The most surprising aspect of this week’s White House Google+ Hangout with President Obama had nothing to do with YouTube or video chat technology. Instead, it was President Obama’s public acknowledgment and defense of the Administration’s use of military drone attacks in combatant zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
As concerns about the collateral damage imposed by these attacks mount, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a trade-off between the expediency of dispatching individual terrorist leaders and the risk of civilian casualties conducted during the fog of war. Now that talk of "drone surges" has replaced talk of "troop surges," is it time to re-think how these drones are changing the very notion of war?
Continued innovation in drone technology will have important consequences not just for “hot wars” but also for revolutionary protests within nations and perceived acts of military aggression. As the cost point of every more accurate drones drops dramatically, they are making the cost of waging war cheaper. But are they simultaneously cheapening human life?
Historically, wars have been fought between boots-on-the-ground soldiers and military hardware. The reality of modern war is that new weapons are being deployed from thousands of miles away to battlefields where combatants, rather than fight face-to-face, use machines that pledge allegiance to the highest bidder. War resembles a giant videogame, played by military professionals piloting unmanned drones over Afghanistan while sitting in a Nevada bunker. Unlike videogames, however, there are real drones buzzing overhead, producing a source of daily terror for civilians — including women and children — in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
During Obama’s tenure, these military drone attacks have increased in both scale and intensity to take out terrorist enemies. In the process, these strikes are raising complex moral questions. Last September, a military drone attack was used to take out two terrorist leaders in Yemen — both of whom also happened to be American citizens. As Reuters Magazine’s David Rohde pointed out on Jan. 26, it was the first-time in history that an American citizen had been executed without a fair trial.
Given the White House’s slowness to open the kimono on its military drone attacks, other nations have gone ahead with their own drone initiatives. Most notably, Israel has been developing a jumbo drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 to spy on neighboring Iran. From Russia, there have been accounts of drones being used to spy on anti-Putin civilian protests in Moscow. Fast forward to the future: would drones carrying out surveillance missions in the USA — possibly from Cuba — be considered an act of war? Could we experience a Cuban Drone Crisis?
The conventional wisdom is that the video game-fueled culture of war, in which grown men learn to navigate battlefields as part of life-like videogame environments, have numbed us to killing. Most science fiction movies depict drone-like predators as unstoppable killing machines. But this does not have to be the case. Consider, for example, the sub-genre of videogaming that celebrates "non-killing sprees" and the "pacifist run," in which gamers celebrate their ability to win without killing or resorting to bloodshed.
The changing calculus of war has also emboldened human rights activists to challenge the role that drones play in geopolitical conflicts. Instead of drones being used for assassinations and quick cross-border raids, for example, they argue that drones could be used for conducting surveillance of alleged human rights abuses in failed states around the world.
Two co-founders of Genocide Intervention Network stirred up the hornet’s nest in the New York Times on Jan. 30 after Obama’s live Google+ Hangout. They suggested that there is now a moral imperative for human rights activists to use drones for humanitarian purposes.
“If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should,” wrote Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis. This is especially true in a place like Syria, where foreign observers have been largely cut off and it is unclear as to the extent of civilian repressions. Surveillance leads to accountability, which leads to potential regime change.
A revolution in military affairs is leading to a revolution in human affairs. Not only are cross-border drone strikes raising questions about international airspace and international law, they are raising moral concerns and questions about the efficacy of any policy that fails to win the hearts and minds of the populace. When allies such as Pakistan characterize U.S. drone strikes as illegal, they do so from the perspective of a new, confusing and complex war scheme.
The U.S. needs to go on a pacifist run of its own. Maybe it will be possible to conduct wars without killing — wars where drones can be used for surveillance of humanitarian rights before a country implodes. Perhaps, as in the case of drones being used to track Japanese whalers, drones will become a part of our everyday life, encouraging us to do the right thing.
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