Drone Wars and Death Panels

My wife has a 17-year-old who loves playing video games on his computer. He’s not much different from a typical teenager in this decade: he relishes the chase. He loves the total destruction of an ugly monster, a magic demon, or even a human soldier. Even if he gets killed, he can regenerate! What’s not to like? I have seen that 17-year-old enjoy warfare from a command center consisting of a comfortable chair in a climate-controlled room. When the computer-generated war game is finished, he can vacation with his mom and me, hang out with his friends or even go back to school. The war was all fantasy – and I’m pretty sure he knows that.

Meanwhile, another war is being fought from a comfortable chair in a climate-controlled room. The view on the screen might look like a video game, but the death and destruction, thousands of miles away, are real. Both the US Air Force and the CIA run wars against terrorists using unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, popularly called drones. The drone “pilots” don’t actually approach the battlefield personally: they sit in the safety of a secure facility and joystick their attacks. The killing is completely real, and I’m pretty sure the pilots know that. But at the end of the day they go home to supper, and bed and return to their joysticks the next day.

Have we forgotten or just misplaced the difference between fantasy war and real war? During the American Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee supposedly remarked to his subordinate, Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”[1] If Lee were alive today, I wonder if he would approve or be ashamed of the drone pilot in Qatar who remarked, “It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.”[2]

I’m all for saving soldiers’ lives, but I prefer it the old-fashioned way: by not making war. While religious fundamentalists worry about how sexuality coarsens our culture, what about the coarsening effect of never seeing our enemy bleed or hearing him scream? Or seeing his family weep? His children go homeless and hungry? The program of assassination by remote control was initiated under President George W. Bush and dramatically ramped up under President Obama. But nobody thought to ask us about the use of drones in warfare. Maybe we didn’t want the debate.

Don’t we owe it to ourselves, as Americans and as human beings, to ask the important questions? Don’t we wonder how targets are chosen? Do they get a trial, at which a defense can be presented, or are human beings – even US citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan last September – summarily executed based on suspicion alone? The right wing criticized Obama health care by inventing imaginary “death panels.” How ironic that they are mostly silent about Mr. Obama’s real death panels!

Does it bother anybody, as the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute points out, that civilians in the CIA are taking part in armed conflict?[3] Does it bother anybody, as the Brookings Institution reports, that for every militant leader killed, 10 civilians also have died?[4] Does it bother anybody that your mere presence in an attack area redefines your status as an enemy?

Does it bother anybody, as it did Keith Shurtleff in 2010, “that as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.”[3]

I’m reminded of an episode of the original Star Trek series from 45 years ago (2/23/1967). Written by Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon, “A Taste of Armageddon” fantasized about two planets at war for 500 years. When they approach, the Enterprise cannot detect any signs of battle. What they find on the surface – and, remember, this is long before the preset-day ubiquity of video games – is that the entire war is fought by computer! Casualties are calculated and real people are selected and executed. Civilization goes on. No blood. No destruction. War becomes tidy, everyday.

That is, until Capt. Kirk and the Enterprise crew trash the Prime Directive and interfere. In ending their virtual war, Kirk makes a significant speech. He says in part (and I’ll leave the scenery chewing to William Shatner)—

“Death, destruction, disease, horror… that’s what war is all about. … That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it so neat and painless you’ve had no reason to stop it. … I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The [enemy] will now assume that you’ve broken your agreement and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They’ll want to do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do a lot more than just count up numbers in a computer. They’ll destroy your cities, devastate your planet. …

What we do in war today gives license to the enemy to do it against us tomorrow. War should never be a video game. We’ve grown too fond, not just of war, but of technology. But technology can’t fix non-technological problems. We can’t make the world secure. We can’t make war tidy. All we can do is try to make one more likely by making the other less attractive. As Capt. Kirk concluded, “Yes… you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.”

[1] This quote, which may be apocryphal, is discussed at this link.
[2] From a 40-page report, “Does Unmanned Make Unacceptable? Exploring the Debate on using Drones and Robots in Warfare,” published May 2011 by IKV PaxChristi (the former created by the Dutch Reformed Church, the latter part of the Catholic faith community in the Netherlands), which can be found at this link.
[3] The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute put it this way: “What concerns arise from the CIA’s status under international humanitarian law, as non-military personnel conducting targeting practices in armed conflict?” The report can be found at this link.
[4] “What Are Drones?” by Chris Cole and Jim Wright, originally published in Peace News, January 2010, which can be found at this link. Keith Shurtleff is an army chaplain and ethics instructor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

The preceding was a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com. Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Drone Wars and Death Panels.

Posted in Reflections

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