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US use of drones: The good and bad
August 15, 2013 6:47 AM   Subscribe

This article covers the US drone program. It looks at the pilots of drones, the decisions to use a drone, their highly effective short terms goals vs long term potential blowback and whether drone strikes are legal.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (50 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Peace drone: A proposal to United States Armed Forces
posted by Kabanos at 7:29 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle.

Laser guided, it has a length of 1,62m, a diameter of 17.7cm, and a wingspan of 0,71m. Propelled by a solid fuel rocket, it has a maximum velocity of just under 1000 miles an hour.

It's one thing for a sniper to take out someone from a mile away with a 0,50 caliber bullet, but dropping an AGM-114 missile on a guy from half a world away seems cold-blooded. At least the sniper is on the ground and can take some personal responsibility for innocents. The guy in the air conditioned room in Vegas? Is he really gonna care about those kids in the car? Yeah, I get the idea about not exposing "our guys" to personal risks, but it seems without that one might be encouraged to take casual risks with the lives of others.
posted by three blind mice at 7:33 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Hellfire is also supersonic. So you are dead before you hear it coming.
posted by 256 at 7:35 AM on August 15, 2013


The guy in the air conditioned room in Vegas? Is he really gonna care about those kids in the car?

According the article, he will.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's really a well-written apologia for the use of drones. I mean, his central metaphor is corrupt: in the case at hand, it is Goliath who has the sling.

It reminds me of a throwaway, yet trenchant, critique by Michael Herr of the Vietnam war: the problem was not that Americans were overseas slaughtering foreigners by the thousands, but that Americans themselves were being dirtied by their own actions. In this article we are meant to feel poorly for the ambassador to Pakistan for being put in a difficult position relative to his superiors. We are meant to feel some sort of compassion for the sullying of American institutions or values, as if these were inavoidable consequences of a distant agency - he writes, "history will not quarrel with Bush's decision [to declare war on terror]".

"History will not quarrel". Such arrogant certainty.

We are never invited to feel much of anything for the innocent "collaterally damaged" civilians, who the author admits number in at least the hundreds. It's just a really myopic article from someone who carries a lot of baggage to his word processor.
posted by Rumple at 7:41 AM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


The guy in the air conditioned room in Vegas? Is he really gonna care about those kids in the car?

Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do
posted by dudemanlives at 7:42 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, why does the Peace Drone have a penis for a nose?
posted by dudemanlives at 7:43 AM on August 15, 2013


At a drone industry convention in Washington this week, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) requested that journalists stop calling drones 'drones' [Washington Times]. The term is "seen by some as having an inherently negative connotation that doesn’t accurately describe the awesome technology and potential positive uses of today’s unmanned aerial vehicles". So far the "Don't Say Drones" campaign has had little success.

AUVSI president Michael Toscano suggests the phrase "unmanned aerial system" as a more accurate replacement.

Alternate terms suggested by Reddit include: freedom fliers, murdercopters, killplanes, slaughterhawks, and snugglebots.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:46 AM on August 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


That's an excellent piece, thanks for posting it.
posted by yoink at 7:47 AM on August 15, 2013


At a drone industry convention in Washington this week, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) requested that journalists stop calling drones 'drones' [Washington Times].

That was also brought up in the fucking article.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:58 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


MIT Technology Review also recently had a good article on drones and their uses: The World as Free-Fire Zone. It covers much the same moral and technical areas, but a different writing style and perspective.

Unrelated: I'm starting to see "drone" used as a transitive verb. "Last month the US droned 23 civilians in Yemen".
posted by Nelson at 8:05 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is an excellent and really well-balanced piece. If you want drone strikes to stop, as I do, it is not enough to condemn them as immoral. We must impose a new legal framework on them. In the current post 9/11 War On Terror legal environment, getting bent out of shape about drone strikes is like, to quote Apocalypse Now, like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. Drones are just warplanes without pilots, and in my book they are a damn sight better than dropping tons of bombs on a city to destroy a single target, which is how we used to handle these matters.

We're out of Iraq, withdrawing from Afghanistan, and bin Laden is dead. Pressure your Representative and Senator to repeal the Authorization of the Use of Military Force and the Patriot Act. Replace it with a more acceptable legal framework for future counterterrorist action that protects civil liberties and stops extrajudicial killing. That's how the American political system was designed to work, and that's the only thing that's going to pull us back from the abyss. If your Representative or Senator votes against such a repeal, campaign against him and vote him out of office.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:08 AM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


I despise the WoT, Iraq War, and the US's handling of the war in Afghanistan. That said, drones are less bad than what was done with regular bomber and planes in these and previous wars.

The problem is that there is no cost to the people who order these strikes. But even with more conventional strikes the cost to the leaders is far far less than the people carrying out the strikes and of course the people being bombed with even less "precision" weapons. The biggest cost (IMO) to the leaders in the past has been the pressure from the friends, families and well wishers of the Americans killed. And there are way less of these. Without US deaths, the costs to US leaders is very low.

