Pacifistic liberals and libertarians (who are a subset of liberals) tend to decry America’s unique and novel campaign of drone bombing against Islamic terrorists. This method was explicitly chosen to play to America’s military strengths (air superiority against weak enemies) while minimizing exposure of the Pentagon to domestic criticism regarding civilian deaths in bombing campaigns.
Since the Vietnam War ended, America shifted from holding civilian death tolls as a strategic objective to making it one of the highest priorities to minimize civilian casualties. This flip happened around the same time that the New Left ascended into authority, deposing the older faction of more collectivist leftists.
Under the new way of thinking, when the United States goes to war, it doesn’t engage in total war, which considers foreign civilian populations as legitimate targets. It instead goes to war against individuals whom the state determines are ‘bad.’ The two Gulf wars were fought against Saddam Hussein and his military. When civilians were harmed, as they were through the trade embargoes, they were not harmed as the primary objective — they were harmed in the process of pushing Saddam the individual out of power.
The War on Terror was also conceived of as a fight against individuals with the religious motivations behind Islamic terror being considered non-material, at least under the official belief system as communicated by the public. Drone warfare — really radio-controlled rather than autonomous — was employed in conjunction with signals intercepts to go after the individuals perceived as responsible for terror attacks against Westerners. This was also supported by an ideological campaign to promote ‘moderate’ Islam which condemned rather than justifying terrorist attacks against infidels.
Most politically educated people see this program as incoherent and hypocritical for various reasons, but I don’t want to get into that in too much detail in this post.
The ethic of drone warfare holds that, for some mysterious reason, ‘radical’ (really mainstream) Muslims who are beyond the reach of propaganda will, out of sheer evil, attack Western interests to further their political goals. The ethical way to fight insurgencies and light infantry, in the American mind, is to continue killing individuals identified by intelligence intercepts until enough individuals freely decide that they should instead support a ‘moderate’ Islam — which is to say a politically and religiously neutered Islam which can cooperate with the global liberal order.
Thinking about it from a historical perspective, it’s entirely crazy. Killing individual fighters doesn’t break the will of a population to resist. It also doesn’t really punish a population for sheltering a resistance. Further, it misunderstands the nature of ideas and religious faith. Rather than an isolated criminal tendency of a ‘few bad apples,’ Islam is an aggressive religion which has warred with its neighbors for dominance for more than 1,000 years. Creating hundreds of martyrs is nothing for a culture with a history of being willing to sacrifice tens of millions of martyrs in the cause of the faith.
Rather than taking a Max Boot-style position that total war is really a good and admirable thing, we should instead consider some of the larger problems that have emerged in the conduct of war since the emergence of popular government.
Limited war was more symbolic than it was about entirely annihilating civilian populations or attempting to completely alter underlying civil societies. Up until World War I — and even during the popular Napoleonic wars with introduced the mass levee — it was possible for civilians to spectate battles safely. The conflicts may have been terrible — and sometimes spilled over into civil conflict among noncombatants — but it was one still bound by laws of warfare.
Having lost this method of resolving conflicts between elites, all wars are now, in a sense, total wars. The second Iraq war’s chief objective was to profoundly change the culture and moral beliefs of the Iraqi people, as America also attempted to do in Afghanistan. This was more ambitious even than colonialists, who only sought to command the state, while leaving civil society mostly to itself, skillfully managed by administrators. Ironically, this was more successful at inducing cultural change, as the colonized naturally sought to mimic the ways of their rulers. By imposing self-rule, the Americans encouraged the natives to, in the language of American self-help, be more true to themselves.
Comparing the Predator drone to the B-17, the B-17 was designed to destroy the enemy population, with the enemy population itself defined as a strategic target. It says “the individual is irrelevant, what matters is the destruction of the mass to break the general will.”
The drone denies the existence of a culture beyond the individual — it says “there are no bad groups, there are only bad individuals.” While the B-17 had only a primitive sight for targeting and rarely was capable of precision targeting, the drone has a high resolution camera, and advanced communication makes it possible for pilots to make highly considered decisions about whom to kill and at what time.
Radio controlled drones also give non-warrior political administrators the illusion of direct control over the conduct of war. Trying to fight a war by conducting a series of assassinations is strange, but also sort of understandable for a race of bureaucrats who want to minimize danger to themselves while also failing to achieve anything resembling a strategic objective.
It would, in fact, be better to achieve the strategic objectives of the “War on Terror” while minimizing fighting, but that wouldn’t create so many lucrative jobs for so many bureaucrats who are essentially pretending hard to be protecting the West from Islamic terror.
