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The Debate on the Use of Drones in the War on Terrorism The Debate on the Use of Drones in the War on Terrorism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-02-17 10:45:42
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“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seems to me the nature of our age”
                                                                                                                   --Albert Einstein

Although I am presently a retired college professor I continue to teach philosophy at Barry University and Broward College here in South Florida. One of the chapters in the texts utilized at both institutions (one titled Philosophy the Basics by Nigel Warburton, and the other Does the Center Hold by Donald  Palmer) is traditionally dedicated to Ethics, beginning with Socrates all the way to Albert Camus. Last semester I decided to dedicate the discussion and debate of that chapter to the issue of the legality and the morality of the use of drones in the war on terrorism. As predictable, the debate turned out to be a spirited one, mirroring the one going on in the media in both USA and world at large.

Several important protesting voices have come to the surface lately and the issue is currently being investigates and even debated in Congress. The most troubled legislators are demanding more transparency and more accountability and oversight in the matter of unmanned lethal drones. What I’d like to do in this brief article on this rather thorny ethical issue is to review the main lines of argument and debate as conducted in the media and then propose sundry reflections of my own in the light of the history of Ethics, those same debates, and the philosophical debates conducted in my classroom.

There was recently an important commentary in The Economist which begins by informing us that “the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems, as the armed forces prefer to call them, is growing. Drones have become today's weapon of choice in counter-terrorism. And over the next 40 years or so, they are expected largely to replace piloted aircraft. In nine years the Pentagon has increased its drone fleet 13-fold and the generals are spending at least $5 billion a year adding to it. The frequency of drone strikes on al-Qaeda and other terrorists that lurk in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has risen under Barack Obama to one every four days, compared with one every 40 during George Bush's presidency. In Libya NATO commanders turned to drones when their fast jets failed to find and hit Muammar Qaddafi's mobile rocket launchers.”

The use of drones rather than jet fighters is rationalized militarily by the fact that they are not as useful in today's wars fought against insurgents and terrorists while drones can maintain an unblinking stare over a chosen area for up to 18 hours. One can strike at the most opportune moment with the minimum collateral damage possible. Thanks to this ability its pilot who may be thousands of miles away, can patiently choose the best moment to fire its missiles, both increasing the chances of success and minimizing the harm to civilians. That makes the drone the ideal weapon for tracking down and killing terrorists, particularly in places like the FATA where other options, such as sending in special forces, are not politically feasible. In fact, in the eight years since 2004, 80% of the fatalities have been militants and last year fully 95% of them were such. But all this data does not satisfactorily answer yet the ethical questions the use of drones raise.

The most fundamental question seems to be this: do armed drones breach the laws of war as developed over many centuries since Augustine’s famous argument for the “just war”? In the first place it is important to consider that in the final analysis it is not the drone which makes the decision to kill dangerous combatants but the on the ground pilot of that drone as directed by his superiors, as far away as he/she may be. The counterargument of course, and this came up in the debate in my classroom, is that such a decision even if made by a human being does not allow people to surrender and give themselves up. But that argument is a rather weak one because the same happens when a bomber jet with pilots in it drop their bombs on a military target in the field of war: nobody is given the option of surrender when bombs are dropped: one either survives the attack or one does not.

The issue seems to be one of supervision and accountability. The Economist suggests that to improve accountability, control of armed drones flying over Pakistan and Yemen should be transferred from the CIA to the armed forces (which operate them in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). The CIA can use drones to spy, but when it comes to warfare, it is less accountable than the military chain of command, less used to applying the rules of war and less inclined to pay compensation to the families of innocent civilians who have been killed. That is to say, the operation of America's new killing machines must be brought more firmly within the law. This makes eminent sense to most reasonable people. The Obama administration has in fact already supplied more of the requested information making clear that there are areas of national security which may have to remain classified.