So I find this a difficult topic. If you must kill people, are drones actually worse than the alternatives from recent history? But making it too easy means it gets done more.

I wish I thought that we were going to dismantle the US's post 9/11 security state and back away from frankly disastrous policies that came to a head in that era. I just don't really see it happening. This isn't something really new. It's just an acceleration of a trend that started decades ago.
posted by jclarkin at 8:20 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


in my book they are a damn sight better than dropping tons of bombs on a city to destroy a single target, which is how we used to handle these matters.

Well, that's the issue, isn't it? It's better. It's far too much better. 'These matters' (killing people, to use a less arm's-length phrase) were previously solved in other ways when they had to be, but now that the solution is so much easier, the matters seem to be cropping up a damned sight more frequently.
Unless you think that there were as many city-bombing US airstrikes previously as there are drone strikes currently.
posted by forgetful snow at 8:24 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


But making it too easy means it gets done more. According to the article, it's being done less now, so ... Did you read the article? Meanwhile, I know the US was sending out bombers in Iraq nearly every day (not an exaggeration, from what an academic int'l relations specialist told me before 9-11) even before 9-11 or the 2003 invasion, at least from the late '90s on.
posted by raysmj at 8:29 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's refreshing to read an article that considers "Are drones better than any other plausible reaction to global terrorism?" rather than "Are drones better than world peace?" The former is an important question; the latter is a brain-numbing fantasy.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:37 AM on August 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


Unless you think that there were as many city-bombing US airstrikes previously as there are drone strikes currently.

No, but arguably an equally valid question is "are there as many US-caused civilian casualties previously as there are civilian casualties to drone strikes currently," and the author does take up this point. He argues that, once US ground forces are engaged, the desire to protect these forces from harm has caused us to be much more cavalier about "collateral damage". From the article (emphasis added):

"There’s another example of a law-enforcement-style raid that conforms to the model that O’Connell and other drone critics prefer: the October 1993 Delta Force raid in Mogadishu ... the ensuing firefight left 18 Americans dead and killed an estimated 500 to 1,000 Somalis—a number comparable to the total civilian deaths from all drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 through the first half of 2013, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists’ estimates."
posted by mr vino at 8:44 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Less than Iraq during the middle of a hot war, but would we really be bombing Yemen without drones? Pakistan?

Will we regret not coming up with a better legal framework as drones become even cheaper and ubiquitous? The US will not be the only country using this kind of capability.

It's like tazers. The police in many places in the US appear to be much more prepared to escalate to violence in situations where they would have used words to de-escalate. Is that really an improvement?
posted by jclarkin at 8:46 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't see how the fluctuation of drone use addresses the point, raysmj, but fair enough because I wasn't very clear. jclarkin put it much more succinctly than I could.
*deletes several paragraphs*
posted by forgetful snow at 9:04 AM on August 15, 2013


The problem is that there is no cost to the people who order these strikes.

I never really understand this complaint. For one thing, it has not ordinarily been the case that people ordering military strikes have also faced the risks of battle for a very, very, very long time. Drones have done nothing to change that calculus at all. But we also hear the idea that what makes drones "evil" is that the people controlling them aren't risking their lives: that this makes them somehow "unfair"--unlike conventional warfare. This, too, strikes me as morally bizarre and (in terms of the supposed consequences of such asymmetry) factually wrong.

From a moral perspective, if we accept that a military action is justified in a particular situation then it seems to me self-evident that we should do everything we can to minimize the harm done to our own troops. No one says we ought to deliberately strip military vehicles of armor or refuse to let troops wear protective gear so as to give the other side a "fighting chance." War is not a sport and it would be morally insane to treat it as such. The fact that drones do not put our own soldiers in harms way seems to me completely a vote in their favor.

And then from a consequentialist point of view, the argument that being able to deploy drones without risking the deaths of our own troops will mean a constant temptation to reach for cost-free military solutions when once we would have balked at the potential loss of blood and treasure: well, the history of drone deployment since their first use proves that to be quite false. Drones are killing fewer and fewer people each year (fewer and fewer civilians, in particular). They are used infinitely more scrupulously and with infinitely more care and deliberation than has ever been the case with the deployment of troops on the ground. Indeed, one of the great advantages of drones is that they reduce the famous "fog of war": drone pilots are not isolated, scared, infantrymen unsure what perils might lie behind every window and every street corner and every car they see around them, and consequently apt to shoot first and figure out what was and wasn't a genuine threat later. They can consult with higher-ups, they can take their time, they know that making the wrong call about what is and isn't a threat won't get them killed.

