Unmanned weapons are big news today, as it’s reported that a drone-fired missile in Yemen has killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist who inspired the Ft. Hood killer, the Times Square bomber, the “underwear bomber” and more.
If there has been a single terrorist as threatening to the US as bin Laden, Awlaki was it. Through his website, videos, and online English-language magazine, “Inspire” (Google will not give me the URL, but you can see some of its content here), he — apparently effectively — inspires home-grown terrorism, the most difficult kind to interdict. Inspire‘s editor, Samir Khan, was also reportedly killed in the strike.
Everyone even slightly interested in military technology has known for some time that robotic weapons represent a major paradigm shift, like the phalanx, the longbow, the machine gun, the military aircraft, etc. War will never be the same.
Unsurprisingly, many see this development as undesirable. Tom Engelhard writes,
The appeal is obvious: the cost (in U.S. lives) is low; in the case of the drones, nonexistent. There is no need for large counterinsurgency armies of occupation of the sort that have bogged down on the mainland of the Greater Middle East these last years.
In an increasingly cash-strapped and anxious Washington, it must look like a literal godsend. How could it go wrong?
Of course, that’s a thought you can only hang onto as long as you’re looking down on a planet filled with potential targets scurrying below you. The minute you look up, the minute you leave your joystick and screen behind and begin to imagine yourself on the ground, it’s obvious how things could go so very, very wrong — how, in fact, in Pakistan, to take but one example, they are going so very, very wrong.
In a country now struggling simply to guarantee help to its own citizens struck by natural disasters, Washington is preparing distinctly unnatural disasters in the imperium. In this way, both at home and abroad, the American dream is turning into the American scream.
So when we build those bases on that global field of screams, when we send our armadas of drones out to kill, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t see us as the good guys or the heroes, but as terminators. It’s not the best way to make friends and influence people, but once your mindset is permanent war, that’s no longer a priority. It’s a scream, and there’s nothing funny about it.
Pakistan has vehemently objected to the use of drones in its territory, claiming that innocent civilians are often killed by mistake. Of course, one might ask: would they prefer that we use bombers or artillery? The drones do a much more precise job of killing their targets with minimal collateral damage than almost any other way of doing it. And it isn’t immoral to want to reduce our own casualties. The Pakistanis simply don’t want us fighting there, period — a legitimate position for them to take, but the use of drones doesn’t strengthen their case, it weakens it.
Engelhardt argues that the cheapness of the weapons, the ability to use them without endangering our soldiers, and even the relative freedom from collateral damage, makes us more prone to use them, to fight in more places around the world. The checks and balances that result from the expense and danger of conventional war, he believes, will not work to prevent excesses on behalf of the ‘imperium’.
And now we can see where he’s coming from. According to Engelhardt, we are the evil empire:
As [our leaders] definitionally twitch and turn, we can just begin to glimpse — like an old-fashioned photo developing in a tray of chemicals — the outlines of a new form of American imperial war emerging before our eyes. It involves guarding the empire on the cheap, as well as on the sly, via the CIA, which has, in recent years, developed into a full-scale, drone-heavy paramilitary outfit, via a growing secret army of special operations forces that has been incubating inside the military these last years, and of course via those missile- and bomb-armed robotic assassins of the sky.
There is, however, another way of looking at it.
Despite what Engelhardt thinks, we are not an invincible imperial power. In fact, the tide of history may have begun to turn in favor of those who hold the idea of democracy in contempt (yes, I know ours isn’t perfect), who believe in religiously-based hierarchical rule and the fundamental inferiority of women, who think that polytheists like Hindus must convert to their religion or die, that Christians and Jews must accept permanently inferior status, and that the US constitution should be replaced by the law of the Quran.
One of the reasons that they have the ability to challenge us is that they have adopted and improved techniques of asymmetric warfare, particularly terrorism, which leverage against us the complicated economic and technological structures on which our survival depends. Terrorism is used as part of an integrated military, psychological, economic and diplomatic attack which has been quite successful in pushing Western influence out of the Middle East, and in damaging us socially and economically.
Weapons like the Predator neutralize to some extent the advantage of asymmetric warfare by enabling precise targeting of terrorists in the midst of civilian populations. You simply can’t do this any other way, regardless of cost.
Traditional warfare is mostly fought by lowly soldiers, from the bottom up. But terrorist entities don’t fight with armies. We often don’t know who their ‘soldiers’ are. But they do have key men, and the way to fight them is to target the key men. Awlaki is a perfect example. Robotic weapons may be the answer to terrorism that we’ve sought for years.
Engelhardt tries to suggest that the technology is actually driving its own use, that the Predators (etc.) in effect have minds of their own, and imagines scary science-fiction scenarios in which they actually do have minds of their own. But this is nonsense. They are controlled by human beings, targets are selected by human beings, and human beings must authorize their use. They possibly give rise to a higher degree of accountability than an assault rifle in the hands of an ordinary soldier, who has to make split-second decisions based on very imperfect knowledge.
Although Englehardt would say that we have made our enemies what they are by our oppression and that they would leave us alone if we left them alone, I don’t buy it. There is an ideological imperative driving radical Islamic terrorism, and it is not one of live and let live. They have been empowered by the West’s money and technology and they are going to exploit it to their best advantage until they have conquered or destroyed us.
I would probably agree with Englehardt and his friends that we could become a far more just and humane society. I would agree that we have sometimes fought wars for the wrong reasons in the wrong places. I would even agree that there is a moral rot in some of our most important institutions, including government, that we will need to expunge if we are to survive.
But compared to our enemies, there is simply no comparison.
We have an acrimonious debate in our country about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry — in Iran, they hang them. We worry about the pervasiveness of poverty in ethnic communities — in Sudan and Mauritania slavery is legal, and in Saudi Arabia it is still prevalent after officially being abolished in 1962. Last week, there was a great outcry here against the execution of a possibly innocent man — in Syria, the regime is murdering hundreds of political opponents every week.
We have two choices. We can defend our society against the asymmetric assault mounted against it by radical Islamists, while we do our best to improve it where it falls short of our ideals, or we can accept the verdict of the Islamists that it is hopelessly corrupt and evil, and not fight back.
In my opinion the real motivation of those who attack the use of drones and similar weapons is that they are just too effective. I believe that on some level, people like Engelhardt want to see Western society humbled, even destroyed.
History gives numerous examples of more advanced civilizations being destroyed by barbarians. In our case, I don’t think it’s inevitable.