The larger problems which tend to be ignored are the ramshackle series of alliances that the US began putting together after the collapse of the European empires, and the particular imposition of the Carter Doctrine mandating that the US intervene in defense of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies. This licensed bad behavior on the part of those monarchies, and the maintenance of that clueless alliance has also lead to the West’s absurdly accommodating immigration policies for fear of giving offense to the non-colonies that we guarantee defense to. America bears the costs of running Gulf colonies — providing them with guarantees of defense — without having the sanity to demand the traditional powers of colonizers. This included the expropriation of American assets in those countries, doubling down on the insults.
Whenever this arrangement comes to be threatened, American talking heads will tend to whinge about the ‘economic benefits’ of the enabling alliance, or appeals to vague notions of ‘regional stability.’
This enabling regime also prevents other countries from effectively defending themselves when attacked by Saudi-inspired-and-financed fanatics. They can operate with virtual impunity (at least collectively if not individually), with the only way for states or groups of people to respond are ineffectual complaints, frequently suppressed by states.
These places grew rich thanks to the American guarantee of security and technical assistance provided, besides.
This pattern is as common to the approach of popular government to foreign relations as it is to domestic policy.
The US gives these countries a guaranteed alliance, goes to war at public expense on the behalf of those states, and demands little other than the maintenance of the petrodollar system to buttress its top position on the international financial stage. This is at least the surface justification — America could also just try pursuing a sounder monetary policy than other countries rather than relying on an insane and frequently malfunctioning Rube Goldberg apparatus to prop up its financial system.
Drone warfare is sensationalized propaganda that encourages people and elites alike to focus on small, non-essential issues while ignoring the larger picture. The larger issue is the special relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, and the feckless management of it by America’s itinerant political managers and permanent bureaucrats alike. When that alliance should have broken down catastrophically in 2001, it was instead reinforced multiple times over.
In all this the drone is an excellent symbol of the way the people in today’s government tend to think and what they focus on. It’s also fascinating to see how a weapon developed to flatter the sensibilities of the New Left managed to also come under severe criticism by those same people as inhumane implements used against merely misguided people who are probably really hippies on the inside. The defenders of this method of fighting also themselves minimize the larger picture of what’s going on, because it’s too complex and requires too much background knowledge to fit into a short segment on a shouting-head TV show.
A few comments that are a bit unstructured.
As a side note I don’t think you can ignore the influence of Israel on the promotion of drone tactics. Israel for a long time have waged a war of assassination against individuals and the US has emulated that with use of drones.
When we speak of individualists vs culture in terms of the warfare the example of N Ireland springs to mind. At the height of the troubles it was a culture war between two communities, though I think the British state however ultimately won through targeting individuals dedicated to violence. The assassination of IRA members and the dismantling of that group through intense targeting brought them back to the negotiating table. Peace holds on shakily there now through continued targeting of individuals. Perhaps this is a bad example for other reasons though now I think longer on it…
More wars in the modern era descend into total wars because it is no longer merely elites fighting, it is ideological warfare that engulfs all and so all become targets. The US lost in Vietnam precisely because they failed to engage the VC in a meaningful manner that would have brought the rest of the population on-board. Instead they thought they could be defeated in a manner similar to the generals of WW1. Mass bombing was the ineffective drone tactics of the time.
Drone tactics are interesting because they highlight the nature of 4GW and how continued use of high technology does not change much on the ground when individuals are able to cause mass disruption.
Right, the drone war was explicitly modeled on the Israeli approach to the Palestinians. There’s still a Palestinian problem.
Drones are also weapons for individualists in that they don’t require much infrastructure to operate. Surveillance drones are already very affordable, and it can’t be that hard to weaponize them. When inner-city gangs get drones, they’ll always know where the cops are, and anyone wearing a do-rag of the wrong color will get a bullet in the top of the head.
Let us remember that the left’s concern over civilian casualties and scrupulously-followed rules of engagement for our forces somehow managed not to be a factor when we were fighting anticommunist enemies (the Nazis and Imperial Japan), but only when we were fighting communist enemies (in Korea and Vietnam). When it benefits the left to be humanitarian, they are humanitarian, and when it benefits the left to be pacifist, they are pacifist. When it no longer benefits them, they cease to be so.
There’s a passage in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain that deals with this. In college, Merton knew a campus communist who incessantly preached the virtues of pacifism… until suddenly volunteers were needed to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, at which point the young man instantly became a bloodthirsty warmonger. There wasn’t any awareness of any cognitive dissonance – there never is on the left, because their ethics and principles are entirely, totally, 100% situational. The only principle they truly believe in is: “Victory at any cost, and by any means necessary”.
This whole post is built on false assumptions.
B-17 was never designed to destroy populations, even atom bomb wasn`t.