There are good arguments to be made about the negative consequences of drone attacks in terms of "blowback" and the radicalization of the populations who find themselves subject to these attacks, but most of the arguments I see being made against drones seem very tenuously related to the actual reality of the drone programs and their real effect or at all honest about the trade-offs involved in substituting conventional military tactics for drone warfare.
posted by yoink at 9:07 AM on August 15, 2013 [16 favorites]


most of the arguments I see being made against drones seem very tenuously related to the actual reality of the drone programs and their real effect or at all honest about the trade-offs involved in substituting conventional military tactics for drone warfare.

yoink, you make some good points, but I don't think it's the moral dilemma of "putting troops in harms way" that's at issue here. The ease of drone deployment is scary because drones require little footprint, and are essentially capable of three actions: observe, kill, or do nothing. It's really a frighteningly perfect solution to deal with non-state adversaries. Conventional military tactics will never be a substitute for drone warfare, because drone warfare is optimized for a long-distance engagement with a nebulous, undefined (or define-as-you-go) enemy.

For example, the United States can now conduct drone strikes against what it deems as enemies in a failed state like Pakistan, whereas if we were to maintain an actual significant military presence there, it would have a much larger footprint on internal tensions in that country. Traditionally, that footprint acted as a check on how far the United States military would be willing to get involved, as any internal conflict or god forbid a civil war would be seen as "U.S. meddling."

Anyway, I don't like drones because they are given license to make their entire world their battlefield, and their lack of presence (and attack surface) naturally leads to a lack of accountability.
posted by antonymous at 9:49 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Forget Iraq for a moment or Afghanistan: illegal wars that brought to power assorted mobsters and fanatics in both countries in vastly worse circumstances than when this whole war on Terra started and where drones can't be considered significantly worse than planes anyway. It's a warzone, illegal or not and war crimes were part of the campaign since day 1...
But that it is considered cool that the US can remotely kill people in countries it is not at war with, and over which it has no jurisdiction whatsoever, based on no legal process and accepting as a fact of life that innocents will be killed in such a catastrophic attack (which wouldn't happen without the drones - the closest is Clinton's bombing of the Sudanese drug factory in 1998) is so breathtakingly barbaric that one can only respond by quoting the MIT Technology Review piece, mentioned in Nelson's comment above (a point the article drops immediately though), as a counterpoint:
Imagine that Mexican commanders launched an air strike on a border town in California because their enemies were hiding there and that, as a result of poor aim or bad intelligence or dumb luck, a few dozen American citizens were killed. The American people and the U.S. government would be outraged, and justifiably so
It's actually worse: Had the Mexican Army used unilaterally deadly force on a US citizen, killing him extrajudicially with a drone strike, even if he was provably involved in drug trafficking say, the US would no doubt consider this an act of war by Mexico, even *without* a single innocent collateral victim. Even though the Drug Wars now in Mexico have indeed taken the lives of vastly more Mexicans than Yemeni "terrorists" ever could have against US civilians.
Of course the opening metaphor of the US drones being like a sling in the hands of David fighting Goliath is not even ass backwards. A more apt metaphor for the US drone system vs assorted Asian goatherds would be more like a platoon of Philistines acquiring dozens of catapults to fire against David and his tens of underage children, squashing them to a pulp and congratulating themselves on this being an inherently more humane way to wipe out their enemies than slaughtering them and disemboweling them by hand...
Drones are elements of a global Judge Dread system {"kill list" indeed) of state terrorism that the US considers OK to inflict on every country it likes - Third World for now, but who knows in a few years! While this is not merely a question of drone technologies, there is no doubt in my mind that they have become a significant, even critical tool in the US government's arsenal against an form of international law that could constrain its freedom to kill at will...
posted by talos at 9:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


But that it is considered cool that the US can remotely kill people in countries it is not at war with, and over which it has no jurisdiction whatsoever, based on no legal process and accepting as a fact of life that innocents will be killed in such a catastrophic attack (which wouldn't happen without the drones - the closest is Clinton's bombing of the Sudanese drug factory in 1998)

But there is nothing remotely new in this at all. 'Gunboat diplomacy' goes back a long, long, long way (long before there were such things as gunboats, indeed). Nations have always been willing to exercise military force in localized raids or skirmishes when they deem it in their national interest and have never seen it as necessary to formally declare war in order to do so: except when the countries involved are large enough and powerful enough that the limited raid itself would be taken as a casus belli. To suggest that drones have enabled some new and hitherto unheard of contempt for what used to be a world ruled by cast iron respect for an agreed upon framework of international law is just nonsense. It is, in fact, a prime example of the kinds of bad arguments against drones we hear all the time.
posted by yoink at 10:18 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Indeed, one of the great advantages of drones is that they reduce the famous "fog of war":

But perhaps this is negated by the increased dehumanization of drones. At least at My Lai massacre you had GI's who cared and tried to stop the mass murder. I could easily see how drone pilots could kill a few hundred people at a wedding, or whatever, then spend an hour at the strip club, back to work to kill a few more people, then home to watch a little TV and back in the morning to do it all again. All done in the comfort of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Any word about innocent people being killed can be passed off as propaganda or unfortunate, but necessary, collateral damage. It's a little harder to dismiss the consequences of pulling the trigger when someone has to stand and watch the dying grandmother rolling out of a car that he just riddled with bullets for driving to closely to a US checkpoint in Iraq.

