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Drone Strikes and the Definition of War

November 28th, 2012 in Political by

Marines are trained to fire in unison at the enemy. It erases individual culpability by establishing a psychological barrier between the shooter and the target. Sharing the responsibility for a “kill” assuages personal guilt and allows soldiers to better compartmentalize traumatic events, or so the theory goes.

 This type of rationalization is made even more powerful (or palatable) by the remoteness that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” provide. For most of the past decade UAVs have hammered away at al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. And though there was little, if any, talk of controversial drone strikes during the presidential election, the use of UAVs has reached a tipping point in global politics.

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict. The struggle to define this type of faceless modern warfare suggests that we are moving away from a discussion of immorality and toward amorality; exactly the point our democratic ideals of “purposeful” and defensive war devolves into outright nihilism.

The anonymity and precision of drone strikes uses our military resources efficiently while wreaking havoc on our enemies abroad. They also enable the United States to carry out an offensive in a country like Pakistan when we are technically not at war with its government. In fact, we are operating with its tacit approval. For now. But if every strike was carried out directly by human hands, there would be little doubt we are indeed at war as it is conventionally defined. Now, in its second term, the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to declassify the drone program that everyone already knows about because it would put us firmly at odds with international law.

Unmanned drones were conceived and perfected by the George W. Bush administration but they were used far more sparingly compared to the Obama administration. Terrorism, or the threat of it, continues to be the raison d’etat that justifies our aggression and the use of drones. In this, the administrations are aligned. A terrorist killed with little collateral damage and zero American bloodshed is enticing but illusory because the technology is portable and easily replicable. It will undoubtedly be developed and deployed by other nations free to define targets by their own standards.

The tacit approval of drones by the Pakistani government does not erase the fact that we are threatening our national security in the long run; we are establishing an international precedent that we will someday be forced to confront.

To begin, many of the militants we target abroad have sought refuge in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. And our drones have followed. Yet if the government of Yemen, were it capable and so inclined, bombed a US-based manufacturing plant that produced parts for UAVs, they would technically be justified in doing so by our own standards. If China decided to send drones into Tibet, or if Russia targeted Georgia, the same logic would hold true.


The New York Times reporter Scott Shane revealed in an article Sunday concerns within the Obama administration over what they call an “amorphous” policy; this worry increased prior to the election for fear of leaving an open-ended policy to an incoming Romney administration. According to Shane, victory has allowed the White House to take its foot off of the accelerator for the moment, but it remains an important part of the president’s agenda.

But this kind of sudden realization that current policy might become permanent and out-of-control has become a troubling hallmark of the Obama presidency. Clear evidence of this is found in Obama’s refusal to fight the “indefinite detention” provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Critics fear that the language of this provision was so murky that it theoretically gives the government license to detain American citizens without due process. Instead of eliminating this verbiage and the conflict that surrounds it, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill that directly addresses the detention provision and essentially says that while he is aware of the fear it engenders, he would never use it to detain a US citizen. The very existence of the signing statement, however, is an admission that it is indeed open to interpretation; future presidents are not bound to Obama’s statement, but the law itself.

Understanding the psychology of the Obama administration or establishing a clear policy regarding drone strikes ultimately does nothing to more clearly delineate the nature of modern, human-less aggression. Carl von Clausewitz, who contributed as much to the understanding of our relationship with war as any writer on the subject, suggests in his defining work, On War, published in 1832, that: “The act of War can only be of two kinds; either the conquest of some small or moderate portion of the enemy’s country, or the defence (sic) of our own until better times.”

This was a practical analysis befitting the times that endured to the end of the last millennium. It defined conflict between nations but not necessarily between enemies as they are presently constituted. Post-9/11 warfare has pitted America, which relies on borders and nationalism, against roving mercenaries whose only allegiance is to a higher authority we cannot overcome. Clausewitz allows for wiggle room in his conventional theory, however.

“The third case, which is probably the most common, is when neither party has anything definite to look for from the future when therefore it furnishes no motive for decision. In this case the offensive War is plainly imperative upon him who is politically the aggressor.”

President Obama appears to be hedging his bet by placing a chip on each of the cases above. Furthermore, his reliance upon UAVs is loosely justified by its purported success thus far. But it also presents a persistent and impossible conundrum that assails our conventional understanding of war.

Somehow in this mess, this fog of invisible war, we must extricate ourselves from establishing precedent before it hardens into accepted global policy. If not, this dangerous game of cat and mouse will haunt us as it disperses our enemies while strengthening their resolve. Only by bolstering ties and intelligence in this region through financial support and diplomatic incentives will we assemble a righteous strategy for the future. Moreover, a retreat from this policy preserves our right to punish our enemies authoritatively with the support of our allies, while regaining the moral high ground. 

To walk softly and carry a big stick implies restraint, and restraint implies strength and confidence. These are characteristics closer to what the president exudes, which begs the question as to why he has tethered himself to policies that are so cowardly.

Author: Jed Morey

Jed Morey is the publisher of the Long Island Press, LI's Cultural Arts and Investigative News Journal. The Press has a monthly circulation of 100,000, and www.longislandpress.com, welcomes more than 500,000 unique visitors every month. He serves on the board of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Nassau County, as well as the President's Council of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Long Island. In addition to the contributions on this blog, Morey authors a column for the Long Island Press titled "Off The Reservation" and is a staunch advocate for Indian rights. The column was voted Best Column in New York by the NY Press Association in 2010 and third overall in the nation among alternative publications by the Association of Alternative Weeklies in 2012. Morey lives in Glen Cove with his wife, Eden White, and their two daughters.

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One Comment

Dorian Dale

February 20th, 2013

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