It also bears mentioning here that all of the above is explored in greater detail in two feature article on the subject, one in Esquire by Tom Junod which censures  what he calls “ the lethal presidency of Barack Obama” and another title “the Moral Case for Drones,” a news analysis by The Times’ Scott Shane which, gathered opinions from experts that implicitly commended the administration for replacing Dresden-style strategic bombing with highly precise attacks that minimize collateral damage. As those two articles demonstrate is that hard contrary positions have been taken on both sides of the issue, all the more why a vigorous debate and exchange of views ought to be encouraged.

In The Stone (a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless) two professors of philosophy, John Kaag and Sarah Krepts, do just that, thus constructively enlarging the parameters of the debate. They point out that “While drones have become the weapons of our age, the moral dilemma that drone warfare presents is not new. In fact, it is very, very old.” They also ask this crucial question: “What could be wrong with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles? After all, they limit the cost of war, in terms of both blood and treasure…these drones are said to limit collateral damage.” To illustrate their point, the two professors utilize the famous myth of Gyges in Plato’s Republic: the myth of the shepherd who gets a hold of a ring that makes him invisible and seizes power from the king risking very little himself) to illustrate the point. I opted to utilize the same myth in my classroom debates on the morality of the use of drones. Indeed, quite often myths can reveal more of the truth than many scientific charts and statistics. Plato for one was fully aware of that.

In any case, the professors quite correctly point out that philosophers have always made a useful distinction, the so called “fact/value distinction”: statements of fact should never be confused with statements of value. More strongly put, this distinction means that statements of fact do not even imply statements of value. “Can” does not imply “ought.” To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that, we ought to do so. The Ring of Gyges has the ability to either clarify that distinction as Plato intended or to obscure it and place us in a moral hazard. It all depends on how one interprets the myth.

Then the professors give us something to really ponder seriously: “First, we might remember Marx’s comment that the windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam engine gives you one with the industrial capitalist… And precision guided munitions and drones give you a society with perpetual asymmetric wars.” They correctly point out that the creation of technology is a value-laden enterprise. To be sure technology itself (the physical stuff of robotic warfare) is neither smart nor dumb, neither moral nor immoral. It can be used more or less precisely, but precision and efficiency are not inherently morally good. Secondly they point out that “assassination and targeted killings have always been in the repertoires of military planners, but never in the history of warfare have they been so cheap and easy…the United States and its allies have created the material conditions whereby these wars can carry on indefinitely.” Thirdly they point out that “the impressive expediency and accuracy in drone targeting may also allow policymakers and strategists to become lax in their moral decision-making… As weaponry becomes more precise, the language of warfare has become more ambiguous.” Much food for thought in that last statement redolent of the famous statement of Einstein that “the nature of our age seems to be precision of means and confusion of ends.”

Consider for example the corollary issue (already in Augustine’s definition of the just war) of collateral damage. There are two very different definitions of collateral damage, and these definitions affect the truth of the following statement: Drone warfare and precision guided munitions limit collateral damage. One views collateral damage as the inadvertent destruction of property and persons in a given attack. In other words, collateral damage refers to “stuff we don’t mean to blow up.” Another characterizes collateral damage as objects or individuals “that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time.” In other words, collateral damage refers to “the good guys.” Since 1998, this is the definition that has been used. But the first is a matter of fact, the second a matter of value. There is an important difference between these statements, and they should not be confused.

Thus the question of combatant status should be the subject of judicial review and careful moral scrutiny. The question also arises: does having more choices lead strategists to make better and more informed decisions? The two philosophers then astutely observe that “Some might object that these guidelines set unrealistically high expectations on military strategists and policymakers. They would probably be right. But no one — except Gyges — said that being ethical was easy.”

And now we come to my students’ debate on the ethical implications of drones. As mentioned, the debate turned out to be a spirited one even necessitating from time to time the intervention of the moderator. I prefaced it with Augustine’s and Aquinas’ guidelines for “the just war” and its relation to justice (also found in Plato, Aristotle and Cicero) with its principle of proportionality as its center-piece. Augustine and Aquinas state unequivocally that the ultimate justification for going to war is securing a durable and just peace and the manner in which the war is waged must be toward this end.