Perhaps the only way to "win" the "war on terror" is to empower people living with "terrorists" to turn against them, but there would seem to be a need for enough freedom and functioning government, security, education, etc., for that to happen. I would like to think someone like Malala Yousafzai could be a much greater weapon against the Taliban than drones. I don't think pacifism works, but maybe she might convince me otherwise.
I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all those terrorists and extremists.

I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.

Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.

This is the compassion that I have learned from Muhammad, the prophet of mercy, and Jesus Christ.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:49 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


But perhaps this is negated by the increased dehumanization of drones. At least at My Lai massacre you had GI's who cared and tried to stop the mass murder. I could easily see how drone pilots could kill a few hundred people at a wedding, or whatever, then spend an hour at the strip club, back to work to kill a few more people, then home to watch a little TV and back in the morning to do it all again. All done in the comfort of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Any word about innocent people being killed can be passed off as propaganda or unfortunate, but necessary, collateral damage. It's a little harder to dismiss the consequences of pulling the trigger when someone has to stand and watch the dying grandmother rolling out of a car that he just riddled with bullets for driving to closely to a US checkpoint in Iraq.

Except that this is contradicted by pretty much all the reporting on the drone program we have, including the article in the FPP. More civilians die in conventional military actions than in drone attacks and drone pilots do not display the callous "wheee, it's all a video game" disconnection from their actions that you hypothesize. My Lai type atrocities seem to me entirely predictable outcomes of conventional war; I doubt there has ever been a long-standing conventional war that has not had its share of them--mostly unreported. They strike me as far more likely to result either from the actions of raw recruits freaking out when they're first exposed to front line action or from veterans who are cracking up under the strain of a long deployment. They seem to me extremely unlikely to occur in the context of drone operations, however, precisely because the operators A) do not have the stress of constant threat of death or injury facing them and B) are operating in a context of collective decision making.
posted by yoink at 11:57 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


They seem to me extremely unlikely to occur in the context of drone operations, however, precisely because the operators A) do not have the stress of constant threat of death or injury facing them and B) are operating in a context of collective decision making.

I don't know, the decisions to drop Fat Boy and Little Man on populated cities instead of military targets, and fire bomb Dresden, Tokyo, etc, seem to have been made collectively and away from the stress of combat.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:12 PM on August 15, 2013


I don't know, the decisions to drop Fat Boy and Little Man on populated cities instead of military targets, and fire bomb Dresden, Tokyo, etc, seem to have been made collectively and away from the stress of combat.

Yes, but now you're kinda just randomly grabbing "horrible things" and equating them in no very meaningful way to the drone operation. If you're worried about "how do we stop the next My Lai" then that's one kind of question. It's not a question which has much, if anything, to do with "how do we stop the next firebombing of Dresden." And in neither case are drones the slippery first step towards either of those things.
posted by yoink at 12:19 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that both this article and the Technology Review piece reach essentially the same conclusion: We should repeal the AUMF and replace it with something less broadly applicable and subject to more Congressional oversight. I'm a little surprised to see people agreeing with the words Coppola put into Patton's mouth:
Correspondent: General, we're told of wonder weapons the Germans were working on: Long-range rockets, push-button bombing weapons that don't need soldiers. What's your take on that?

Patton: Wonder weapons? My God, I don't see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those that are left alive and those that are left... dead. I'm glad I won't live to see it.
Total War is nothing new. Civilian casualties have been a part of war since at least time time of the Peloponnesian War. Of course unnecessary loss of life is deplorable, but it's part of the cost of making war on and killing your enemies. I'm just as uncomfortable with the "Trust Us" doctrine inherent in the "Kill List" as everyone else. Bad policy doesn't make drones inherently bad though, even if they are "unfair."

P.S. Re The psychological effects of remote warfare on drone pilots: "Wonder Weapons and the Half-Dead"
posted by ob1quixote at 12:20 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Indeed, one of the great advantages of drones is that they reduce the famous 'fog of war'"

This seems ... WTF. I think there's plenty of room for being confused in the situation of using drones - at every level.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:14 PM on August 15, 2013


I don't think there's any question precision guidance is a moral (albeit technical) advance in the prosecution of warfare (the moral issues with war, any given war and the details of prosecution themselves aside).
Tough to hold a drone accountable though. That's always been the problem with collective authority, responsibility gets diluted. On the other hand that's been going on for a long time too.

