Sunday 25 Oct 2020 | 00:00 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Oct 2020 | 00:00 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Drones and just war

This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

3 May 2010 10:47

This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Peter Layton writes:

Your debate on drones has some resonances with debates about spying on the enemy by listening to their signals. US Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the State Department's cryptanalytic office saying 'Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.' Technology keeps throwing up new ways of making war that need to be dealt with.

In this regard some are concerned that fighting remotely is less manly and courageous. I am sure that the same was said of artillery when it first started being outside the range of the immediate retaliation of foot soldiers. However it cuts to the core of the role of war in Western thinking. War has become instrumental. It has a political purpose. As Clausewitz said, (modern) war has its own grammar but not is own logic. 

The manliness argument tries to make war into some search for, or reaffirmation of, one's own identity. Some cultures have this view of war, some believers in this principle probably live on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border but it is not why contemporary armed forces wage war. On this side of the enlightenment wars are instrumental; surely no one suggests anything different? And so drones seem to have a place in the future of making war.

Secondly, the view that drones are counter productive in counter-insurgency.

The drone strikes in Pakistan that worry people are not counter-insurgency, they are counter-terrorism. Such attacks aim not to directly protect the local population but instead kill terrorists in their sanctuaries. These drone attacks are enemy-centric. There is undoubtedly collateral damage but this is arguably much less than any other means of directly attacking the terrorist sanctuaries. 

Does anyone doubt that using land forces would be much more problematic and much, much more costly in civilian lives? Or do people wish to make the case that terrorist sanctuaries should be no-go areas for Western forces?

Air power makes obvious a contemporary problem with all uses of armed force, especially in eras of non-linear battlefields. Who is it legitimate to attack? People suggest that the foot soldiers are fair game but that their leaders, suppliers, supporters and financiers are not. At what part of the supply chain is it acceptable to stop the business of war? Who can be attacked: the people who use the rifles, those that train them, those that supply the rifles to these individuals, those that make them, those that finance the rifles, or those that feed the people that use the rifles?

Some ethicists will say only the individuals using the weapons, but this is a recipe for long-term attrition warfare that singles out young men as expendable. This is a position not without its moral dilemmas as well. Is it morally right to end a war quickly by taking a more expansive view of targeting or better to use methods that favor protracted and more deadly wars? Who in a society is responsible and accountable for a war being undertaken — should only those expendable young men at the front lines be held accountable? Should we attack the 18 year old suicide bombers only or also Osama bin Laden in his cave? This is an area where there are no easy answers, and probably no good ones either.

Moving from counter-terrorism, there may be some more anguishing in the future over stopping rogue states getting nuclear bombs. Who is it then acceptable to attack physically or with harsh sanctions: the military forces that might be equipped with the nuclear bomb, the scientists who are building the bomb, the bureaucracy administering the building, the leadership advocating it, the contractors involved, the companies supplying the raw materials, the taxpayers funding it all, and so on....??

No easy answers seem available. The making of even just wars at their core always carries moral and ethical dilemmas, albeit the current use of drones may make this tension more obvious.

Photo courtesy of the US Air Force.