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.