From the other side, as drones proliferate and the warfighting evolves to parity, how do we find who is responsible for hitting us?
More a technical question really, but I suspect it will have more of an effect on shaping the law.
And too, how sovereignty is defined, international law and the use of force, what a terrorist is and appropriate responses to a terrorist act.
Once drones are more widespread, we're going to have to think a lot more about what a legitimate target is and what's acceptable in terms of collateral.
I think the ROE are really going to break people's balls.
Because what's the distinction - the legally demonstrable distinction - between collateral damage and deliberate targeting of civilians absent transparency?
Or even given transparency - hey, we thought Joe Terrorist was there. Sorry.

Most of the thinking on this is being done though the veil of the power imbalance we currently have and without the benefit of knowing the effect of it ourselves.

If the EU hit some house in suburban Dallas with a drone, killed a legitimate target, but took out 20-odd people at a barbeque next door, what's the response?

Probably a lawsuit I'd think. Over time that's probably going to be counted as part of the cost of using drones.
But we're going to have to be more transparent and open. Precisely because terrorists and illegitimate users aren't going to be.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there's plenty of room for being confused in the situation of using drones - at every level.

I said "reduce," not "eliminate." Yes, there is plenty of room for mistake, error etc., but far less than for troops on the ground. A drone pilot, except when they are operating in support of ground troops, is rarely in the position of having to make snap life-and-death decisions. In particular, they are never in the position of thinking "if I do the wrong thing here, me or my buddies will be dead." They are not subject to psychological effects like contagious fire, etc. etc. When you read about ground-troop level experience in war you realize that half the time you have no idea who you're firing at, no idea if they present a real threat or not, often no idea what your overall objective is or how your part of the mission relates to that overall objective etc. Drone pilots, while not immune to these problems, are far, far less vulnerable to them.
posted by yoink at 3:27 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


jclarkin: I specifically noted that I was talking about manned sorties and bombing outside of a "hot" war. But, y'know, never mind, I guess.
posted by raysmj at 4:10 PM on August 15, 2013


Yes, but now you're kinda just randomly grabbing "horrible things" and equating them in no very meaningful way to the drone operation.

I wasn't trying to equate drone killing with anything. You were making the point that it is better to have people in the Pentagon or wherever pulling the trigger, perhaps in a "15-minute decision and the first 14 are for coffee" as Rumsfeld would say, where they are away from the stress and pressure of combat, and I was just trying to suggest that having people make these decisions when they are not forced to see the innocent people, children, or even "guilty" people, killed as a result of their actions may not be the best thing.

Perhaps a better comparison would be, as a thought experiment, replacing every drone strike we've done in the last few years with a special forces raid like the Bin Laden raid. I would guess if we were to have used bombs to take out Bin Laden, as the CIA supposedly suggested, more of Bin Laden's wives and children would have been killed.
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:32 PM on August 15, 2013


yoink, a few points:
As far as actual war is concerned I do agree that the difference is psychological more than material (although "psychological" can easily acquire "material" consequences, one should note). But in terms of drones as an instrument of undeclared war I disagree: it is indeed a deadlier and more frequently and indiscriminately used instrument that the usual covert operations would allow:
1. There is no doubt in my mind that the availability of drones has increased the number of attacks and extra-judicial killings the US government is involved in. It seems improbable that the US would attack targets in "friendly" Pakistan, 250 times in 3.5 years if it weren't for drones, and it seems improbable that Pakistan would allow the sorts of non-drone military operations on its soil it would take to attempt them.
2. If you look at the full range of casualty estimates listed on the w/p article you will see that as far as the Pakistani government is concerned the target to civilian ratio is more like 1/50. This is a massacre by any standards, and even Byman of the Brookings institute put the ratio at around 10 to 1 in 2009 when the worse of the campaign hadn't even started, and targets were, one assumes, more carefully selected. In a non-war zone this is a preposterous number, and if it were committed by any other country it would be denounced as a Crime Against Humanity type of action.
3. Look at Yemen for example where apparently even talking with a suspected AQAP member classifies you as a combatant: You had "a drone a day" in June. These were attacks that would certainly not happen if the logistics behind them weren't so simple and their public exposure wasn't so minimal. "The US is simply bombing "suspects" and hoping they are killing terrorists. 'The US is running to drones every time its counter-terrorism efforts fail'" said a secular Yemeni activist recently and that sort of tells you that the time-tested policy of blindly bombing people from afar so as to appear you are doing something against "terrorism" has, with the help of drones, jumped to a whole new level
4. In a war zone you expect danger, collateral casualties are deplorable but defensible to an extent. Not so when you are sitting in your house in an otherwise peaceful neighborhood and death comes raining on you and your family, or your friends. This is exactly the same as if the police justified blowing up an apartment building to kill a murder suspect - and as arbitrary.
5. That this whole thing is counterproductive on the ground is kind of universally acknowledged but not my concern. I am frightened though by one thing: that along with the US, a whole generation of people in the Middle East are seeing the "West" as some evil entity that rains death on people indiscriminately and are being pushed to the extremist nonsense of Islamist kooks. This can't be a good thing in the long run unless one's aim is to perpetuate some sort of permanent war
posted by talos at 3:19 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


a whole generation of people in the Middle East are seeing the "West" as some evil entity that rains death on people indiscriminately and are being pushed to the extremist nonsense of Islamist kooks.

