The Virtue-less war of the nintendo bomber
June 28, 2011 § 2 Comments
My second article in the drones series is now online at Al Jazeera.
In April, the British Ministry of Defence published a study which for the first time gave serious consideration to the moral, ethical and legal aspects of the drone wars. The study advises defense planners that ‘before unmanned systems become ubiquitous’ they must ‘ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.’ The report is particularly concerned that the low risks of using drones were enabling policy makers to consider military action in places where they would otherwise be hesitant: ‘the use of force is totally a function of the existence of an unmanned capability,’ it suggests.
The conclusions of the report are sobering. So is the fact that it was produced by a British military think tank rather than a US Congressional committee. In the US, the media and political establishment are still romancing the drone with the kind of giddy attention that sometimes borders on the inappropriate. In a May 10, 2009 segment on the Predator drone, Lara Logan of CBS’s 60 Minutes was positively breathless. Two years later, at a New America Foundation conference on drones, Professor Thomas Nachbar of the University of Virginia School of Law declared drones ‘fun’ and argued ‘against more transparency’ in their use.
Drones are attractive to US militarists and their courtiers because they are politically liberating. In their battle against public opinion and institutional inertia, politicians have often found technology an ally. The drones must therefore be understood in the context of a long-standing US desire to develop the technological means for achieving global Pax Americana. And for a century, airpower has been a key component of this vision.
Politics by Other Means
When US president Harry Truman decided to bomb Hiroshima in August 1945, he was opposed by leading generals including Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower as well as by Admirals of the Navy Chester Nimitz and Wiliam Leahy. The decision was guided by political considerations rather than military necessity. For months Japanese diplomats had been seeking to negotiate terms of surrender and, according to the Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, Japan would have surrendered regardless of the bomb. But as Truman’s diaries later revealed, a key concern guiding the decision to use the atomic bomb was the need to send the Soviets a message.
Things were rather different in the European theatre. The US Air Force was frequently at pains to show that its approach to aerial warfare was different than that of the British Bomber Command. Where the British favored high-altitude area-bombing at night using incendiary weapons, Americans favored low-altitude precision bombing in daytime using high explosives. Unlike the British, who frequently bombed civilian concentrations, the Americans claimed their focus was only German industry.
The difference between US policy in the Pacific and in Europe was a function of domestic politics. The Pacific war had clearly racist characteristics, and Truman faced little challenge at home. Only some generals, a few churches, and the scientists who developed the bomb dissented. Even the firebombing of Japanese cities and the use of the atomic bomb was successfully sold as a necessary price for peace.
Five years later, the Korean War saw yet more mass destruction—this time by the heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Command. The war killed nearly five million-but these also included over 54,000 US servicemen. Public opinion eventually turned against the war and the new Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower finally signed a ceasefire which has survived to date.
In Vietnam too, Lyndon Johnson was able to escalate the war with minimal public opposition. Faced with an Asian foe with seemingly limitless human resources, the US combined new weapons like the cluster bomb (CBU-24) and Fuel Air Explosives (BLU-73) with old tactics like fire- and carpet- bombing. Where the US had used 14,000 tons of napalm against Japan in WWII and 32,000 tons against Korea—in Vietnam it used 373,000 tons. In total it dropped 8 million tons of bombs in Indochina as compared to 2 million during WWII.
The proportion of area-bombing also increased from 30 to 80 percent.
The US won all major battles in Vietnam—including the crucial Tet Offensive—but it progressively lost the war. A majority of Americans supported the war as late as May 1967, but as more soldiers were killed, the economy was paralyzed and reports of atrocities such as the My Lai massacre were revealed, it turned the marginal antiwar movement into an irresistible political force. After Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the systematic lying by which the intervention had been justified, the war became politically toxic. A drawdown began soon after.
Potentially, the US could have won the Vietnam War. It had weapons to destroy the world many times over and the capability to triumph over any combination of enemies. But even the most ruthless of leaders has to contend with domestic (partisan) politics, international allies, and the possibility, however remote, of blowback. Of these, only the first is immediate. Public opinion plays a role, but a manageable one. It has proved no barrier to action in the past as long as the US is seen as winning a war and the costs appear low. In Vietnam, neither appeared true.
