Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 03:43 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 03:43 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Drones and morality

14 September 2012 17:16

Christian Enemark writes:

Sam Roggeveen's post deserves a bite. In the course of writing my forthcoming book on this subject, I have come to the view that the use of armed drones really is 'as novel as we might think'. Arguably, 'moving the pilot to a fixed base out of harm's way' is more than 'just a logical progression from flying at high altitude or using long-range missiles'. Rather, drone technology brings us to a point of discontinuity by rendering war a one-sided encounter with risk (assuming that such an encounter can plausibly be labeled 'war' at all).

The peculiar characteristic of war is that it is a potentially lethal contest. Combatants on one side use force in a relationship of mutual risk with those on the other side. The 'bargain' for warriors is that the moral license to kill may be exercised only by someone who in return is prepared to die. In no profession save the military is killing and being killed integral to the purpose of that profession. Risk is an indispensable characteristic of war, and courage is an indispensable characteristic of a warrior.

When there is no contest between killer and killed, no relationship of mutual risk, any killing that takes place is incapable of attracting the moral imprimatur that war potentially bestows. The use of armed drones is therefore something that is genuinely new and arguably anathema to the reputed virtues of the military profession. The drone operator kills without experiencing any physical risk, thus requiring none of the courage that for millennia has distinguished the warrior from all other kinds of killer. As such, the moral status of the drone operator is diminished.

With their minds away at war but their bodies safe at home, these killers are disembodied warriors. This paradox is confusing and potentially damaging to the military profession of which drone operators are supposedly a part, and it can and does generate dangerous derision from those living in targeted foreign countries.

In reply to the specific points Sam makes, there is still an important distinction to be drawn as regards the experience of physical risk. Yes, Cold War ICBM crews went home after their shifts, but they risked being obliterated in a MAD-style counterforce strike. Launching SLBMs is also inherently risky because submarines can and do sink with all hands lost. Long-range bomber air crews experienced some of the highest casualty rates among Allied combatants in Europe during World War Two. And even during NATO's 1999 Kosovo campaign, commonly cited as an example of the risk-free use of air power, the alliance suffered human losses when two US Apache helicopters crashed, one from human error and the other due to technical failure.

Clearly, it is no straightforward matter to compare the dangers experienced by missiliers and pilots to the safety enjoyed by ground-based drone operators, and it may be that the experience of at least a scintilla of physical risk is what distinguishes those who engage in killing that is warlike from those whose killing must be called something else.