Targeted Killing: Drones

Victor Davis Hanson on Obama's "Game of Drones"

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, March 29, 2013, 7:56 AM

Over at the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas site, Victor Davis Hanson has this useful essay on the politics of drones. Hanson is a classicist, so it is fitting that he opens his discussion as follows:

The biographer Plutarch tells an anecdote that, in the fourth century B.C., the Spartan King Archidamus, at the sight of a revolutionary new catapult, cried out, “By Herakles, it is the end of manly virtue.”

Almost every new military asset, from gunpowder to the machine gun, elicits condemnation that such innovations are somehow unfair, if not devilish, in their ability to increase body counts and erode individual battlefield gallantry. Novel aerial weaponry—the catapult, the crossbow, the longbow, artillery, planes, and missiles—proved especially controversial in their respective ages. Unlike the bayonet or tank, projectiles ushered in death unannounced from the air, without commensurate risk to the attacker. They eliminated the ground level, first-hand killing with edged weapons and rifles. New airborne technology brought into question not just existing tactics and strategy, but even more controversial issues, from the laws of war to perceptions of infantry obsolescence.

The historian Thucydides records the story of an anonymous, defeated Spartan who lamented that Athenian arrows—weapons supposedly outlawed in early Greek hoplite warfare—at the Battle of Sphakteria left no room for courage, their rain of indiscriminate death taking down the heroic infantryman along with the coward. Such unfair randomness, if not cowardice, becomes a theme as early Homer’s Iliad, when we hope in vain that the sweaty, dirty, and brawling Achilles can finally get his hands around the neck of the pretty boy bowman Paris, who cleanly kills better men from afar.

But his essay is about contemporary weapons, not ancient ones. He concludes:

With Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) recent attempted filibustering of the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director—an early architect of the drone assassination program—over theoretical questions of whether the administration has the right to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil, drones have become far more controversial than at any time in the Bush administration. For a risk-averse, budget-cutting United States, seeking to protect itself from radical Islamic terrorists, drones will see even greater use—at least until the collateral toll, hits on more U.S. citizens, or the introduction of enemy counter-technologies renders them militarily, legally, or morally ineffective.