Benjamin Wittes’ Argument Rebutted: Drone Warfare is Not Ethical and Effective
Last month Lawfare co-founder and Harvard Fellow Benjamin Wittes participated in a formal debate hosted by the Oxford Union on the resolution, “This house believes drone warfare is ethical and effective.”
In his followup column, Benjamin correctly observes that embedded within the drone debate are several separate issues. How many and what these specific issues are is a matter of opinion, but his list will do for starters:
- The platform question: Is the use of drones ethical and effective relative to other weapons given a decision to use force?
- The policy question: Should the United States be engaged in lethal targeting of terrorist suspects in countries like Yemen and Pakistan and under what circumstances?
- Platform/policy interaction: Does the availability of drones enable lethal missions we would otherwise eschew, and if so, do we consider that incremental enabling to be a good or an evil?
This sort of gradual refinement of issues and questions is exactly what needs to happen. So kudos to him for this part.
The substance of his actual argument, however, is another matter. Benjamin made the rather unenviable prospect of defending the “pro” position (drones are ethical and effective) somewhat more feasible by restricting his attention to the first issue above. Nevertheless, even in that narrow sense, defending drone use is not the ethical slam dunk he made it out to be. There are several important arguments against *any* use of attack drones, i.e., ethical and practical concerns that pertain to unique features of the drone platform:
1. Proliferation. Other countries (China, Iran, N. Korea) can easily build drone weapons. Does not our eager use of drones invite their use by other countries, perhaps even against the US and her allies? Would it not be wise now to foresee this imminent danger, and to proceed more slowly and carefully — if at all?
2. Operator remoteness. The operator of a manned aircraft arguably has access to more contextual cues that enable him to discriminate combatants from non-combatants. A remote drone operator is more likely to mistake civilians for militants, or to fail to notice cues that might alert to the presence of children.
3. Public sentiment and outrage. As the recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of Farea al-Muslimi confirms, drone strikes produce greater public outrage than conventional military actions. For one thing, the drones circle for hours, creating a climate of general terror. Living in constant fear of ‘death from the skies’ is a pretty terrible thing.
4. Hygienic killing. Where do we draw the line on a killing technology which is so efficient and ‘hygienic’ that it is simply inhumane? The pilot of a manned attack aircraft has, arguably, some direct sense of the horror of his actions. Human conscience and feelings, a gut-level aversion to killing, still operate. But is this true for a remote drone operator in an air-conditioned office? And what are the psychological effects on the drone operators themselves?
5. Manner of death. Another unique feature of drone strikes is that the faster-than-sound missiles strike their victims with no advance warning. One second you’re walking around, the next you’re toast. The killed person has no time for final prayers, or even a moment to effect some degree of self-composure. Christians, and I suppose Muslims as well, believe: (1) the human soul is immortal; (2) there is an afterlife; and (3) that preparing oneself for death may have some bearing on what happens afterwards. I write this knowing that nobody dares to say such a thing today; I say it nonetheless — it should be said, and stated plainly: every human being has an inalienable right to last prayers. When this issue is not even considered, we no longer have human beings killing human beings, but machines and a soul-less system killing human beings. The former is tragic, the latter hellish.
So we see that there is significant doubt that lethal drones can clear even the lowest ethical hurdle, namely whether the platform itself is ethical and effective. All the points above pertain uniquely to drone weaponry and raise major ethical concerns. Points 1 and 3 also address issues of efficacy: drone proliferation may ultimately harm US security, and outrage concerning their use may alienate potential allies. In an expanded sense of the word “efficacy”, all points further testify to the special counter-productiveness of drones, inasmuch as the ethical problems they raise erode the moral fabric of US society; of what purpose is military defense if the result is debasement of the very principles we say we must fight to protect?
Clearly even more problems are evident when we consider the other issues Wittes mentioned, i.e., drone use Yemen and Pakistan, and whether having the ability to wage ‘cheap war’ increases the likelihood of military conflicts and “lethal missions.”