But this is neither new, nor a product of drone warfare. This narrative has been going around the middle east for decades. Drones have nothing to do with it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:38 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


More civilians die in conventional military actions than in drone attacks and drone pilots do not display the callous "wheee, it's all a video game" disconnection from their actions that you hypothesize.

This is not at all clear and it would be nice if you could back up all of your pronouncements about our use of drones with some kind of sources. Your nice little moral calculus leaves out the very important fact that we don't know who we are killing.

There's also your spurious claim that drone strikes are less lethal to civilians than conventional airstrikes.

A study conducted by a US military adviser has found that drone strikes in Afghanistan during a year of the protracted conflict caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.

"This data from Afghanistan, if accurate, suggests that the precision may be overstated in some contexts, and requires us to dig deeper into strike practices," said Sarah Knuckey, an adviser to the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who is currently investigating the impact of drone strikes on civilians.

"The key question raised is: What explains the discrepancy between civilian casualties from UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] and manned aircraft strikes? To enable fair external assessment, the government should release the underlying data, redacted as necessary."

posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


ThatFuzzyBastard: You could say that drone warfare against people outside war areas brings daily confirmation of this narrative by even more terrifying means. And expands the war-zone to everybody's neighborhood, potentially. It also allows the US to play judge, jury and executioner at the whim of its government to an unprecedented extent. The people on the ground in Yemen in the articles I linked to all point out that drone warfare in Yemen (the extent of which would be farcical if it wasn't so deadly) is turning people who abhored the salafists into friends for AQAP, at a really fast rate...
posted by talos at 9:44 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


The other thing the drone proponents conveniently left out of their moral calculus is that we have demonstrated a policy of double tap strikes. After the primary strike the drone will wait until first responders have arrived and then strike again.

U.S. Said to Target Rescuers at Drone Strike Sites

Bureau investigation finds fresh evidence of CIA drone strikes on rescuers

US drone strikes target rescuers in Pakistan – and the west stays silent
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:05 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


most of the arguments I see being made against drones seem very tenuously related to the actual reality of the drone programs and their real effect or at all honest about the trade-offs involved in substituting conventional military tactics for drone warfare.

This is what we in the biz like to call a "strawman". This doesn't actually made one bit of sense. In all your rambling you never once mentioned a)that we don't know who we are killing, b)that some reports show that drone strikes are actually more lethal to civilians than conventional air power, or c) that we have the habit of murdering first responders in cold blood. All of which seem to contradict your sterile little narrative. Real innocent people are dying and it is not an accident. It is part of a plan. A rational(or insane depending on one's point of view I suppose) cost benefit analysis carried out by the regime in Washington. The current occupant of the Whitehouse got on national tv and cried crocodile tears for the children of Newtown while under his watch our drone rangers have perpatrated 5 Newtowns worth of dead children. But of course no one is clamoring to take away the military's "assault weapons" because you know we need those for defense...against all the women and children and first responders.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:18 PM on August 16, 2013


This is what we in the biz like to call a "strawman". This doesn't actually made one bit of sense. In all your rambling you never once mentioned a)that we don't know who we are killing, b)that some reports show that drone strikes are actually more lethal to civilians than conventional air power, or c) that we have the habit of murdering first responders in cold blood.

You might want to look up "strawman" because what you quote--whether or not you disagree with it--cannot possibly be one of those. I'm not imputing an argument to the "other side" falsely or otherwise.

As for your "a, b and c" points they suffer from the only slight problem of not being true. Or, at least, by and large no longer being true. There does seem to have been a period where the drone attacks were more indiscriminate than they are currently, but even during those years it is laughable to suggest that drone pilots were less likely to know "who they were killing" than most forms of conventional weaponry: does the person who releases bombs from an aircraft know more about "who they are killing" than a drone pilot? Does the person who fires artillery shells know more about "who they are killing" than a drone pilot? Does the person firing a gun at a car approaching a checkpoint that has failed to stop know more about "who they are killing" than the drone pilot? No, clearly not.

It is true that there are "some reports" that show drones to be "more lethal" than conventional weaponry: those reports are what we call, in the trade, "false." There are no credible, widely respected assessments of the effects of drone warfare--particularly as it is currently practiced--that support the claim even a tiny, tiny bit. Deaths by drone are a small fraction of the overall casualties of the war in Afghanistan.