With its prestige at an all-time low after the debacle in Vietnam, a chastened US military foreswore the piecemeal use of force, and Marine General Creighton Abrams and later Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger tried to reconstitute the military in a manner that would prevent politicians’ easy recourse to force. This concern found expression in the Weinberger and later Powell Doctrines which prioritized diplomacy without necessarily ruling out force. Indeed, they prescribed ‘overwhelming force,’ but only after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
The 1991 Gulf War rehabilitated force as a tool of statecraft, abetted by the real-time delivery of heavily censored images to American TV screens which presented war as bloodless and cost-free. Over 100,000 Iraqis were killed, yet viewers only saw carefully selected, grainy images of concrete buildings being blown up. In reality, only 9 percent of the munitions were precision weapons, but between the video-game images of destruction and the 24-hour news-cycle, war had turned into a hi-tech spectacle. War had thus been substituted by the image of war, writes historian Andrew Bacevich in The New American Militarism. Waged by highly skilled professionals using ‘smart’ weapons, it was surgical and antiseptic. ‘In the right circumstances, for the right cause it now turned out, war could actually offer an attractive option—cost effective, humane, even thrilling.’
The romance of technology reached its apogee with the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)—’a major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies’ combined with ‘dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts.’ Its architects were Andrew Marshall and neoconservative doyen Albert Wohlstetter, both RAND alumni (the latter an inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove). RMA emphasizes long-range precision weapons, networked command and control, battlefield surveillance, advanced communications and intelligence processing. For Wohlstetter, it was a political enabler. Already in 1974, Wohlstetter was celebrating the potential of technology to allow the use of force in ‘an increasingly wider variety of political and operational circumstances.’
But for the liberal hawks in the Clinton administration the military’s capabilities were not matched by its will to fight. Madeleine Albright—whom former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger once described as ‘a bulldog who gets its teeth into the bone and won’t let go’—went so far as to berate Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ‘What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ she snarled.
The hawks got their way and foreign policy under Albright grew progressively more interventionist. According to a 1999 US government report the military had embarked on nearly four dozen military interventions since 1989, ‘as opposed to only 16 during the entire period of the Cold War.’ But interventions still carried a risk, as Bill Clinton discovered to his chagrin in Somalia. There were losses in Kosovo too, even though the intervention was carried out almost exclusively from the air. Without some degree of moral commitment from the wider population, the use of force could still be politically costly.
The pride and the glory
For millennia, the idea of glory in war was bound up with duty or daring. To be a warrior was to incur risk—to do or die for family, tribe, or nation. But by the end of the 19th century, war was about neither duty nor daring. Europe’s insuperable technological advantage allowed it to conquer much of the earth, and native resistance withered under its guns. In 1897, when Winston Churchill joined the British military expedition to quell an uprising in India’s north-western frontier-the site of Obama’s current drone war-he found the experience of cutting down poorly armed tribesmen so agreeable that he recommended it to any ‘young man who wants to enjoy himself.’
It was this view of war as a risk-free adventure that prompted many young men to seek military service in 1914. But the scale of blood-letting in that conflict shook the hardiest. Even Kipling quailed under the burden of the White Man’s error. Contemplative men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon understandably abhorred the ‘Great War’; but it also forced Ernest Hemingway, whose oeuvre was built on the celebration of physical courage, into taking a jaundiced view. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry, a character based on Hemingway’s own war-time experience, says he is ‘always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice,’ and to him ‘abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.’
The Great War was soon followed by WWII—the Good War. And those who participated returned deeply sceptical of its goodness. Other than politicians and movie stars, few saw any glory in it. When John Wayne visited troops in Europe, he was booed. The squalor of the enterprise was notably captured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
Technology in the form of mass industrialized killing had brought risk back to war but had taken the glory out of it. Even if one believed in the cause, the warfare was too impersonal to leave room for individual heroism.
The scale of the slaughter—10 and 50 million in the Great and Good Wars respectively—finally convinced the Atlantic powers that one more war like this could prove fatal to all of them. As a result, there have been no wars in Europe or the Western Hemisphere since the end of WWII (with the partial exception of the Balkans). But wars could still be waged with impunity elsewhere. France and Britain resumed their colonial adventures immediately after the triumph; and after initially supporting de-colonization, the US also made its first imperial forays beyond the western hemisphere (though it had already tried to colonize the Phillipines).
However, armed by the Soviets or the Chinese, the natives were no longer passive. The colonial powers were evicted from one region after another. Toward the end of the century the doctrine of humanitarianism was employed once more but gained only limited traction at home and abroad. After 9/11 the US entered Afghanistan with righteous fury, but the war in Iraq, sold on false pretexts, soon dissipated the sense of duty. It was the wrong war, said candidate Obama, and he would therefore end it to focus on the Good War—the Afghan war.
