FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Why drones are so deadly to America

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why drones are so deadly to America

Sam Smith - If you look at death by drones merely statistically - which is the way Washingtonians approach a lot of problems - it hard to see what the fuss is about. Here is a chart we compiled is 2008 that shows the number of warfare deaths by century:

Obviously, we are doing much better than in the 20th century, the one in which technology grossly improved the military's ability and willingness to kill people. 

On a fatality basis, neither Iraq or Afghanistan can compare to some of these wars. And when you think of the last weapons that really upset people - nuclear bombs - drones don't come close. 

Here's my thought on what's happening.  Mass war killings have become unpopular not only for the public but for the military and politicians as well for a mixture of political, economic and pragmatic reasons. For example, we no longer can have a draft to support them. We are more conscious of how hard it is to recover even a country one captures. And the cost of all the deadly toys that get destroyed has mounted immensely. 

There is also something we don't talk about, but warfare is slowly become the slavery of the 21st century, not a tool to be used wisely but an evil to abolish.  If Vietnam provided any virtue, it was to teach many how incredibly bad and pointless war was. This is the context in which those who still like the idea - like presidents and generals - have had to redefine the procedures to make them more acceptable. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they have clearly failed but at least instead of mass protests there is just glum acceptance. Which is fine for those in charge. 

The drone was created to support more politically correct warfare. To its designers and supporters it was near perfect: few people killed, the right people killed and no Americans having to pay a price for it. 

What they forgot is that, just like warfare, cultural values don't remain fixed. For the very reasons the powerful have turned to less deadly approaches, they face a domestic and global public that has set higher standards of decency for our nation.

The fact that a growing number see drones as evil - just as murder is evil even if only one person is killed - thus becomes a sign both of progress and of unfinished moral business.

Further, as the definition of military targets becomes more personal, many see it far more personally. Deaths are no longer a distant number in a grand cause, but a relative, a neighbor, or a friend pointlessly dead.

So we shouldn't be confused by the anger over drones. Yes it is a step forward from the time when all we talked about were nuclear bombs, but the very fact that the target has become more precise has similarly made the issue less remote. 

Our leaders don't want to hear this, but the  issue was well stated in a NY Times op ed by Ibrahim Mothana, a 24-year-old Yemeni writer:
Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. . . .
Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. . .
Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes. . . .
As always with war, if we only count the bodies we will lose the battle.