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In Defense of Drones: A Historical Argument

Once upon a time, American military might was symbolized by the heavy boots of the Marine Corps, stomping ashore to reestablish order in unruly parts of the world. Today, increasingly, it is symbolized by unmanned drone aircraft, controlled from thousands of miles away, dropping bombs on accused terrorists. And to judge by the Obama Administration’s new defense plan, released earlier this month, this shift will be strongly reinforced in the years to come. The plan aims to cut troops, ships and planes while concentrating our military energies more than ever on drones, spy technology, cyber warfare, jammers, and special operations forces.

With its explicit embrace of advanced technology over traditional methods of combat, the strategy seems designed to provoke the increasingly vocal critics who doubt the morality, effectiveness, and political implications of “remote control warfare.” Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, making the inevitable comparison to video games, has argued that “to accept killing far from the situation of battlefields where there is an understanding of necessity is really ethically troubling.” The Economist, hardly a bastion of radicalism, has similarly asked: “if war can be waged by one side without any risk to the life and limb of its combatants, has a vital form of restraint been removed?” And just last week in The New York Times, Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution called unmanned systems “a technology that removes the last political barriers to war”—and thereby undermines democracy—because it allows politicians to take aggressive military action without having to face the electoral consequences of young Americans coming home in coffins. 

Singer and the other critics tend to present this new frontier of warfare as something largely novel—a sinister science fiction fantasy come to life, and one that has the power to radically change the political dynamics of warfare. But if our current technology is new, the desire to take out one’s enemies from a safe distance is anything but. There is nothing new about military leaders exploiting technology for this purpose. And, for that matter, there is nothing new about criticizing such technology as potentially immoral or dishonorable.  In fact, both remote control warfare, and the queasy feelings it arouses in many observers, are best seen as parts of a classic, and very old history. Drone technology certainly opens up a new, and in some ways extreme chapter. But it far from certain that the arc of the story points in the dangerous directions feared by the critics.

IT IS A COMMONPLACE that, from the very beginnings of warfare, combatants have sought technological advantages that allow them to kill their enemies with minimum risk to themselves. And for a very long time, these advances have provoked criticism. We don’t know if anyone excoriated the inventor of the bow and arrow as a dishonorable coward who refused to risk death in a hand to hand fight. But we certainly have evidence of the scorn some late medieval critics reserved for the crossbow—a weapon that supposedly allowed poorly skilled archers to kill honorable knights from safe cover. Under medieval codes of chivalry, the most honorable conflicts were those where the combatants fought as equals, relying on individual strength and skill to prevail, rather than superior weapons or numbers. Not surprisingly, then, when the first gunpowder weapons appeared, critics unloosed a torrent of chivalric outrage. As late as the early sixteenth century, the Italian poet Ariosto was still raging at this “wicked and terrible discovery” which had “destroyed martial glory, left the profession of arms without honor, and reduced valor and virtue to nought.”

Needless to say, the technological innovations have continued nonetheless—and so have the criticisms, although in modern times they increasingly condemned the innovations as immoral, rather than dishonorable. One extraordinary moment of confrontation came in the French Revolution, whose radical leaders believed that free citizens, dedicated to their patrie, would prove far more valiant soldiers than the “slaves” drafted unwillingly into enemy armies. Indeed, some of them put so much more faith in patriotic motivation than in scientifically-engineered weaponry that they urged the French military to return to the arms and tactics of the ancient Greeks: trading muskets for pikes, and having the navy abandon cannon in favor of boarding parties.

In a revealing exchange, a skeptical deputy to the revolutionary Legislative Assembly sensibly observed that France’s enemies “do not carry out their assaults with slings and pikes, the weapons of savages, but with firepower directed by scientific calculations. The terrible art of war is far from its infancy.” But another deputy immediately shot back, to huge applause: “If we have not been either Spartans, or Athenians, we should become them.” But the time was already long past in which most battlefield killing had taken place face-to-face. Combat now depended on artillery and massed infantry salvos in which relatively few soldiers knew what their bullets had hit, and no amount of rhapsodizing about pikes was going to change this reality.

