Warfare at a Distance

The United States is currently at war in four countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. It’s not ground warfare, it’s not air warfare, both of which risk the lives of those who take part in them. Rather, its something entirely different, warfare at a great distance that in no way risks the lives of Americans. It is known as drone warfare.

In drone warfare, a man or woman sits in front of a screen in a cramped, stuffy trailer in the Las Vegas desert and presses a switch that delivers a horribly destructive Hellfire missile in a country a thousand of miles away. It’s not unlike a video game, except that individuals viewed on the screen are in fact killed, sometimes several of them, sometimes those for whom the rocket was not intended

Recently, I saw two films that dealt with this form of warfare—“Good Kill” and “Eye in the Sky.” In my mind, both films confront the morality of drone warfare. Both also reminded me of the well-known experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience and disobedience.

These experiments illustrate the power of proximity on delivering “shock” to a “learner” in a distant room. The percentage of subjects who deliver the full “450” volts increases the further away they are from the “learner.”

Similarly drone warfare illustrates how easy it is to fire a rocket intended for a person or group in a far off country. The killing is real, yet it occurs half a world away and is obscured by the very technology that enables it.

Milgram’s experiments also illustrate the power of authority on compliance. If an authority figure tells you to press that button, you will be more likely to do it, even if it brings tears to your eyes.

Ethan Hawke plays the role of the drone operator in “Good Kill.” He knows there is always the likelihood of “collateral damage,” namely, the deaths of innocent individuals. His guilt and boredom lead him to drink, a crisis in his marriage and he too becomes a causality of modern technology.

The estimates of collateral damage play a critical role in “Eye in the Sky.” The governing overseers want to know if the attacks will lead to a diplomatic crisis or worse. The military wants to discharge its responsibilities as effectively as possible.

The military officer (the authority) in charge of the attack in “Eye in the Sky,” played by Helen Mirren, brings considerable pressure on her assistant to make an accurate estimate of innocent deaths, too much pressure in my opinion, so that the assistant ends up making an estimate well below what he actually believes--with disastrous consequences.

Both films raise a host of questions about drone warfare--some legal, some moral, some about its consequences. Among them are the following:

1. How are we to regard drone attacks in countries that are not at war with the United States?

2. How serious is the radicalizing force of drone operations among some Muslim individuals?

3. What are we to make of the inevitable collateral damage of drones, that is unintentionally killing of innocent individuals, including families, children and foreign aid workers?

4. How accurate are the official reports of the collateral deaths of innocents?

5. Does the targeted killing of presumed terrorists reduce the risk of terrorists attacks on foreign countries, including the United States?

6. What consideration should be given to the serious psychological damage some drone operators experience or to the equally serious effects of the constant hovering of armed drones overhead on civilians in a potential attack area?

7. Does the use of drones violate international law and if so, in what respect?

None of these questions lend themselves to a clear-cut answer. They call for a careful analysis, drawing on factual evidence where possible and the kind of methodical reasoning that is relatively uncommon.


Dom said...

You raise excellent thought-provoking questions. I believe for an individual to answer these questions in a logical and consistent manner that one needs to step back and first ask themself what their view and belief is concerning a number of basic questions, including the following questions.

What is the context of the questions? –

• Who should we assume is asking these questions?
• Who should we assume is answering these questions?
• What shall we assume is the objective of the person answering these questions?
• What are the circumstances within which these answers are being given?

For example, if we assume (A) that a person is asking themself these questions, (B) that the person is seeking to maximize their personal self-interest, and (C) that their answers to these questions will be given by the individual under circumstances where the individual will not be subject to the judgment and reaction of others,

then I anticipate that the answers that will be given may be significantly different than the answers that would be given by the person under different circumstances, such as where that person’s answers would be subject to public scrutiny and reaction.

Public international context –

With that distinction in mind, I suspect that if the person being asked these questions was called upon to answer these questions in full view of the entire world community (and not just US voters at election time), and would be influenced by and accountable to the reaction of the world community to the answers given to these questions, that the answers to the seven questions that you raised would most likely be along the following lines:

1. There should be no drone attacks in countries that are not at war with the US.
2. The drone attacks do radicalize Muslims.
3. The inevitable collateral damages are unacceptable.
4. The official reports of the collateral damage are inaccurate and understated.
5. The targeted killing does not reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
6. Drone operators suffer serious psychological damages from such activities.
7. The use of drones violates the “law of war”, as that concept has generally been accepted.

Answer by person in the privacy of the voting booth –

On the other hand, if these questions are asked and answered (A) by citizens of a nation in the same situation as the US is in, (B) in the confidentiality of a voting booth, and (C) based upon what history has shown to be human nature, then I would expect that the answer to these questions would be very different, and would be as follows:

1. The drone attacks should be carried out as they are now being carried out.
2. The benefit to the US offsets any radicalization among the Muslims.
3. Unintentional killing of innocent individuals should be minimized, but should not stop or substantially diminish the drone attacks.
4. While the official reports may not be 100% accurate, they are reasonably accurate under the circumstances.
5. The targeted killing does to some extent reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
6. Psychological damage to drone operators is an acceptable cost of war.
7. The use of drones in the manner that they are being used does not violate international law because they are being used defensively and cause less suffering than the alternatives available under conventional war.

Conflict of desired self-image and the self-interest of human nature –

Therefore, my perception is that the answers to these questions will differ significantly depending upon the four elements of the “context of the questions” mentioned above.