And its bombsight was not just a state of the art thing, but a trendsetter for the next decade. Sure, it lacked the CEP of a modern guided munition, but in WW2 terms Norden was very accurate.
The whole move to mass warfare happned a hundred years earlier, with Napoleonic wars.
The difference between WW2, WW1, and Napoleonic wars was the targeting of civilians outside of a counterinsurgency in the third world.
Toddy Cat says
Good column, but with all due respect, WHAT is right. U.S. Strategic bombing in Europe in WWII tried to be as “pinpoint” as possible. Even the massed fire raids on Tokyo were aimed at Japanese industry dispersed in civilian areas – LeMay even dropped leaflets on targeted Japanese cities, warning civilians to evacuate.
Moldbug got this wrong in his old UR posts, because it was the only way he could equate the hated New Deal regime with the Nazis and Commies, as if Unconditional Surrender, Operation Keelhaul, and the Morganthau Plan weren’t enough.
Now the British, on the other hand…
It’s Moldbug citing Human Smoke and me citing both. With the nukes, “Racing the Enemy” has a lot of documentary citation of Truman talking about eagerness to see how the bombs would perform on a civilian population and how minimal the military presence was at the targets.
That being said, this post obviously needed more meat to hit the target (pun intended).
Ezra Pound's Ghost says
Henry, I’ve been noticing your recent preoccupation with bureaucracy. I am wondering if you have ever read Max Weber’s Political Writings (Cambridge)? In several of those essays he goes deeply into bureaucratic psychology and the difference between the bureaucrat and the politician in the contexts of both Junker-dominated statecraft and also Wiemar parliamentarism. His basic message, stated with a lot of repetition, is that contrary to the modern trend of managerializing political administration, the bureaucrat is incapable of filling the specifically political role of the politician proper. I’m guessing you have read these essays, but if not I would suggest them.
Main Weber I’ve read would just be the Protestant Ethic.
Ezra Pound's Ghost says
Amazon has the Political Writings used from $4.74. Also his main work of general sociology, translated in two volumes as “Economy and Society,” is also absolutely essential reading in my opinion. The Protestant Ethic is really a very minor piece of Weberian thought. He doesn’t fit neatly on any ideological spectrum either, so he can be appreciated by just about anyone. He was decided Liberal but also an unshakable realist.
I don’t think it’s the prosecuting of wars as a string of assassinations that characterizes drone (really, remote-controlled) warfare. Nor do I think that this is a new way of doing things–these sorts of tactics have a long history of use against non-state actors for one, and for another much of the really serious operational evolution in individually-targeted killings has occurred outside of the drone force–JSOC has probably killed more people than drone strikes, and they can do it faster too.
USG might be *deluded* about the nature of their enemy, but that’s another problem. Israel tried this, decided it didn’t work/wasn’t enough, and built a wall instead.
The B-17 analogy doesn’t really work. B-17 raids were usually trying to hit specific targets, they just had terrible accuracy. Modern PGMs are a lot like smartphones–they conceal a lot of high technology under a slick user interface that can fool the ignorant into thinking they are “simple” devices. There’s no reason they couldn’t be used to more effectively attack nonmilitary targets if that were desired–they’d certainly be better at it than anything from WW2. To the extent that WW2 aerial bombing was used as a terror weapon (and it often was), it still would have been more effective with more accurate munitions, and there’s no reason to think that the mere availability of PGMs would have caused the Allied supreme commanders to change their minds about terror bombing.
Back to drones, their real seduction isn’t their “precision” but their amenability to bureaucratic centralization. High-level commanders can personally observe and control drone operations at the lowest physical level, without apparently having to trust anyone but themselves. Instead of leaving the decision to pull to trigger to some dumb animal, a Decision Maker can literally jack himself into the eyeballs of the “soldier” and make the decision himself. The alternative, of course, is to tell some ruffian who probably has retrograde views on trans rights to go take care of the target. He comes back, and tells you the guy’s dead, maybe has a photo or–ugh–a head. So uncivilized! No to mention the lack of accountability! He doesn’t even have three different live video feeds that can be scrutinized by lawyers later.
Obviously, this is just about the opposite of truly autonomous warfare– in fact it’s *less* autonomous than the legacy methods. This also generates terabyte after terabyte of data–easily enough to overwhelm the tightly-held accountability structure. Stanley McChrystal claimed he dealt with this by holding video teleconferences with four-digit numbers of participants. He also probably more or less never slept. All that effort, to sort-of manage the antics of a bunch of guys with antique small arms and bongo trucks. A house of cards.
Anyway, drones aren’t weapons for individualists. They’re weapons for bureaucrats.