On the Development of Drones
The flurry of reports on the United State’s increased deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones,’ focus almost exclusively on the process by which targets are selected and the body counts of each strike. Though drones have been reported on by the New York Times, widely debated in the think tank world, condemned by a variety of activist groups, and featured in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, the means by which drones could distance the public from the war effort and eventually increase our military presence abroad has not been sufficiently discussed.
Let me be clear that I am not distressed by the technological advances that allowed the development and deployment of drones. The military industrial complex develops new weapons technology intrinsically; though the power and nature of such a complex disturbs me, there is little progress to be made by being a Luddite. What is concerning about the use of drones is the secrecy surrounding strikes and the way that these strikes change the nature of citizen engagement with the war effort.
Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reported that “Over the past decade, there have been some 300 drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Of these attacks, 95 percent occurred in Pakistan, with the rest in Yemen and Somalia; cumulatively, they have killed more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians.” Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the military action in Pakistan has not been subject to widespread public review in America. Even those who are aware of military involvement in Pakistan, like Zenko, are unable to determine the number of civilians injured in drone strikes. If information about civilian deaths is unknown or unreported, then the claims that drones are a more precise method of military action are hollow. Though, according to the New America Foundation’s drone database, there has been a sharp decline in the number of strikes in Pakistan since 2010, it is disconcerting to consider the extent of military action that remained beyond citizen review.
Though it is difficult to get an accurate report on the number and location of drone strikes, in part because of the clandestine CIA program, it is known that drones have been used extensively by the Obama administration for non-battlefield operations and that the administration intends to increasingly rely upon drones for American military action. Unfortunately, there has not been a commitment by this Administration to increase the transparency of our drone programs. Though President Obama stated that “the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served,” he has adopted policies designed to keep the American public uninformed about our military’s actions.
Distancing the public from the war effort is an effective way to squelch dissent. While anti-war movements throughout American history often addressed the moral issues of war-fare and the proper role of the United States in the world, much of the momentum of these movements can be attributed to the proximity of the war effort rather than ideological concerns. The similarities between the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq have been explored elsewhere, but the importance of public support in both of these wars bears repeating. Public support for the Vietnam War dropped from 61% in 1965 to just 28% by 1971; public opinion concerning the War in Iraq followed a similar pattern, plummeting thirty percentage points between 2003 and 2010. The end of both of these wars can be attributed, in part, to the immense power of an educated, unified public. In both of these instances the public was able to weigh the costs and benefits of military involvement and voice an informed opinion calling for a withdraw of American troops. In light of the influence of public unrest, it is unsettling to consider that the means by which drones are being used by the Obama administration threatens to distance the public from the war effort and make it more difficult for citizens to educate themselves about our military presence abroad.
Drones have the obvious potential to distance the American public from the war effort by reducing the number of ‘boots-on-the-ground’ during American military actions. Less obvious, and acutely threatening, is the expansion of covert drone operations conducted outside of the public eye. Given the importance of social protest in ending the many of American wars over the past 50 years, the ways in which drones are being used threatens to increase the militarism of the state. The American public should demand that the Obama Administration live up to its promise that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”