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Charles Dunlap on the Discussion Started by Mark Mazzetti, The Drone Zone

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Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 7:33 PM

Continuing the discussion surrounding issues of personal risk and combat in relation to drone warfare (Anderson on Mazzetti, Corn, and Rona, we add this comment from Charles Dunlap, professor at Duke University Law School and a major general (ret.) in the Judge Advocate Corps in the US Air Force (I’ll post one or two more comments and then call this discussion closed.  Thanks to Charlie for contributing this.)

It continues to amaze me how many people seem so confounded by drones, as if killing from afar was somehow ‘new’ to warfare. Actually, since time immemorial warfighters have sought ways of engaging the enemy beyond the range of their adversary’s weaponry.

And many succeed. Consider: David slew Goliath with a missile weapon before the giant could bring his weapons to bear; the sixteen-foot pikes of Alexander the Great’s phalanxes reached their targets well ahead of the twelve foot pikes wielded by their opponents; English longbowmen destroyed the flower of French knighthood at Agincourt from afar when they rained arrows down upon the horsemen; British soldiers wielding the deadly Martini-Henry rifle cut down thousands of Zulus long before those warriors could use their short stabbing spear and, more recently, U.S. and British tanks destroyed the heart of Saddam’s armor forces during 1991’s Battle of 73 Easting much because their guns outranged those of Iraq’s T-72 tanks.

There is nothing really new about waging war from a distance.

I am also surprised that so many critics engage in a sort of cognitive dissonance with respect to the application of international human rights law in lieu of the law of armed conflict. It seems like they do not understand how ground operations work, and this may fan their fixated preference for a human rights law/law enforcement approach to warfare.

In the real world, this would have “police” boots-on-the-ground traipsing around some of the most hostile places on the planet. Even if one adopted that approach, the “policemen” would have to fight their way in, and fight their way out, creating those chaotic “kill or be killed” incidents that are so deadly to civilians caught in the crossfires. Moreover, if the “policemen” stay in these war-torn areas, the battle to keep them supplied inevitably causes more collateral damage.

Mr. Mazzetti’s story about training airmen to be drone operators at Holloman Air Force Base raises another point that advocates of the law enforcement approach might want to ponder: Americans have significantly more confidence in the armed forces as an entity than they do for even the Supreme Court (or, for that matter, organized religion). More specifically, Americans have much more confidence in military leaders than they do in the leaders in the “courts and the justice system.” Indeed, Americans consider military officers second only to nurses as the profession having the highest honesty and ethics.

The point is that whatever reservations critics have about the military’s professionalism in the conduct of drone operations, the U.S. public does not share them. The polls strongly suggest that Americans are confident that their military will execute this mission the right way, responsibly and ethically. It is unsurprising, therefore that the drone program enjoys such broad and deep support with the U.S. electorate.

Furthermore, the assumption of some critics is that those conducting these operations do so with a cavalier, “Play Station” mentality. The “evidence” is little more the sheer speculation. In fact, what the critics often seem to be doing is mirror-imaging their own values onto people who do not share them, that is, they suppose that if they were conducting a drone strike then they would treat it like a video game.

Maybe so, but that hardly means that military and other governmental professionals share such thoughtless attitudes. All they evidence shows that drone pilots are keenly aware that they are killing other human beings, and it weighs heavily on them.

It appears that the anti-drone crowd imagines that people in government – who they may not have ever met – make grave decisions in a careless or unthinking way. I never saw that…in 34 years of military service, even among civilians far from the fight. It is a mistake to read grim determination as casual indifference to consequences of any use of force. If there is evidence that people are somehow more readily disposed to kill their fellow man because of drone technology, I’d like to see it.

And before we get too presumptuous about the “risk free” nature of drones piloted from the U.S., must we not assume that the perpetrators (and copycat wannabees) of 9/11 are no longer scheming to strike here at home? Does anyone believe that? Likewise, as we encounter neo-Luddite rants against high-tech drones, let’s not forget that the worst atrocity of recent years was accomplished not by sophisticated weapons but by primordial Rwandan machetes.

Railing against technology and ad hominem attacks on its operators is not the way to save innocent lives. We need to remember that when airstrikes were restricted in Afghanistan, civilian casualties were up 31% a year later. It is only after General Petraeus ramped up airstrikes that civilian deaths began their decline, albeit uneven, to their relatively low point today.

In a world where extremists are responsible for the vast majority of innocent civilian deaths, each time an opportunity to eliminate one of these killers is forgone, many more noncombatants are likely to die than those few innocents who are tragically caught in an attack against the truly malevolent.