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Plane and simple

| Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Obama administration has overseen an eightfold increase in the number of attacks flown by unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones.” These small, pilotless aircraft have become popular with the U.S. Air Force for their ability to take on dangerous missions deep inside hostile territory while keeping American servicemen out of harm’s way. Yet the American drone program has also come under harsh scrutiny by human rights groups.

I’m sympathetic to the majority of the issues brought up by drone opponents. At the very least, I can applaud their calls for greater transparency and oversight of the Air Force’s drone program as I can for any branch of the armed forces. However, it’s undeniable that drones are subject to an unfair level of scrutiny that does not affect manned aircrafts.

For instance, opponents of the US drone war in the Middle East often point to the civilian casualties caused by drone attacks. It’s a hard charge to argue against; bodies strewn amidst the rubble of a destroyed home or the shell of a burned-out car are chilling testaments of man’s inhumanity. But it would be a colossal mistake to associate these deaths with drones rather than with war as an institution.

As uncomfortable as it is to admit, civilian casualties are a fact of war. Virtually every armed conflict results in civilian casualties out of proportion to combatant deaths. Consider the 2003 Iraq War and subsequent insurgency, which even by the most conservative estimates killed ten times more civilians than enemy soldiers. Before the widespread adoption of precision-guided bombs, these figures were even worse. So-called “collateral damage” was such a prominent feature of the Vietnam War that it inspired a catchy-yet-horrifying military ditty: “Napalm Sticks to Kids.”

In fact, by some accounts drone warfare may be one of the few exceptions to this rule. Assessments by both the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that drone strikes in Pakistan killed roughly three militants for every civilian. (Feel free to take these figures with the massive grain of salt they deserve.) Drone warfare is also much less likely to create refugee crises than would an infantry engagement of the enemy. Unmanned aerial vehicles are ill-suited to the saturation bombardment needed to level cities; most designs focus on assassination of single targets. Drones carry small laser-guided missiles rather than the literal blockbusters used by their manned counterparts to “soften up” a city for invasion.

National sovereignty is another sticking point for those who want drones grounded. Increasingly, the United States is using unmanned planes to strike at targets inside other countries, such as Pakistan and Yemen, without the permission of said nations’ governments. This gets even more confusing when the countries we launch strikes against are officially our allies in the War on Terror. After all, we wouldn’t want Britain or Israel bombing our own country.

Sadly, war is rarely so kind as to respect national boundaries. We’re seeing this happen right now in Syria as the civil war between the rebels and the anti-Assad forces spills over into Iraq, Lebanon and surrounding territories. The terrorist threat in countries like Pakistan is real, and local forces are often either unwilling or unable to adequately respond.  We all remember the most infamous example, when the Pakistani army couldn’t find Osama bin Laden when he had hidden less than a mile from their Military Academy. I recall very little “Sturm und Drang” about “sovereignty” as Seal Team Six returned in triumph from Abbottabad.

Why then are drones singled out for such persecution? What encourages people to look at these particular engines of war with greater apprehension than their manned counterparts? Perhaps the answer lies in human psychology. The casualties from conventional war come in a tidal wave, overwhelming our perception and condensing into a single travesty. Drone strikes, by contrast, are more akin to a Chinese water torture. Drone strikes are little clusters of death stretched over months to years, this feels more reprehensible than the single wave of death as a result of conventional war. I’m reminded of the line oft attributed to Josef Stalin: “When one man dies it is a tragedy; when thousands die it’s statistics.”

I’m all for productive discussion of the covert war against terrorism in the Middle East. As we talk, however, remember to keep the focus on the real problem: an endless war against a nameless foe without concrete objectives. Don’t jump to conclusions just because some of our planes don’t have pilots in them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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