“Droning On About Drones: The Controversy Is Moot” by William Miller

Posted: June 1, 2013 in Vol. 3: Spring Essays 2013

file0001082442294Drone warfare is relatively new whereas warfare itself is not.  The crossbow, machine gun and nuclear weapons were supposed to end warfare because of the level of inhumanity they posed at the times of their innovation.  Like these weapons, drones are simply tools of warfare, nothing more.  They are wielded by states that have the technology and capital, regardless of governmental ideology.  Drones are employed by their societal organizations, so any controversial activity such as employment over American soil, or illegal cross-border operations, remain controversial or unethical with drones or with “boots on the ground.”  Illegal or unethical acts aren’t altered by the mode of delivery.  In the US, the controversy surrounding the use of drones is misplaced.  The true question is, does our distanced and cynical society have the resolve to both wage and suffer through war with an accurate internalization of the conflict?  On the other side of the coin, do we as Americans have the desire and sense of duty to restrain and control our government from dictating flawed and unethical policy? Oscar Wilde declared, “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”  He posits war seen in its true form is indigestible, and societies’ cultural positioning of the face of war is easily distorted through multiple distractions which avoid the reflection in the mirror.  If we are to engage in and swallow vulgarity in support of a righteous cause, it must be distasteful and hard, and the projected rewards of our actions should be tempered with pain and sacrifice. To sweeten the medicine by numbing ourselves to war moves beyond vulgarity.  Drones are moot.  The decision to use drones, arrows or nuclear weapons is our collective responsibility.  Salvation or destruction is delivered by the power that wields the weapon; damage and bereavement are inescapable byproducts.  Accurately assessing this cost and deciding if it is worth the price is the technical core of the controversy; drones are on the periphery.

Prior to 1980, when the US was at war, the American public was conscripted, mobilized, subject to rationing, and nearly everyone had a loved-one in the service.  Casualty rates were high, and most folks knew somebody in the neighborhood who had been killed in action.  The public was reminded daily of the war, and citizens had a personal attachment and connection to the conflict, regardless of its popularity (i.e. WWII vs. Vietnam).  Americans took ownership, were actively involved and ultimately wanted the war to end.  In WWII, the public majority desired unconditional surrender of the Axis; in Korea and Vietnam a cessation of hostilities was imperative and transcended political boundaries.  Today the US military is comprised of 1.3 million personnel with +2.1 million dependents (3.4 million total) (“Military”).  These servicemen and their families are scarcely 1% of the US general population of 314 million, and they have been recycled through multiple deployments over the past 11 years.  The numbers in WWII were 12 million troops, not including civil defense assets, plus an estimated 22 million dependents equaling 34 million servicemen and direct family.  In 1945 at a population of 139,928,165, about 25% of the population was directly connected to the war (Dear and Foot 1192, 1198).  Today we fight the war on terror which has sparked massive legislative and policy change as well as continue to conduct two ground wars.  But what is the level of public commitment?  Today a stereotypical US citizen bares a “Support the Troops” bumper sticker, yet scoffs at TSA for insisting on shoe removal.  The public, largely out of collective guilt over the treatment of Vietnam Vets, dares not disparage troops, lest they be considered politically incorrect. Afghanistan and Iraq are stories that have oozed down the hierarchy of headlines behind the Kardashians, DWTSs and Honey Booboo, save a quick eye-catching headline like Belambai or General Petraeus.  Remember the political pundits before the presidential election who continually pointed out that neither candidate was talking about Afghanistan?  Afghanistan is the longest war America has fought, ever.  Microsoft spell check wouldn’t let me connect those two thoughts in the same sentence without a green underscore that displayed “overly hypocritical, consider revising.”

Drones are a tool of modern warfare.  There are several variants from tactical, handheld man portable units, used in small tactical engagements, to larger more sophisticated variants such as the Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator, which are equipped with high-resolution optics, IR capability and various sensors.   As the technology became more reliable, weapons systems were added, allowing commanders in removed Tactical Operation Centers (TOCs) to monitor, assess and directly react to developing situations on highly fluid battlefields.  Most importantly, they offer low cost (relative to alternative assets), low risk, long station time with eyes on capability and no possibility of operator casualties, save carpal tunnel syndrome.  All reward, very low risk.  DoD’s core strategy is diligent care with the lives of soldiers, allies and civilians.  Force protection (the preventative measures against fratricide) is highly considered in all operations as are the risks of civilian casualties.  The pragmatic answer as to why is simply publicity, funding and, not to be contemptuously dismissed, ethics.  In simple terms, if ISAF kills 10 insurgents, few media outlets will carry the story to mainstream America; if US soldiers are killed, the failure requires explanation and often mid-level regulatory bureaucratic change. If civilians are killed (a distinct victory for the insurgency), world opinion, international and Afghan political machines are revved into full gear.  Now we have a major crisis.  When it’s in the headlines, people arise from their slumber to see dead bodies being pulled from destroyed structures, women with hands raised skyward crying and the standard media graphics of drone footage and smart weapon engagements.  Rainy day citizens see these images and disparage the politicians, greedy oil companies and conglomerates.  After some vicious tweet-rioting and civil disobedience via Facebook (primarily to our like-minded friends), the story is soon forgotten with the entrance of the next attractive controversial issue that makes the news.  The “I’m against war” public pats itself on the back and feels content in a personal righteousness, shirking any further responsibility for American policy.  Hands freshly washed, a new hip cynicism is crafted and shared amongst the intellectual and progressive elite at Starbucks.