And as for your "c" point: the "double tap" thing is largely just anti-American propaganda. I'm sure there must be some times when something like that actually happened, but there is no evidence at all that it has ever been a consistent US policy and it is very clear that nothing remotely like that is happening under the current drone policy.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


And as for your "c" point: the "double tap" thing is largely just anti-American propaganda.

But your points aren't pro-American propaganda, are they?

You might want to look up "strawman" because what you quote--whether or not you disagree with it--cannot possibly be one of those. I'm not imputing an argument to the "other side" falsely or otherwise.

You said:

most of the arguments I see being made against drones seem very tenuously related to the actual reality of the drone programs and their real effect or at all honest about the trade-offs involved in substituting conventional military tactics for drone warfare.

The thread I read had the anti-drone contingent saying that we probably shouldn't be committing acts of terror against civilian populations with drones, conventional forces, or otherwise. The fact that drones are being used to kill innocent civilians is probably why people are up in arms about drones. Are you really going to claim that we would just shrug our shoulders and say: "Oh well it they used B-1Bs to kill those innocent people so I guess that's ok...carry on chaps!!!" This is of course absurd. The point being made, which seems to have gone completely over your head, is not that drones are inherently more evil, but that drones by their very nature lend to less judicious and more frequent use. So it stands to reason that if we want our government to stop bombing people we are probably going to be against any new technology that makes that easier; not because of some moral calculus that you create for us to suit your own rhetorical needs. So your straw man is that we are worried about tactics when we are really worried about innocent people being murdered by "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

You also claim some type of special knowledge about what the "actual reality" on the ground is, while at the same time claiming that reports to the contrary are "not true." Please by all means illuminate us as to how you gained such an intimate knowledge of the reality on the ground.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 2:56 PM on August 16, 2013


This is not at all clear and it would be nice if you could back up all of your pronouncements about our use of drones with some kind of sources.

That was backed by *the article at the link*. I suggest you give it a read before joining in the conversation below.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:12 PM on August 16, 2013


That was backed by *the article at the link*. I suggest you give it a read before joining in the conversation below.

You mean the one from the establishment press whore who parrots the party line. Please. Give me one good reason I should believe a word he writes when he is so obviously a sycophant for the powerful. Listen in his own words there is no other alternative but war, drones or conventional, but war there will be:

No civilian death is acceptable, of course. Each one is tragic. But any assessment of civilian deaths from drone strikes needs to be compared with the potential damage from alternative tactics. Unless we are to forgo the pursuit of al-Qaeda terrorists entirely, U.S. forces must confront them either from the air or on the ground, in some of the remotest places on Earth. As aerial attacks go, drones are far more precise than manned bombers or missiles. That narrows the choice to drone strikes or ground assaults.

So there you have it folks in black and white. Real civilian deaths are less important than potential terror attacks in the United States. Actual Afghan, Pakistani, or Somali lives are not worth as much as hypothetical American ones. It is a coldblooded calculus gussied up to be palatable to your average American liberal.

Yet the enemies we face will not change if the war on terror ends. The worst of them—the ones we most need to stop—are determined suicidal killers and hardened fighters. Since there is no such thing as global police, any force employed would likely still come from, in most cases, American special-ops units. They are very good at what they do—but under law-enforcement rules, a lot more people, both soldiers and civilians, are likely to be killed.

Team America, FUCK YEAH!!!

No thanks. While this piece does cover a lot of ground it is at its core an apology for the actions of Barack Obama and that cunt Brennan...oh sorry I meant “almost priestly” instead of cunt; really I did. So in other words it is a propaganda piece plain and simple. The author is a media whore who wrote a book called "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden" for christ sakes. Not to mention "Black Hawk Down" I mean if that doesn't distinguish him as a court stenographer for the Obama regime, and the ruling class in general, I don't know what does. And in case you haven't been paying attention for the last 100 years or so the ruling class has a penchant for lying to the American public for as long as it can get away with it. But still, you people keep eating shit like this up and voting for crooks like Barack Obama, Clintons, and Bushes. Fuck our next presidential election could very well be another Bush v. Clinton contest. I'm sure that whoever wins will have plenty of willing whores in the press to apologize for their future war crimes as well.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:58 PM on August 16, 2013


Ah, it's a crazy person! Well, I'll be backing away slowly then.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:36 PM on August 16, 2013


Ah, it's a crazy person! Well, I'll be backing away slowly then.

Let me try one more time...when you said:

That was backed by *the article at the link*. I suggest you give it a read before joining in the conversation below.

