ACE Forum, Allegiance of College Editors, Op-Ed, Opinion — October 18, 2010 at 4:08 am

ACE Forum: A Look at CIA Drone Killings IV

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Technological discussions often disappoint me. Rather than engage substantively with human nature and the structure of society, they usually single out one decontextualized novelty to misinterpret as a sea change. Internet social networking, for example, only accelerates a process that began with paved roads and horses, or perhaps with the postal service. Yet we approach Facebook as if this is the technology that will finally render us incapable of human connection with each other, once and for all.

I see the same thing happening with discussion of drone strikes in South Asia. According to Trent Serwetz, “[t]he ever-growing distance between the killer and the killed is not exclusively physical. It is a dissociation of the human on the other side to his humanity …” What, pray tell, have we been doing throughout the millennia but separating ourselves from our victims? The hand on the throat becomes the knife in the back, which becomes the long-range rifle, which becomes the machine gun, which becomes the smart bomb, which becomes the Predator drone. The word “ever-growing,” while it seems to acknowledge some continuity, implies that this growth has occurred only over the last century or so. It hasn’t.

Trent’s more specific point is about unintended civilian deaths, which he claims are inevitable, at this point in targeted drone killings. He deplores the dehumanization of collateral deaths for their “collateral,” i.e. marginal, insignificant status. My immediate objection is that the discussion of drone strikes has certainly not marginalized civilian casualties. Rather, they take center stage in our understanding of mechanized warfare. See Urja’s and Mark’s posts for a prime example: Their disagreement stems largely from their having different numbers on civilian deaths. See the Brookings paper that Mark links to, or the work of David Kilcullen (whom Brookings quotes) for more discussion of civilian death.

But, more importantly, I object to the idea that killing someone remotely with a robot—or, for that matter, unintentionally killing a civilian in the first place— is more difficult to reconcile with a liberal conception of political rights than the orthodox killing of one soldier by another, in person. Whether volunteer, drafted or conscripted, soldiers have no say in when they go to war. If we view warfare as a battle between governments, enacted through the deaths of their nations’ citizens, almost every death is collateral. The only due process involved is the initial decision to declare war.

In fact, the targeted killing of an individual who has demonstrably committed a war act against the state entails more respect for due process than the marching of armies to anonymous slaughter. Of course, that’s not much of an improvement, but I don’t think it “has serious implications for the way we imagine ourselves as political subjects” or “the value we assign to human life.”

Mark quotes Sherman—and I agree—that war is hell. To be more precise, war is a grotesque sacrifice of the individual for the collective (or the elite), of exactly the form that Trent attributes to targeted strikes. We didn’t need drones to make war frightening; it already was. I am not sure whether Trent agrees with me and was just polite enough not to resist the initial prompt. But I hope that the increasing mechanization of warfare makes us think less about mechanization and more about war.

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