The actual employment of drones is a win-win for politicians and military commanders.  It is surgical and flexible, a perfect weapon to harass and destroy the enemy, with minimal chance of a hostile response, more characteristic of a larger military footprint.  The Rules of Engagement (ROE) are extensive and religiously respected by military commanders and their subordinates. Hostile act and/or hostile intent need to be established prior to engaging a suspected combatant as well as continual PID (positive identification).  This means if an insurgent ducks into a building, he cannot be engaged because visual contact could not be maintained.  In addition, patterns of life in an area are observed and studied for extended periods of time, minimizing mistakes.  In a cockpit under NVGs (Night-Vision-Goggles) with crewmember lives at stake, these decisions are difficult, stressful and subject to error.  In a secure TOC, an informed commander who sees the big picture and is connected to multiple sources of information such as intelligence, engagement capabilities, viable alternate courses of action (COA), location of friendlies, civilians and No Fire Areas, can better maintain situational awareness.  Additionally, questionable engagements can be delayed and pushed to higher levels of authority for a more standardized and consistent determination on a COA.  Drones are arguably the most humane instrument of war ever devised, yet they are muddled in controversy because they are used in conflicts and activities that are controversial, waged by citizens who are concurrently unaware of what warfare is and what they are doing.

Cross-border operations are not new in warfare.  They are accidental or intentional, covert or unconcealed operations that vary in scale and objective.  Infringement of state sovereignty is a serious violation of numerous international laws, yet the employment of this strategy is commonplace.  These actions are generally justified by the violating state with nationalistic rhetoric that ultimately boils down to “the ends justify the means.”  In Vietnam, Vietcong utilized Laos and Cambodia to conceal and transport logistical supplies; America in response conducted B-52 bombing raids and small tactical infiltrations to neutralize the threat.  Israel flew into Iraq and destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in a proactive move to prevent their perceived annihilation by Saddam Hussein.  In Afghanistan, porous borders are effectively utilized by the insurgency to conduct cross border operations.  The scope of these violations can be a violation of territorial waters[1], terrain or air.  Without question these practices are ethically controversial and deserve a detailed discourse with the full attention of the media and the society conducting the operation.  If this policy is carried out by a nation-state, then by default, like it or not, it is supported by all the citizens of the state.  All are accountable, from the executive leader citizen to the staunchest opposing citizen.  A drone is simply the method of violation and the degree of controversy doesn’t change between drone and B-52.  If it is unethical, it is unethical. The weapon is inconsequential with exception of accuracy.  Destroying a single vehicle driven by enemy combatants has a low risk of collateral damage, while an aerial engagement with a larger manned platform has a higher risk of unintended casualties.

The objective of war is not killing your enemy; it is removing his capacity or desire to continue to fight.   Drones are capable of surgically removing high-level enemy threats from the battlefield, producing this desired effect.  Drone operators and commanders make mistakes and people die, but that’s war and we are all still accountable.  Now the images we see on the internet and TV from our detached war sicken and surprise us.  We ask, how can we assassinate people without due process yet fail to realize we declared war on them.  Or rather, our leaders declared war, and we polarized into partisan groups and pointed fingers.  War is now an executive decision. Americans slowly ceded the power to declare war from congress to the executive branch.  The Constitution ensured war was an activity that was difficult to initiate, involving both Congress and “we, the people.”  In a letter to General Washington on Dec. 4, 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The power of making war often prevents it, and in our case would give efficacy to our desire of peace” (“George”).  This branch-balancing organ has been discarded like an appendix in favor of haphazard resolutions designed to produce immediate gratification.  Now we don’t pay attention to the wars we are engaged in and then cry foul when reminded by issues such as drones that it’s bloody and savage and not what we aspire to emulate.  We are at war, like it or not.  If you disagree with the war, fantastic; grab a picket sign, organize a march, yell through a megaphone.  If you support the war, fantastic; give to the USO, publicly vocalize your stance.  Drones are a tool of war, and we’re at war, whether we slipped, jumped or were pushed into it; take responsibility and wage it or get us off the pot.


Works Cited

Dear, Ian and M. R. D. Foot. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

“To George Washington Paris, Dec. 4, 1788.” American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.

“Military Personnel Statistics.” Military Personnel Statistics. Department of Defense, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2013.

[1] Often maritime incursions are further complicated by each state’s separate claim over the recognized boundary of division as in the case of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  In addition, with increased globalization, cyber attacks could also be viewed as a border incursion and a damaging one at that.


Written for Aimee Ilac’s ENG 200: Composition II

  1. EK says:

    Awesome writting!

  2. Jet Eliot says:

    A passionate and educated assessment of war in today’s times. Well-done William, and thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s