That is to say, actions proportioned to attain this end must be at minimal cost in pain and suffering with no selfish objectives. Therefore only self-defense can justify the use of lethal force. Might makes right is the way of the bully, not that of the civilized individual or state. The intention should always be the advancement of good and the avoidance of evil, not power for its own sake and domination. Intentionality is very important here. “Who rules” here is ultimately a flawed question since it assumes that the ones who ultimately rule are the ones who have the power and the ability to do so with no ethical considerations of restraints. But power can be abused, and it has been abused throughout history.

After that preface I recounted Plato’s myth of Giges as also considered in the article above mentioned. Once upon a time, there lived a shepherd named Gyges. He was relatively happy with his life. One day, he found a ring buried in a nearby cave. This was no ordinary ring; it rendered its wearer invisible. With this new power, Gyges became increasingly dissatisfied with his simple life. Before long, he seduced the queen of the land and began to plot the overthrow of her husband. One evening, Gyges placed the ring on his finger, sneaked into the royal palace, and murdered the king. It sounds like a Shakespearean drama but it is much older; it is in fact as  old as Western ethics itself, meant to elicit a particular moral response from us: moral indignation. Assuming some of us have become indignant at Gyges, why is that? I asked.

The brighter and more perceptive students did not hesitate to supply the correct answers. Maybe it’s the way that the story replaces moral justification with practical efficiency; maybe it is Gyges’ being able to commit murder without getting caught, without any real difficulty, which of course does not mean that he is justified in doing so. Maybe expediency is not a virtue but a vice. Maybe it’s the way that Gyges’ ring obscures his moral culpability: it’s difficult to blame a person you can’t see, and even harder to bring them to justice.  Maybe it’s that Gyges is so successful in his plot: here we have a wicked act that not only going unpunished,  but rewarded too. Maybe it’s the nagging sense that any kingdom based on such deception could not be a just one: what else might happen in such a kingdom under the cover of darkness?

Our moral indignation with Gyges could be traced to any one of these concerns, or to all of them, as the two philosophy professors also make clear in their article. One might argue that the myth of Gyges is a suitable allegory to describe the combatants who have attacked and killed American civilians and troops in the last 10 years. The war on terror after all has been declared a war. But to return to Plato’s myth: a shepherd from the Middle East discovers that he has the power of invisibility, the power to strike a fatal blow against a more powerful adversary, the power to do so without getting caught, the power to benefit from his deception. Are not those, after all, the tactics of terrorism? But then the question arises: do two wrongs make a right, or do they remain two wrongs?

So, lo and behold, Plato’s myth of Gyges as old as it is turns out to be the story of modern counterterrorism. The story of people who can commit murder and get away scot free which is surely the case of those handful of men who brought down two towers on 9/11/2001 but not so clearly the case of those who now consider themselves at war with them. This is a needed debate for it impinges not only on survival of nations and civilizations but on the preservation of civilized ethical behavior. Indeed, the ethical question remains in all its terrifying ambiguity: do technological advantages serve in themselves as justifications for its use? In Ethics, not everything that can be done ought to necessarily be done. The ability to make that rational judgment is what distinguished a robot from a man.


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Emanuel Paparella2013-02-17 15:32:17
A relevant footnote: the latest news on this issue would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. There are now prominent Republican politicians and pundits, still unwilling to accept the reality that they have lost an election to President Barack Obama by a substantial number of popular votes, who now go around spreading the slanderous notion that one of his hobbies is getting his jollies with his his video stick with which he drives his drones by engaging in killing innocent defenseless women and children by remote control; that in fact we should swiftly proceed to impeachment on those very grounds…Some may call that an "enlightened" cognitive bias; I’d rather call it insanity pure and simple driven by hatred and stupidity of the worst kind.

Leah Sellers2013-02-17 22:13:34
Yes Sir, Brother Emanuel,
And the Ambiguity of Language and Policy also gives plenty of wiggle room for plenty of Known (UnKnown) Drones to buzz by and fly through.
We need to truly Look At the Future World We are Choosing to Create and the Toys we're Choosing to Manipulate it with.

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