Every Sunday the Washington Post recruits a purported expert on some subject to write a column entitled “5 Myths about [the subject],” which is printed on page 2 of the “Outlook” Section. This expert gives an introductory paragraph and then lists the five, with a rebuttal of each. As it turns out, one or two of the so-called myths may indeed be such, but as often as not the item is a straw man that no one really believes, or is subtly distorted from what people actually believe to make it easier to refute, or is in fact true while the “expert’s” argument is wrong. Let us see for this week, with the brackets filled in as “Obama’s Drone War,” and the “expert” one Mark R. Jacobson, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and a former NATO official in Afghanistan.
Jacobson’s introductory paragraph reminds us that “new military technologies have always created strategic and ethical dilemmas,” going back to the 12th century. Of course this conveniently suggests a ho-hum quality to any objections to drone warfare, in advance of their being offered.
“Myth” #1: “Drones are immoral.” Here J. gives the obligatory denial that hardware has a soul (which no one has claimed for this case as far as I know) and states that any morality has to accrue to the people who operate the machines. Then, although several people have objected that drones increase the distance between killer and killed in comparison with manned bombers, thus making the kill psychologically easier, J. will have none of this. Instead, he says,
the psychological proximity can be closer for drone pilots than for other military personnel. Intense surveillance makes these pilots so familiar with their targets — when they sleep, eat and see their families — that some have reported difficulty reconciling that intimacy after they’ve pulled the trigger.
(emphasis added) Wow! How did the families get in there (see next “myth”). But notice that the operative word is “after.” This “refutation” concludes that the real moral issue is “targeting and transparency” and cites the administration’s release of that black paper, without noting its ambiguities that Kevin and others at FDL have written about.
“Myth” #2: “Drone strikes cause inordinate civilian casualties.” Here is the most mendacious of J.’s “refutations,” because it makes no mention of cases like the targeting of people going to funerals of those killed in previous strikes or attempting to rescue those attacked (see Kevin here). Instead it makes the standard point that more civilians are killed when “massive” bombs are used and notes a debate between NYT and the New American Foundation about how many civilian casualties have actually happened. J. does allow that there is a danger of the perception of drones as killing innocents becoming widespread, in which case the “larger strategic objective … could be at risk.” In short, if refutations like this one don’t work there is trouble for the War On Terror, and you can draw your own conclusion as to whether or not it’s at hand.
“Myth” #3: “Drones allow us to fight wars without danger.” I’ll concede this one. J. says that you are going to need the proverbial boots on the ground for reasons like gathering intelligence for targeting, and that one cannot “substitute targeting for strategy,” given that you still have to deal with local leaders.
“Myth” #4: “Drones are technologically complex weapons that only rich nations can afford.” To refute this J. observes that they are cheaper than conventional aircraft, and that 50 countries now have surveillance drones, if not yet the weaponized variety; he then blathers about whether or not there should be international rules for their use. But this is like claiming that nuclear weapons have “proliferated” because a few countries have a few, whereas the U.S. has enough that it could destroy the solar system several times over (granted that it would take time for them to reach the outer planets). Maybe lots of countries have drones, but the U.S. is the one with the real kill power.
“Myth” 5: “Obama will be remembered as the drone president.” That is, to cite what has now been widely mentioned, “King had a Dream; Obama has a Drone.” J. simply gives up trying to refute this one, and leaves it as an open question. He observes that the technology has advanced to the point of making it possible for Obama to have perpetrated many more strikes than Bush, and says that “it will remain critical” for Brennan and the White House to make a good case for their use. But during this argument he claims that:
In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Brennan emphasized his commitment to Congress’s oversight of overt and covert programs.
Yeah, right. As to the veracity of this comment, simply go to the search box at the top of the Firedoglake main page, enter “Brennan hearing,” click, and read as many entries as you have time for.
I will make one point in summary. Both the legitimacy and overall planning of the War On Terror are understood as given throughout the piece; only the character of the weaponry used is questioned to the extent that it is. That makes for an inadequate discussion to say the least.
Photo by Brigadier Lance Mans, Deputy Director, NATO Special Operations Coordination Centre, in the public domain.