I did read the article but according to the most reliable and recent sources of which I'm aware there have been exactly zero successful scientific research projects carried out in any of the "drone zones" (If there are mea culpa and link please). If there are any in existence they are probably classified, but the military doesn't do body counts and yada yada Iraq war logs. Either way Mark Bowden's knowledge of what the situation is like on the ground seems to be very limited. Not once in his piece does he ever attempt to humanize the people we are talking about killing. He empathizes with the drone pilots, the bureaucrats, the executive branch, and even us the gentle readers. Not one attempt to talk to the family of someone who has lost a loved one to a drone attack. Not one vignette from the perspective of those who will pay ultimate price of our actions.

Here is a much more balanced approach from a more credible and less "embedded" source:

There has been no large-scale study of covert drone strikes based on ground reporting in any of the places where the US operates, but several organizations have investigated incidents of civilian harm in Pakistan or aggregated news reports of particular strikes. Although their findings diverge on the ultimate figures of civilian deaths, they consistently point to significantly higher civilian casualties than those suggested by the US government’s statements. It is little wonder these studies differ on the number of civilian deaths; the majority of covert strikes in Pakistan take place in North and South Waziristan, areas inaccessible to foreigners as well as to many Pakistani journalists and researchers. Most estimates are based on media reports, local fixers, leaked intelligence, and legal claims. Media reports routinely cite unnamed Pakistani government officials as confirming the identity of the individuals killed as “militants,” and the information is rarely corroborated. Moreover, statistics will vary depending on the definition and category—“militant” or “civilian”—that journalists and governments use. While the terms seem intuitive, they are in fact ambiguous, controversial, and susceptible to manipulation.(pg. 19)

I would suggest people read this and the other report from Stanford/NYU I linked above and compare it to this hackery:

How should we feel about drones? Like any wartime innovation, going back to the slingshot, drones can be used badly or well. They are remarkable tools, an exceedingly clever combination of existing technologies that has vastly improved our ability to observe and to fight. They represent how America has responded to the challenge of organized, high-level, stateless terrorism—not timidly, as bin Laden famously predicted, but with courage, tenacity, and ruthless ingenuity. Improving technologies are making drones capable not just of broader and more persistent surveillance, but of greater strike precision. Mary Ellen O’Connell says, half jokingly, that there is a “sunset” on her objection to them, because drones may eventually offer more options. She said she can imagine one capable of delivering a warning—“Come out with your hands up!”—and then landing to make an arrest using handcuffs.

Wow kind of like a mashup of cowboys and indians with ghost in the shell. I guess pretty soon we can just send in the tachikomas to get the job done. But hey if your into breathless cheer leading for empire like this piece to each his own, although if you think that not taking what hacks like Bowden say at face value is crazy then I'd hate to see what you think sane looks like.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:36 AM on August 17, 2013


[As always, let's not make it personal. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2013


Let me also add, after recent events, that this whole smash-them-from-afar attitude indirectly advocates and popularizes a generalized Judge Dread mentality, including a total disregard for due process and the idea that any foreigner can be murdered at will by the US government if it so wishes.
posted by talos at 9:11 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's another report from Columbia law school which is also much more balanced and informative than the hack job linked in the fpp.

The problem is that as the estimates (of drone deaths) are assimilated into fact, they threaten to become what everybody knows about the U.S. covert drone strikes program. The estimates provide a dangerous assurance: the human toll is something we have identified, debated and considered. If we know who and how many people we have killed, calls to examine and deliberate on the drone program—and calls to end it—lose their urgency. We may come to falsely believe that covert drone strikes are an “open secret” when in fact, the U.S. government continues to resist disclosure of basic and important information about the drone strikes program. Moreover, where the tracking organizations’ estimates significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes, they may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups.

Our study underscores the need for responsible engagement by the U.S. government on the issue of drone strikes, and in particular, the impact on local civilian populations. It builds on the work of scholars and observers who, based on their familiarity with reporting processes and local dynamics, have for the past few years questioned the reliability of drone strike death estimates.

While touting the success of the drone program and particular high-profile strikes,
U.S. officials have avoided providing specifics—and cited national security. Indeed, although it has acknowledged operations in Pakistan and Yemen as a general matter, it has refused to officially acknowledge the existence of its drones program in court or open sessions of Congress—foreclosing effective litigation and preventing informed public debate. On the other hand, the CIA has aggressively fended off criticism through anonymous leaks to the press—a forum in which its claims cannot be actively questioned. The public has no information on how and whether the U.S. tracks and investigates potential civilian deaths. Yet, in other conflict settings such as Afghanistan, U.S. officials have provided some of this information, without compromising U.S. security. As the U.S. and other governments anticipate the continued and expanded use of lethal drone technology, they owe the public a genuine assessment of the impact of drone strikes, including the effect on local civilian populations.

posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:10 PM on August 23, 2013


In happier drone news: Drones Find New Work Mapping Peru’s Endangered Archaeological Treasures
posted by homunculus at 12:22 PM on August 28, 2013


Turns Out Drones Make Great Firefighters
posted by homunculus at 5:45 PM on August 30, 2013


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