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.