In the next two centuries, advances in military technology only further increased the distance—both literal and metaphorical—between opposing forces, and added to the anonymity of killing. True, in World War I, much of the British high command held fast to the fantasy that if they could only break through the German trenches, the cavalry could swoop back into action, wielding pistols and swords. Field Marshal Sir John French even insisted on wearing spurs with his uniform at headquarters. But the battlefield belonged to machine guns, poison gas, aerial bombardment and long-distance artillery. By 1918, the Germans had developed guns that could fire 200 pound shells a distance of 80 miles, over a trajectory that took them to an altitude of over 130,000 feet. All of these developments provoked criticism very similar to that now heard against drone warfare.

None of today’s critics, as far as I know, have expressed any nostalgia for the pike, or other hand-to-hand weapons. But their desire for moral deterrents against unjustified military adventurism has led some of them to express a certain longing for another invention of the early modern era: compulsory military service. If all sectors of society have to share the risks of war, it is said, then a country will be less likely to engage in unnecessary military adventures. The syndicated columnist David Sirota, for instance, has claimed that drone warfare and the end of conscription have combined to “eliminate deterrents to institutional violence, as evidenced by our multiple wars and never-ending occupations.”

But again, the story is somewhat more complicated. For one thing, while conscription may raise the stakes of going to war for civilian politicians, it can also lead to much greater carnage on the battlefield itself. As military historians have long observed, generals tend to be much more protective of long-serving, highly-motivated and well-trained professional soldiers than of poorly-motivated, quickly-trained draftees. “Soldiers had been expensive; now they had become cheap,” as the historian Gunther Rothenberg put it concisely, in reference to the beginnings of modern conscription. Today, this purely military logic reinforces the moral and political imperative behind drone warfare. In our all volunteer force, soldiers are a scarce commodity. Things would look different if we brought back the draft.

It is also crucial to note that in the last few decades, the historical move towards the sort of mass warfare characterized by anonymous killing and massive conscript armies has been quite strikingly reversed. Since 1975, the United States, with the exception of the two short campaigns against the army of Saddam Hussein, has largely fought against irregular, insurgent forces and terrorists, and actual combat has mostly taken place at much closer range than it did for the average infantryman of either world war. This development ought to serve as some solace to the critics who worry about the moral and political implications of anonymous, long-distance killing:  Those soldiers who do remain on the battlefield—and none more than the special operations forces that the administration plans to rely on so heavily -- are more likely to see their enemies up close than their grandfathers did, and to run very great risks indeed.

Of course, overall, the style of warfare embraced by the administration aims to safeguard American lives. But not just American lives. The new conditions of warfare put a premium on other lives as well, and for very practical, political reasons. The critics of drone warfare argue that without Americans running the risk of death, a vital restraint upon murderously aggressive military action will disappear, and countless innocent civilians will die. But in combating insurgents and terrorists, an action’s political effects matter just as much, if not more, than their purely military ones, and high civilian death tolls are not just moral outrages, but political disasters.

Which is certainly one reason why the administration likes drones. Drones are not cruise missiles, or shells fired by Big Bertha. They are controllable, and are explicitly designed to allow the military to target opposing forces as carefully as possible. Of course, targeting raises its own set of questions: War that takes the form of a campaign of assassination is both morally problematic and politically counter-productive.

But that is a separate issue. What the history of war makes clear is that the administration’s embrace of “remote control warfare” does not signal an abolition of restraints on war’s destructive power. Using technology to strike safely at an opponent is as old as war itself. It has been seen in eras of highly-controlled and restrained warfare, and in eras of unrestrained total war—and the present day, thankfully, belongs to the first category. Ultimately, restraints upon war are more a matter of politics than of technology. If you are concerned about American aggression, it is not the drones you should fear, but the politicians who order them into battle.

David Bell is a contributing editor at The New Republic.