New Ways of Warfare

Some things about war never change. The civil war now raging in Syria, the clash between warlords in eastern Congo, the military repression current in Egypt–all these replicate other wars fought before, some in the very same places.

Some things about war do change. When I was a boy, the kamikaze pilots who flew suicide missions for Japan in WWII seemed crazy and bizarre. Today a guy who will strap on an explosive vest and go off to blow himself up in a shopping mall is just one more suicide bomber, hardly worth noting.

There are innovations in war strategy and innovations in war technology, and often the two go together. Trench warfare and the machine gun are forever linked. Tanks and the blitzkrieg.

Today, we deal with the innovation of terror networks–Al Quaeda being the prime example–and its mirror image, the drone. Terror networks depend on invisibility and the fungibility of targets. (A football stadium anywhere, or a skyscraper anywhere, or a train line anywhere…. ) Drones respond by watching. They can fly overhead for days, following a single target or surveilling an entire city. They can wait in hopes that the terror network will make itself visible. And then they can kill with substantial precision. They can blow up a single vehicle; they don’t have to level the whole neighborhood with artillery.

Mark Bowden has a long article about drones in the latest Atlantic. I recommend it if only because drones are here for the long haul, and we need to think about them. I find drones very creepy, but Bowden’s informative article unsettled some of my preconceptions and gave me lots more to consider. Here, briefly, are a few points:

Psychological parallelism. Where we have used drones the most, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, they may have done as much harm as “good” to the anti-terror-network cause. Bowden gets at the unfairness of drones. Those living under them feel exposed and helpless as an unseen, unknown assailant sits in judgment on their lives. Paradoxically this perceived unfairness adds credibility to the cause of blowing up a shopping mall full of civilians. Unfairness is answered by unfairness. There is no justification for the willing, wanton slaughter of civilians, and it would be hard to sustain it but for the perception that it answers aptly to the drones. Thus, some claim, every drone strike is a boost for Al Quaeda recruitment. It makes no rational sense, but it makes emotional sense.

Genius in the datalink. Bowden mentions Iran’s crowing after capturing American or Israeli drones, but he says the actual drone is nothing all that remarkable. Drones aren’t the product of a super-secret billion-dollar research program, they are cobbled together from existing technology. (They even borrow from ESPN, which knows how to track images.) It’s the software, not the hardware.

Killing by drone is not like video gaming. Part of what disturbs us is the bloodlessness of the killing done by drone pilots living thousands of miles from their targets and going home to dinner with the wife and kids. But Bowden convincingly portrays the emotional and moral drama these pilots feel. Unlike fighter pilots who zoom over their targets, drone pilots hover for hours, they see their enemies clearly, they hear the sounds of war. It’s not the war of the grunt soldier, but it’s also not emotionally detached. Drone pilots are much nearer their targets than those dropping bombs from planes or firing artillery shells.

Drones are not much use in conventional warfare. That’s because they are slow and easily targeted. They depend on conditions where there is no opposing side to match or come close to matching their technology. In Pakistan, drones master the terrain. In Syria, not so much. (Of course, this situation could change as technology develops.)

Civilian casualties are problematic in all forms of warfare. It’s a fact that drones aren’t perfectly precise. Civilians die, and that causes a backlash. But Bowden makes the case that the backlash has more to do with the perceived unfairness of drones than with the number of casualties. He says that the US is using drones less and less and with more and more care. As a result, civilian casualties are way down, perhaps to 10% of those killed in raids. He contrasts that with the Bin Laden raid. It went as well as can be imagined. Five people were killed. One was the wife of one of Bin Laden’s protectors. If you count her as a civilian, that’s a 20% civilian kill rate. And it could have been a lot worse, if the Pakistani defense forces had detected the raid.

Consider, Bowden says, the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, where a team of Army rangers went in to arrest two lieutenants of a troublesome warlord. Eighteen Americans died in the ensuing fight, as did somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Somalis–more than from all our drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004.

Police work or warfare? Bowden makes the case that drones should operate in the open–with their raids made public and publicly justified, just as the police would do. In war, you don’t have to explain why you kill your enemies. But the fight with terror networks is as much like police work as warfare. If drone attacks were handled more like police work, they might actually undermine the lawlessness of terrorism, rather than justifying it. If seen as agents of law, rather than as faceless, unaccountable, omnipresent killers, their unfairness would not seem so unfair. You expect the police to have an unfair advantage.

Of course, it’s a struggle to get your local police force to behave transparently. How you get the CIA and the Pentagon to see the advantages of that, I don’t know.


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