Over the past few months news reports have made references to our military’s use of drones in warfare. The CIA used drones to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Islamic cleric widely known for his anti-American incendiary rhetoric.
Basically, drones are remote controlled aircraft capable of surveillance as well as attacking targets with weapons. They are based in Pakistan (although that government may want them out of there soon due to the recent NATO attack), the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. They’ve become a part of our arsenal of weapons in our current theaters of war. They’re controlled by operators, also known as pilots, on bases in the United States. So, even though they’re flying over Afghanistan, the pilot could be just outside of Las Vegas, NV. (NPR had a piece on the pilots.)
There is a whole Star Wars aspect to this type of warfare. They’re dazzling in a way – the cameras on these drones allow an operator thousands of miles away to “watch as the objects of his interest light up cigarettes, go to the bathroom, or engage in amorous adventures with animals on the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under observation as they do.” (NY Review of Books. Predators and Robots at War)
We’re senselessly complacent if we find security in this weapons system and in this type of warfare. While the sophistication of these weapons gives our military an upper hand now, it is only a matter of time when they can become part of the arsenal for those who might attack us. That’s truly frightening. Their stealth capabilities make them an excellent weapon of choice for those who seek to terrorize us.
The destructive capability of weapons has steadily increased through history. As the destructive power of weaponry increased, more people could be killed or injured while those who operated them become further removed from the casualties they inflicted. When weapons were swords, soldiers had to engage their enemy at a little more than an arm’s length away. The early guns allowed some distance between the soldier and the enemy, but their accuracy still required fairly close combat. Almost 100 years ago, the tank came to the battlefield. Soldiers could kill the enemy from inside the protective shell of a vehicle. B-52s during Vietnam dropped bombs from thousands of feet above the ground – how do you see your victims from that high up? Drones operators can kill their victims from thousands of miles away. While they might see their victims, they will appear on a monitor screen probably not unlike some sort of video game. Drone operators will be physically closer to their families at home than to the victims of their attacks.
Sure, there are ethics around warfare, such as civilians should not be targeted, but since when does every soldier fight ethically? What will stop someone who disregards war’s ethics?
Warfare is man’s insanity. Drones have brought me to the point where I say we really, really, really must stop our propensity to go to war. We have to pull back from a perpetual war footing. We have to think differently about the way we engage with the world. Relying upon sophisticated weapons to maintain peace is the ultimate irony.
We have to promote a different approach to our political and economic relationships around the globe. We have to promote justice, beginning with ourselves, in order to diminish the tension and anxiety that injustice creates. We have to have a different way to relate to people around the globe because their suffering diminishes our world too.
Let’s not become enamored of the technology. Drones allow us to fight wars without getting dirty, thus rendering casualties abstract and almost sterile. They hide war’s destructive horror from those who perpetuate it. But maintaining our reliance upon superior military power around which we organize our foreign policy is really nuts. Relying upon superior military power to prosper peace is a false sense of security and perpetuates the spiraling costs that come with maintaining that superiority. It will only be a matter of time when a party which seeks to wreak havoc and destruction upon us will have drones as well – and then what?
Let’s think of the words from the hymn God of Grace and God of Glory (words by Harry Emerson Fosdick):
“Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control; Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.”