Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wilkerson: Drones destroy 'warrior ethic'

I'm still going back & forth on drones.  Here Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Gen. Colin Powell's former chief of staff and a critic of the "sexed up" intelligence leading to the Iraq invasion, and some other guy offer some new objections to America's use of drones that I've never heard before.

For one, drones destroy what Wilkerson calls the U.S. military's "warrior ethos" [bold mine]:

At one stroke, the drone has destroyed any positive image of the United States in the countries over which it operates. It has contributed to the destruction of the tribal codes of honor, such as Pukhtunwali among the Pukhtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this immorality and destructive nature reflects back on those who use it, harming the warrior ethic of the American military so critical to battlefield bonding among soldiers in combat.

The warrior ethos may be largely a myth but, like most myths, it protects something very important: the psychology of killing in the name of the state. That killing becomes nothing less than murder when the soldier doing it is utterly invulnerable. Most US citizens, so long divorced from any responsibility to take up arms and fight and kill, do not understand this. Soldiers – good ones – do. Such understanding was behind the recent cancellation by Secretary of Defense Hagel of the valor award for drone operators. 

Likewise, Wilkerson argues that drones deprive our victims, most of them located in tribal communities with ancient codes of honor, of the chance to defend themselves or fight back.  We can imagine that their pent-up frustration would lead to more terrorist recruits and increased danger to the U.S.:

However precise the weapon, this is the reality and the price on the ground, destroying the codes so vital to both parties involved – those who are targets and the people who see them die and the operators at their computer terminals. The use of the drone is creating more problems than it is solving.

In the defense of drones I will say this: they are just a weapon. We also employ air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles from so far away that our enemies have no chance to strike back.  And these missiles can also strike without warning and cause collateral damage.  There are also Howitzer artillery pieces with a range of about 25 km.  The principle is the same. This is not to mention our nuclear weapons that can erase entire communities.  (And the U.S. is still the only country to have used nuclear weapons.)  Or our cyber weapons deployed by nerds sitting at computers thousands of miles away.  

So if we're going to say that drones are somehow "dishonorable," unfair or causing dangerous rage in the communities whose hearts and minds we want to win over to our side, then we also have to include all these other impersonal, remote-controlled weapons that bring death from the sky.

In criticism of drones I will say that they have the unintended (?) psychological effect of creating terror.  Imagine if you are not a terrorist, and yet you hear drones buzzing above you everyday without end, and you know that an errant missile could kill you or your innocent friends and family any second, day or night.  How would you feel about that?  You would be terrified or outraged or both!

Again, let's remember that drone strikes are happening where the U.S. is not at war and often violating national sovereignty.  Drones may have no "physical" footprint but they certainly have a moral, psychological and legal footprint in the countries where they attack.

Wilkerson is definitely right about one thing: America is overdue for a public debate about the use of drones, and everybody should be asked to weigh in -- citizens, politicians, academics, human rights advocates, lawyers, the military, and even victims' advocates.  We can't simply trust Obama or any POTUS to handle this responsibility himself.

UPDATE (05.07.2013): Here's a HuffPo article, "Obama Drone War 'Kill Chain' Imposes Heavy Burden At Home," that offers another drawback of drones: the psychological toll it takes on the the military intelligence officers who sift through data and watch computer screens all day to identify targets.  Apparently it's not just like playing a video game.  These military operators work 12-hour shifts, live under constant pressure for perfection, struggle with constant doubt and fear of deadly mistakes, and so their burnout rate is high.

By Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Wilkerson
May 4, 2013 | Guardian

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