My perception is that many, if not most, people in the privacy of the voting booth will act in accordance with their perception of what they believe would maximize their own individual personal self-interest and will as part of the process seek to rationalize their actions as being fair and appropriate.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: Perhaps individuals vary in terms of the role circumstances play in their answers. Some are influenced more by them than others. I've observed individuals who remain consistent in any situation, while others alter their answers as the situation changes. Again, your conjectures led themselves to empirical investigation. Are you likely to alter your answers in the two general situations you describe? Richard

Dom said...


Answers affected by changing circumstances –

I agree with your comment that some people’s positions on issues are influenced to varying degrees by their circumstances. I cannot think of anyone I ever met or observed over a period of time, whose answers to questions that they encounter during their life have not changed to any degree during their life based upon changing circumstances. I know that my answers are influenced, and have been influenced, by my evolving circumstances.

My perception is that changing circumstances cause people to look at issues from different perspectives, and in a different light, all of which cause their answers to evolve over time. Of course, a mark of a person with an open mind is that such a person’s opinion evolves as circumstances and experiences change.

My answers to your seven questions –

In your comment you asked me if I would be likely to alter my answers to the seven questions that you raised in your blog post as a result of a change in my circumstances.

In order to answer your question I believe it is appropriate for me to first date what my personal answer to your seven questions are. My answers to those questions are:

1. There should be no drone attacks in countries that are not at war with the US.
2. The drone attacks do radicalize Muslims.
3. The inevitable collateral damages are unacceptable.
4. The official reports of the collateral damage are inaccurate and understated.
5. The targeted killing does not reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
6. Drone operators suffer serious psychological damages from such activities.
7. The use of drones violates the “law of war”, as that concept has generally been accepted.

Possible changes in my answers –

Are there circumstances where I would change those answers? Yes. While it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to try to speculate as to what all of those changes in circumstances might be that would cause me to change my answers, I anticipate that I would modify, or change my answers if I perceived the following, based upon substantial credible evidence:

1. The countries in which the drone attacks would be carried out have not in the recent past themselves previously complied with the “law of war”.
2. While the countries in which the drone attacks are carried out are not presently at war with the US, the US determines from credible evidence that such countries are unquestionably concealing and taking significant preparatory steps to initiate war against the US.
3. Every reasonable step would be taken to minimize inevitable collateral damage.
4. I would have a reasonable basis to believe that the reports of collateral damage would be reasonably based, and not biased.

Therefore, my answers to your original seven questions would be based upon my present understanding of the surrounding relevant facts and circumstances. Should I perceive that the facts and circumstances have changed as described in paragraphs #1-4 above, then my answers may change.

Private versus public answers –

If your question to me is whether my answers to your seven questions about drone attacks would differ depending upon whether my answers would be given publicly or, instead, in the privacy of the voting booth where no one would know what my answers are, my answers would be the same under both circumstances.

However, I can envision other questions that I might be asked where for one reason or another there would or might be a material difference between (X) the answer that I would give in the privacy of the voting booth and (Y) the answer that I would give would be disseminated to the public.

Upon reflection, I cannot recall anyone that I have ever met where I could say that I am confident that in response to questions about matters of significant public controversy that their private answers and the public answers would always be exactly the same. There may be such a person, but I do not believe that I have met them.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I would like to believe that I am such a person. That AT ANY GIVEN TIME, my public and private answers would be the same. Of course at the age of 20, my answers might be different than they were at 50. That seems quite natural and consistent with Consistency Theory. I guess you will have to meet me to be sure. I would be the same age on such an occasion, unless somehow you could know me at the age of 20. Age does seem like an important variable here. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. Richard

Linda said...

What an interesting post and discussion - I doubt that I have anything substantive to add to such a reasoned interchange.

I do believe that perspectives change as we age - we become more invested in life, wiser, (hopefully), tend to think about consequences more (hopefully), so our answers at 50 may be different than when we were 20. Situational ethics is another matter - I would hope that I would be consistent and I would strive to be - I can't think of an instance where I was faced with a choice.

I saw the film "Good Kill" and it was thought-provoking. But I did not make the connection with the Milgram experiment and I can surely see how his findings would bear out in drone warfare. Distance from a target, a human being reduced to an object - it's too much like a video game. Add pressure from an authority figure looking over the shoulder of the guy with his finger on the remote trigger and you have a fearful combination.

But it's like any aspect of warfare. Once the combatants are joined, physically and/or ideologically, there is a powerful incentive to use all means necessary to win - torture, nuclear bombs, drone warfare, god knows what else.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Regarding your last paragraph. I don't think President Obama would concur. His restraint in using "all means necessary to win" is, in my view, admirable. Some say Mrs. Clinton is more included to use force and that worries me greatly. It's a policy that has recently only led to defeat, the deaths and injuries to too many men and women. Even though the US is using drone warfare, it seems infrequent and a far cry from torture, etc. Who knows what's really going on? I sure don't. Richard

Linda said...

Yes, Richard, President Obama is an exception - I was commenting very generally. I'm sure he's been pressured by his military advisors to do a whole lot more - I admire his restraint as well. Have you read The Obama Doctrine article in The Atlantic? Can't remember the name of the writer. We are lucky to have him at the helm in these times - god knows what will follow when he leaves office.

I'm just saying that all of the tools and methods of war are bad - not just bad, evil - can there be degrees of evil? We perceive some tools of war as less bad than others. Sometimes we are forced to use them and to choose which we will use and not use. And that is a difficult thing to control and contain.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Yes, I read The Obama Doctrine in the Atlantic. It was by Jeffrey Goldberg. He was also interviewed by Charlie Rose that was very much worth viewing. So many pressures on the President for military action. He has an impossible job. So will the next President, although she is said to more in favor of force. What a world, one to grieve. Richard