ACE Forum, Allegiance of College Editors, Op-Ed, Opinion — October 21, 2010 at 2:29 pm

ACE Forum: A Look at CIA Drone Killings V

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After 65 years, human rights activists still delight in skewering the Truman administration for its deployment of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Books, fiction and otherwise, have been written about the bombings; the destruction has been featured to varying degrees of abstraction in vast numbers of paintings, and pieces of music attempt to capture the sudden violence of an atomic explosion. Like Vietnam for Lyndon Johnson, the mushroom clouds over Japan taint Truman’s presidency. He may have ended the war, but he did it so inhumanely that such an accomplishment will never be truly accepted. Our nation’s moral standards are too great.

Apologists for the bombings claim that if Truman had not ordered the extermination of those two cities, the war would have continued for years, resulting in far more deaths, both American and Japanese. Instead, we gambled on the belief that the Japanese people would set aside their fabled disregard for individual lives and surrender to the instinct of self-preservation. The kamikaze bombers were a clear example, to us at least, of how much they preferred a national victory to individual survival. The American mentality relegated this to an almost inhuman level, making it easier for people to justify killing, imprisoning, or at least taunting the “Japs.” Nothing short of overwhelming force would suffice to force the Japanese to surrender. And perhaps there is truth to this claim — that, because of Truman’s action, the war ended far sooner than it would have otherwise due to Truman’s action. Certainly, the salvation of American lives is a worthy cause, for an American at least.

But then the Soviets started developing their nuclear weapons, and suddenly our attitude towards nuclear weaponry was reversed. So long as there was an atomic gun pointed at us, it was emblematic of the evils of technology. “Deproliferation” became the political buzzword of the hour, and the rise of radical opposition to warfare was triggered. And thus, the debate on the morality of military efficiency—although it was not necessarily presented as such—began.

Today we face a similar dilemma, one which some of the other authors have touched on (in particular, Trent Serwetz of the Gothic Guardian at Duke University did an admirable job of covering some of this ground), but of which none of them have chosen to make their primary focus. The basic argument in this forum has been over whether our drones actually are as accurate as the CIA claims and what their inevitable place in our military should be. But some of the questions raised by John Gee of the Penn Political Review are far more important, although he still skirts around the basic issue of what the rise in remote attacks means for the future of warfare. I feel they present as fundamental a risk as nuclear armaments and should be treated as a potential weapon of mass destruction. This may be a stretch given the present circumstances, but I’m not particularly concerned with the current situation, at least not in the face of the potential long-term consequences. So, with that in mind, here is a type of thought experiment that traces the potential, if not probable, development of drone technology.

Over the next 20 years, drastic improvements in the production methods for these drones would lover cost of their production to something commensurate with large modern weaponry such as tanks or mobile artillery. Already the geographic range of military vehicles is expanding rapidly, so the necessity of maintaining drone bases overseas would be minimal. In addition, the accuracy and firepower of these remote-controlled bombers will increase dramatically. All of this is perfectly plausible from a technological perspective, especially given the extent of military funding over the past few decades. The basic result of such developments would be an incredible reduction in the risk to our soldiers, coupled with as little decrease in our ability to inflict destruction on our opponents as possible. In effect (and to paraphrase Mr. Serwetz), the result would be a dehumanization of warfare for Americans.
Where I depart from my fellow commentators is in my assumption that, sooner or later, countries like China or Russia will develop similar technology: The Cold War should tell us that any significant advance in weaponry will soon be copied by all other major world powers. Arms races are a fact of military life (and death). So we can further assume that — maybe in a similar time frame, but certainly by the end of the century — drone technology will lead to the general dehumanization of war. The direct risk to soldiers will be eliminated, but at what cost?

The only major deterrent to involvement in a war is risk. In any case, the victor stands to gain a great amount of something, whether it is territory, resources, or simply influence. And, compared to the obvious bargaining inherent in diplomacy, sans the obvious cost in human lives, war is by far the simplest solution to almost any international disagreement. If a war may be won without giving up anything, it is obviously preferable to a diplomatic solution in which both sides must make some sacrifice. Drone technology, and the de-humanization of warfare, removes this last barrier. Like the atomic bomb or the anthrax virus, advanced pilot-less mobile weaponry is a relatively low-cost and low-risk method of causing mass destruction. 2000 incredibly accurate drone bombers could level Hiroshima as easily as the Enola Gay. Perhaps J. Robert Oppenheimer, through the Bhavagad Gita, put it best: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

As Mark Hay so cleverly put it, we are “raining Hellfire [missiles]” on the Afghan terrorists. The image is certainly appropriate. Our removal from the process, the aesthetic distance between Americans and those we kill—whether through pulling a remote trigger or voting for funding for drone research or even by ranting at the television, pulling the Stouffer’s lasagna from the oven, and returning to our unextraordinary routine, indifferent at last—hands us the power to smite without fear of retribution. Until the world catches up, we wield the nascent Hand of God. And then everyone else will grow their own laboratory deities, and we are left with a planet of Lokis, Sets, men and women with fire and brimstone at their beck and call. A pantheon of morbidly capricious Shivas. War over land, resources, or anything physical is natural; we see it all the time—between ant colonies, for instance. But war over beliefs, the currently accepted form, is purely human. What right have we to dehumanize it? Who are we to play God with each other?

Questions about accuracy will be answered with time and technological improvements. Questions about use in the Afghan war are for strategists dealing with current technology, which I won’t pretend to understand. But questions of morality are open to any would-be philosopher or historian, however, and here, in two short sentences, is my answer, however unrealistic it may be: To war is human. Let’s keep it that way.

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