Drone Strikes Aren’t Any More Immoral Than Manned Airstrikes

While I am a reliable and often radical progressive in most respects, I must admit that there are some shibboleths of the left that make me scratch my head. The most important of these is the insistence that we can somehow go back to the economy of the 1960s but without all the prejudice (we can’t, nor should we really want to), but there are a few others as well.

One of those is the forceful antipathy to drone strikes. Opposition to drones has found its place among a myriad other neo-Luddite positions on the left, ranging from certain aspects of anti-GMO thought to the anti-vax movement to the anti-automation movement. In most of these cases, legitimate opposition (say, concern about Monsanto’s corporate control over seed production) bleeds into anti-science fearmongering (the belief that “frankenfoods” will somehow give us cancer.)

In the case of drones, there is a legitimate antipathy against interventionist airstrikes that all too often have unacceptable collateral damage–or hit the wrong targets entirely. There’s a fair case to be made that no matter how many terrorists we may be killing with the strikes, we’re doing more harm than good by creating more furious people and eventually more terrorists and anti-American governments. And there’s also a Constitutional case to be made when airstrikes hit American citizens without judicial process.

But somehow these fully legitimate grievances have fallen behind a less reasonable concern over “killer robots” and drones. Polling shows that Americans approve the drone strikes overall, so progressives have a tough hill to climb to force opposition on any account. That difficult road makes finding an effective and credible argument all the more important.

The opposition to using drones for airstrikes seems to boil down mostly to two arguments:

1) It’s easier and less psychologically difficult for a drone operator to pull the kill trigger than a manned plane pilot; and

2) The ability to conduct strikes without putting American lives at risk makes it easier for politicians to order the strikes.

There’s precious little evidence for the first argument. For human empathy to trigger a pacifist response, soldiers generally need to view their targets at reasonably close range. Even a simple mask seriously reduces empathy-based trigger withholding. Pilots at airstrike height don’t get close enough to trigger the effect, or to realize when a mistake is potentially being made. Drone operators tend see pretty much the same visuals as a pilot does, and they undergo the same psychological guilt and aftereffects. And in any case, failure to pull the trigger would violate a direct order and lead to a court martial.

As to the second argument, it’s fairly callous as well as deeply unpopular and unpatriotic to use the potential for dead American pilots as leverage against hawkish politicians. It strains ethical credibility. It’s also a moot point as developed nations increasingly move toward robotic armies not only in the air but on the ground as well. As with the workforce, nation-states have every incentive to achieve their national interests at minimal risk of their servicemembers’ lives and will inevitably do so no matter how progressive activists feel about it.

And while that may scare some people, neither national leaders nor their citizens are going to cry many tears if bad guys ranging from the next Bin Laden to rhino poachers can be dissuaded or neutralized with greater efficiency and zero risk. It’s simply inevitable.

The key argument isn’t the technology being used to make the strikes, but whether the strikes themselves are necessary. The technology will be used and developed whether we like it or not–and in many cases it will be a force for good. It just means we need to be ever more vigilant about how and in what circumstances we use it.

Marshaling Luddite arguments that hint at a desire to put Americans in harm’s way in order to constrain political choices is not only wildly ineffective at moving public opinion away from callous airstrikes, it will distract the proper focus of the debate while marginalizing progressive foreign policy in the process.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.