For some time I have found the use of drones by America's armed forces troublesome. My first reaction to reading of their use was ambivalence, which gave way to unease. Now some journalistic attention is being shifted to the use of drones that is helping me figure out what bothers me. A cartoon some of my students found on Daryl Cagle's website reveals much of the unease I have about their use. Charles Krauthammer wrote a fairly critical piece about the Obama administration's reliance on them in yesterday's Washington Post, and in that essay he refers to a somewhat troubling story from the New York Times.
I cannot help but couple the increasing use of these drones with the problems our military has had employing the F-22 fighter. Is it possible that air warfare has become complicated to the extent that it surpasses human abilities to execute on the scene? If so, are we just the first nation to employ these drones? Is this what warfare's future looks like?
I don't necessarily blame President Obama for the employment of this weapon. We began using them on George Bush's watch. And I think any commander-in-chief would jump at an opportunity to use a weapon that increases damage to the enemy and keeps our brave servicemen safe. Still, there is a creeping sensation to using a weapon that, from the perspective of the user, is sanitized. When the cost of something deadly becomes something that is only monetary, it becomes easier to resort to it and kill more often. It lowers the threshold by which a commander orders the use of deadly force. Further, it does little to build affinity amongst the civilians for whom we claim to be fighting. It's hard to respect a power, even a deadly one, that strikes from afar and is immune from their own personal harm. This is a lesson we have witnessed many times since the end of World War II. Hearts and minds change with boots on the ground, not drones in the air.
Bill Bennett likes to say that in history, if a people were to see a flag come over the hill, they would hope it was ours. For the most part, our military power has been used to expand freedom and end totalitarianism. The people of South Asia and the Middle East already doubt our intentions greatly and might never come to welcome the flag of our nation coming over the hill, borne by our own young men. I think it much less likely they'll ever embrace the flag of a nation that is on the small tale of an anonymous agent of death from the sky, operated by an officer in a cubicle in Colorado.