Drones and the human cost of war

The debate about drones continues on the pages of Cato Unbound. You can check out the site and become part of the conversation here.

In my most recent posting I counter Daniel Goure’s assertion that drones do not increase the temptation to intervene militarily. I and many others have argued to the contrary, that drones are troubling precisely because they lower the domestic costs of using military force.

We know that concerns about casualties play a role in decisions about military intervention. This is as it should be in a democratic society where leaders are supposed to be accountable to public concerns. Some military operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the ‘Black Hawk down’ disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties government officials sometimes try to hide the human costs of war.  Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force.

Consider the military interventions in Pakistan and Somalia. Without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan or Somalia would be ground operations. These would be much bloodier than drone strikes and far more dangerous. They would carry a high risk of failure.  If drones did not exist, and invasions were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations in Pakistan or Somalia? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaigns of military strikes against Pakistan and Somalia. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

2 thoughts on “Drones and the human cost of war

  1. super post. I suggest Grossman’s On Killing, which furthers this argument regarding psychological distancing and our aversion to killing and the differences in reaction to systematic slaughter (meat industry, death-by-spreadsheet medical insurance, etc.) and direct person-to-person murder. The author has an interesting scale regarding this, ranging from the bombardier pushing a button to killing at what he calls “sexual distance”. The book is mostly about the individual’s aversion to killing, and how operant conditioning is used in military training to overcome this resistance. Dovetails nicely with your work.

    link here: http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Psychological-Cost-Learning-Society/dp/0316040932

  2. Drone warfare encourages terrorism committed by Americans against innocent American citizens on US soil. I should know-I was terrorized for many years. No, I do not live near a USA border, nor do I live near a military or sensitive area. I live in rural Virginia. Once, when I feared an imminent drone strike on my residence, I telephoned the local FBI. The FBI hung up on me and they have failed (as far as I know) to investigate my complaints of acts of terrorism involving military planes and drones-including attempted assignations! This despite the fact that I have home videotape evidence and have posted a short clip on youTube; key words: predator drones home video.
    I wonder what the appropriate role of the FBI is if not to investigate murder for hire and domestic terrorism. These days anyone can have a drone… Some believe humanitarians should welcome drones because their precision will minimize civilian casualties. I believe the opposite. Plausible deniability will encourage more domestic and international assassinations of innocent civilians. Civilians just like me.

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