Drones and Democracy: A Response to Firmin DeBrabander

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, September 15, 2014, 8:10 AM

The New York Times has an oped this morning by a philosophy professor named Firmin DeBrabander worrying that drone warfare heralds the end of democracy in America. No, I am not making that up or even exaggerating. Here's its conclusion:

Most American citizens are quick to let someone or something else bear the brunt of our wars, and take up the fight. Hence there is less worry about whether a given incursion is necessary, justified, logical or humane. Drones point to a new and terrible kind of cruelty — violence far removed from the perpetrator, and easier to inflict in that regard. With less skin in the game — literally — we can be less vigilant about the darker tendencies of our leaders, the unintended consequences of their actions, and content to indulge in private matters.

The United State is gradually becoming a warring nation with fewer and fewer warriors, and few who know the sacrifices of war. Drones represent the new normal, and are an easy invitation to enter into and wage war---indefinitely. This is a state of affairs Machiavelli could not abide by, and neither should we. It is antithetical to a democracy for its voting public to be so aloof from the wars it fights. It is a feature, I fear, of a democracy destined to lose that title.

Why worry that democracies can't use drones? It's a mishmash of reasons, really. It has something to do with Machiavelli's "The Art of War" and with the fact that we can't have solemn commemorations as a society of drone battles. It has something to do with the fact that drone pilots are supposedly cowardly because they don't meet their targets on the battlefield like real men (has DeBrabander ever talked to one?). It has something to do with the idea that it's easy to go to war when the stakes are so low for your side. It has something to do with the growing disconnect between society and warfare.

Here are some questions that DeBrabander's oped does not address but with which any serious philosophical consideration of the ethics of drone warfare would at least grapple---or so I would have thought.

Is it ethical to decline to use drones if a drone strike promises fewer civilian casualties than any other comparably-effective military option in a given situation?

Is it ethical to decline to use drones if a drone strike promises better to protect military personnel for which a command structure has responsibility? DeBrabander mentions force protection only in the corrupt sense that keeping troops safe makes resort to force decisions easier. But how can a philosopher write on this subject without at least touching on the deep ethical and moral responsibility that commanders have to use and deploy technologies that will protect their own people. DeBrabander's logic leads straight to Verdun.

Put simply, if we take him at his word, Professor DeBrabander would be more comfortable with a "democracy" that knowingly subjects both its own people and foreign civilians to greater risk and violence in order to flatter his conception of Machiavellian virtue than with one that risks easier resort to force in order to enhance military effectiveness, civilian protection, and force protection.

Count me out.