Don't damn the drones

If anything is moral in war, this technology is at the friendlier end
July 18, 2013

Almost every technological advance in the means of warfare brings new ethical problems. In the mid-19th century, a Hague Conference outlawed newly-invented bullets that split apart inside a victim’s body to increase the incapacitating effect; in the 1890s—before heavier-than-air flight had become possible—another Hague convention outlawed aerial bombardment (it had in mind the throwing of grenades from balloons). After the First World War chemical weapons were outlawed. And since the Second World War much of the focus has been on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Thus the vain attempt to limit the extent of harm that technologies of warfare threaten. Throughout history it has been technology that has made the chief difference in warfare—the spear, the metallurgy of swords and shields, armour, the crossbow, the arquebus, artillery, rapid-fire small arms, aircraft, missiles, the logistical equipment used in moving forces and supplies, all represent the inventiveness of urgency in times of danger, and whoever had the superior technology has had the better chance of prevailing.

Asymmetric warfare, in which small groups of insurgents can encumber huge military resources of an orthodox kind, bucks this trend. But the technologists are not wholly without answers. One is the unmanned drone aircraft, used for surveillance and offensive engagement in circumstances and terrains where conventional forces are at a huge disadvantage.

The badlands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and what is currently happening there provide a classic example of where drones best do their work. Able to stay aloft for long periods, hard to detect and defend against, formidably armed, drones are chillingly effective weapons: and they put no operating personnel at risk. This is an important point for the home team using them. Insurgency-type conflicts apart, the world might be moving towards a situation where war mainly consists of robot forces doing the attacking and much of the defending, with civilian populations as the main front-line targets, and destruction of the morale of the enemy—meaning its willingness to continue the conflict—the aim.

What ethical considerations are raised by drones as currently deployed in theatres of conflict? The fact that they are unmanned, controlled from thousands of miles away by operators sitting safely before a screen, and that these operators are chosen for their Xbox gaming skills, somehow seems to make them more sinister, somehow less “fair” and right. In particular, the move from violent video games to the dreadful reality of killing actual human beings seems to cast a deeper moral shadow over the latter activity.

One is reminded of the reaction in 1911 when the very first aerial bombing took place. An Italian airman threw grenades out of his monoplane onto Ottoman troops in north Africa. The world’s press was outraged at the “unsporting” nature of the venture, on the grounds that the victims suffering on the ground were unable to retaliate. This quickly proved wrong; Ottoman troops shot down an Italian airplane the following week, with rifle fire. Less than 40 years later the British and Americans were dropping millions of tons of high explosives on German and later Japanese civilian populations nightly.

If anything is moral in war—and precious little is—drone activity is at the friendlier end. It is supposed to be more selective, more targeted, less likely to produce “collateral damage” (the nasty euphemism which mainly means “killing bystanders” and which drone activity regularly does: but to a much lesser extent than indiscriminate high-level carpet bombing), and it does not put one’s own in harm’s way.

For these reasons drones are an improvement in the matter of blowing human beings to pieces, if this has to be done. The seemingly inhuman nature of their operation—the deadly machine without a person in it, faceless, remote, weighed down with missiles, remorselessly homing in on its target—is a prompt for extra dislike of it; and yet it reprises a form of killing that anciently recommended itself: like long-range missiles, or high-level carpet bombing, it embodies the same principle as stoning to death, distancing the killer from the victim at a sanitary remove.

Only consider: no Royal Air Force bomber pilot in the Second World War would ever have dreamt of putting a pistol to the heads of a woman and her child and pulling the trigger, but on repeated occasions he released huge tonnages of bombs on many faceless women and children in the dark cities far below him. Not touching the victim, not being in the same corner of space, is a sop to the conscience. The screen-gazers in Texas who steer their drones to targets in Afghanistan have the advantage over bomber pilots of guaranteed safety as well as the stone-thrower’s remove.

The drone is a technological advance, but if anything it marginally diminishes the all-too-familiar ethical problem of using explosives against one’s enemies, given that explosives are too apt to include unintended along with intended targets and that drones can somewhat diminish that problem. It suggests another and better future for warfare, if there has to be warfare at all: like medieval knight champions, opposing forces could represent their side of the argument but, unlike them, be fully robotic, meeting on a jousting field in space, and harming only our national budgets.