying. I'm just not sure it's really any further removed than bombers, attack craft firing missiles, etc.
The follies which a man regrets the most in his life are those which he didn't commit when he had the opportunity. - Helen Rowland, A Guide to Men, 1922

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Re: War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Seir » Tue Jan 08, 2013 4:35 am

Or landmines.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Tue Jan 08, 2013 7:49 am

Landlines aren't really a weapon of attack, though, are they? They sure are impersonal, though.
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Re: War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Martin Blank » Sat Jan 12, 2013 6:13 am

With conventional bombers and attack aircraft, there's at least one person in the local loop. There's a tangible risk that someone might not come home if something goes wrong.

Though with the conventional system, there are different psychological issues. A strike aircraft will point at a target, fire the weapon, and it's done. Drone pilots often find themselves watching someone's life waiting for target confirmation. They watch the target hug his wife, play with his kids, and tend to his home. They watch his dogs come out to greet him when he returns home. And then, sometimes after several days of this, they're given the order to kill him and sometimes his family. Regular pilots don't have to go through that, and perhaps it's for the better, because it's apparently the cause of a lot of burn-out among drone pilots.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Sat Jan 12, 2013 6:21 am

That's all true. I'm not sure whether I'm 100% in favor of the concept, but I'm not sure it's really reducing warfare to the same lack of reality as a video game.
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Re: War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Martin Blank » Sat Jan 19, 2013 4:01 am

To people not in the cockpit, so to speak, it has been largely reduced to that. How often have you heard it described as "just like a video game"? I've heard it plenty of times from reporters, analysts, and even some active military people who aren't themselves drone pilots but have been involved with them to some degree.

The root issue, though, is this, and it applies to some other weapons systems that have been proposed and may yet come online: When it becomes easier to press a button and make someone die than to change your own stance either through negotiation or just seeing his side of the story, I worry that this becomes the default route, particularly for opponents where there is no defense at all against such an attack.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Sat Jan 19, 2013 8:05 am

Martin Blank wrote:How often have you heard it described as "just like a video game"?
The controls, maybe, but I think you may be misinterpreting what was intended to be conveyed there. I realize that soldiers, like cops and ER nurses and so on, can develop some layer of separation between themselves and the daily horrors of their job, but I think drone pilots know they're looking at people on the screen, not a video game.
When it becomes easier to press a button and make someone die than to change your own stance either through negotiation or just seeing his side of the story
Isn't that already pretty much the case with the politicians and pentagon officials who make those decisions? They're not exactly close to the action themselves. As we witnessed even back in Desert Storm it's not like you can't blow up a house from afar already, especially when the targets have no real defense against such an attack.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Fri Feb 08, 2013 12:07 am

Speaking of this how do you feel about the current controversy about Obama's secretive drone policies?
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Re: War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Martin Blank » Fri Feb 08, 2013 3:30 am

I'm of mixed views. I shed no tears over the death of Anwar Al-Awlaki. I understand the issues behind it, including the issues behind the deployment of US forces in Yemen (which is a CF of a situation). At the same time, I'm leaning more toward the risk side of things, keeping a SEAL or Delta team in reserve pending such situations. A hypersonic deployment method would be tremendously helpful here, but reality probably precludes it.

Al-Awlaki fell in fairly clear lines, but the memo itself has wording of a vagueness that is disturbing. A couple of people sitting and talking over drinks of hyptheticals could fall into this class, given a particular interpretation. That's wrong. Someone talking about how something could happen is very different from actual planning.

This disconnect from risk is the very problem that I highlighted at the beginning. A century ago, snipers were believed to be the lowest of the low on the battlefield. I suspect that many current combatants believe drones to be at least as low, and I'm not sure they're wrong.
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War ethics of drone strikes

Post by Deacon » Fri Feb 08, 2013 5:13 am

It bothers me that there can't be some simple barriers in place, especially from people who were allegedly against the PATRIOT Act after passing it overwhelmingly. Seems like if you're not running tanks and bombers on the border, you wouldn't use drones either. You would use them on American territory against American citizens. Basic stuff like that.
The follies which a man regrets the most in his life are those which he didn't commit when he had the opportunity. - Helen Rowland, A Guide to Men, 1922

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