But Obama did much more. He expanded the war into Pakistan without having to contend with its political costs. He avoided complicated questions of legal jurisdiction, congressional approval, and humanitarian consideration by turning to technology and waging a war by remote control. The idea of precision helped ease humanitarian concerns and with no soldier’s life at stake, political constraints were eroded.
The idea of war had come full circle: stripped of duty and daring, it was now pure play. There was much opportunity for the young man to ‘enjoy himself.’
The virtue-less war
The argument against the use of UAVs is not about their accuracy. There is little doubt that targeting technologies have improved immensely since WWII. Back then a B-17 had to drop at an average 9,000 bombs to hit a target; in Korea and Vietnam, an F-104 had to drop 176 ‘guided bombs’ to score a hit; during Desert Storm (1991), an F117 could hit 8 out of 10 targets with its precision-guided munitions (PGM). A Predator drone by comparison can hit its target with a single laser-guided Hellfire missile.
The problem is that a weapon can be perfectly accurate but still hit the wrong target. This was demonstrated most starkly on February 13, 1991, when two US F-117 stealth bombers dropped their 2,000 pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs precisely on the same spot—a compound in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighbourhood which the CIA claimed was being used as command-and-control facility. The target had in fact always been a civilian air-raid shelter, and the 408 women and children who had taken refuge in it were incinerated or boiled alive.
The supposed accuracy of the weapons creates a presumption of infallibility that allows politicians to get away with the bombing of civilian concentrations from Baghdad to downtown Tripoli. Overlooked, however, is the fact that the targeting relies on the same fallible human and signal intelligence that in the past convinced American bombardiers that the Al Amiriyah shelter was a command-and-control facility and that wedding parties in Kunar were a threat to American national security.
Throughout history it has also been necessary for military and political leaders to dehumanize adversaries as uniquely evil in order to justify wars against them. Such propaganda is useful for softening public opinion and raising the fighting spirit of the troops. Armies worldwide have used ‘basic training’ to wear down recruits’ resistance to killing. In recent years, there has been much concern that first-person-shooter type computer games are having the same effect, making youth more prone to violence. The virtual reality of the gaming world lets them forget that those on the receiving end are actually human beings just like themselves.
With the advent of the robotics revolution, war itself has become a first-person-shooter. A youth manning the console of a Predator drone from the safety of an air-conditioned compound thousands of miles from the battle-scene can kill with the same degree of unconcern which attends a computer game. RAND futurologist Herman Kahn had once suggested that ‘it is unreasonable to expect the US government to obtain pilots who are so appalled by the damage they may be doing that they cannot carry out their missions or become excessively depressed or guilt-ridden.’ Kahn need not have worried—in the impersonal world of remote warfare, the humanity of adversaries is erased long before their existence. Without empathy, there is little guilt to be experienced.
The myth of precision and the absence of risk make it immensely attractive for politicians to seek military solutions to political problems. They also distance citizens from the wars fought in their names. That is the real danger of remote warfare. It erodes political constraints on the use of force. Leaders no longer have to incur risks or endure the onerous demands of legislative approval.
The risk is instead deferred to the people at the receiving end.
But there are other dangers which have yet to be factored. The drone technology may be sophisticated, but it can be reverse-engineered and replicated (the Chinese are reportedly already doing it). Forty countries already have UAVs in their arsenals, as do non-state actors like Hizbullah. Today the US is able to fly its drones over Waziristan and Yemen, but it is not inconceivable that in the future others might be able to fly their drones over New York and Washington. There is also the possibility of drones being hijacked by resourceful adversaries. On December 17, 2009, for example, it was revealed that Iraqi insurgents had been using SkyGrabber, a commercially available Russian program worth $26, to intercept raw video feeds from US Predator drones over-flying Iraq.
In arrogating to itself the right of life and death over people around the world, the US is flirting with God-like power. But hubris inevitably invites nemesis. The US may soon lose its monopoly over the use of drones, but the precedent set will return to haunt it in the future. Perhaps such a threat is remote-and manageable if it ever materializes. But the drone wars entail secrecy, unchecked use of executive power, and absence of accountability—all of which are corrosive to democratic checks-and-balances. The human costs will continue to be borne by others, but the price Americans will pay for their security might be democracy itself.