04/11/2013 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

10 Reflections on Drones (Part I)

This is the first installment of a two-part blog. Part II is available here.

Drones have entered our consciousness. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere. The following reflections -- they could as easily be called meditations -- do not address legal, political, or military issues, though these have great importance. Rather I seek to begin a conversation about our relationship as human beings to these robotic objects as weapons. I do not consider their double-edged capacity for surveillance of people and environments.

I. The lure of an intelligent, nonhuman killing machine. We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing. This extreme psychic numbing enables us to kill while distancing ourselves from the significance, the meaning, of that killing.

II. The illusion that we can fight wars without our own people, our soldiers, dying. As a military man (quoted by P. W. Singer) put it: "When a robot dies, you don't have to write a letter to its mother." We can begin to recognize the power of this fantasy of war without human cost when we consider the devastating impact of war deaths: on soldiers and their units when close buddies are killed, resulting in extreme forms of grief, anger, and belligerent behavior that can result in war crimes; then on spouses and family members who may never recover from these losses; and finally on the collective feelings of a whole nation. War deaths may have greatest impact in democracies, and can serve as a powerful antidote or deterrent to war-making.

Hence the great and persistent need on the part of those who conduct and justify war, any war, to convince their compatriots that their young men (and now women) did not "die in vain" -- that those deaths had deep meaning for the overall community or nation.

That was the message of Pericles in the fifth century: his funeral oration is perhaps the ultimate Western model for justifying and glorifying the death of soldiers. Pericles spoke at length of the virtues of Athens, made possible precisely by the deaths of its warriors. He could even say to the survivors, notably the parents of the dead: "Fortunate indeed are those who draw for their lot a death so glorious." He was insisting that those men did not die in vain, that they were indeed privileged to die for such an all consuming purpose, for the continuing greatness -- moral, political, military -- of their noble city-state.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg referred to the fallen on that battlefield as contributing to their country's unique status as "a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln referred specifically to the responsibility of survivors, of all living Americans, to "highly resolve [that is, make sure] that those dead shall not have died in vain." Their means of doing that, of giving noble meaning to the fallen, was to provide the American nation -- the Union -- with "a new birth of freedom," and in that way make certain that our "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." With these words Lincoln provided perhaps the most powerful expression of survivor meaning and mission in the modern era. (Yet recent scholarship on the number and impact of Civil War deaths -- estimates now go as high as 700,000 -- has raised questions in some minds about the justification of even that war with its sacred standing in the American psyche.)

Much later, and considerably less eloquently, Ronald Reagan was to claim that American soldiers in Vietnam fought for a "noble cause" and insisted that those killed did not "die in vain." Indeed, from the time of World War II (and well before that), every American president has found himself struggling to convince us, and convince himself, that our soldiers in a particular war -- whether in Vietnam, in either conflict in Iraq, and in Afghanistan -- did not "die in vain." None of these presidents was completely successful in that attempted persuasion. The task of convincing the American public of wars' purposes seems ever more difficult, but still more difficult is the rejection of such meaning, leaving Americans with unacceptable thought that our soldiers actually did die in vain.

No wonder that robotic warfare is embraced as a panacea, an irresistible gift, to those in authority faced with the increasingly troublesome task of establishing meaning for the deaths of Americans. In contrast, it matters little whether or not a destroyed drone "died in vain."

III. Another illusion is that of the drones' capacity for what is called "targeted" or surgical killing, meaning the dispatching of a particular person and no one else. Much is made of this ostensible precision.

The narrative suggests what Camus (in The Rebel) called "fastidious assassins" or "just assassins." Both referred to an actual incident in 1905 in which a Russian revolutionary socialist named Kaliayev refrained from carrying out his planned execution of the Grand Duke Sergei because there were two children (the Grand Duke's nephew and niece) riding in the carriage with him. The problem with the official narrative of the drones' "fastidious" or targeted killing is that it is false. This has been demonstrated by an important study made by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School, which included 130 detailed interviews with witnesses and victims of drone attacks in Pakistan. The report describes large numbers of documented civilian casualties that contradict the Obama administration's claims of their absence or their very small ("single digit") number. Many victims have been children, including 69 children killed in a single strike in Pakistan in 2006. The narrative is further falsified by the loose terminology that permits many unidentified people who are killed to be referred to as "militants" -- meaning people thought to be insurgents or terrorists, though there may be little or no evidence on which to base that assumption. "Targeted killing," then, turns out to be an illusion of absolute technological precision.

Further falsehoods can be associated with the concept of "signature" strikes, those directed at people who are also unidentified but who, according to intelligence information, seem to have characteristics of terrorists: are observed in what is thought to be some kind of training in an area in which terrorists operate. A 2012 article in the New York Times quotes state department officials who complained to the White House about the looseness of these assumptions. As the article puts it: "The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees 'three guys doing jumping jacks,' the agency thinks it is a terrorist training group ... Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bomb makers -- but they might also be farmers." Claims of targeted killings and signature strikes can be false in both overestimating the technology and underestimating political and psychological distortions on the part of those who make decisions about targets.

IV. A related illusion is that of "humane killing." While it is true that some forms of killing are more grotesque than others, the concept of humane killing is an oxymoron. I would go further and see it as a psychological and political legitimation of killing. The argument of humane killing is based on the false claim of pinpoint targeting resulting in quick painless death. But when interviewers from the Stanford project approached Pakistani witnesses and family members of victims, the story was quite different: multiple people killed, often an entire gathering while sitting together, and grotesque effects such as dismembered corpses and scattered body parts.

In fact drones created their own version of terror as agents of destruction coming out of the sky, against which there was no way to defend oneself. Pakistani tribesmen, seeking to give meaning to the incomprehensible, developed a mythology of enemies or rival tribesmen planting chips in or near houses or cars, which could guide the weapons to their targets. Such was the fear and awe associated with drones that they have been viewed as expressions of the supernatural.

Significantly, one of the best descriptions of this fear is that of an American journalist, David Rohde, who was held by the Taliban for several months:

The drones were terrifying. From the ground it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.

Rohde observed that drones further polarized the environment by bringing about vicious forms of paranoia in the Taliban, which lead them to behead and dismember people suspected of cooperating with American drone attacks.

The Stanford report describes extensive PTSD-like symptoms in the general population and intense forms of what is knows as "anticipatory anxiety." People are fearful of holding gatherings of any kind, such as funerals or tribal meetings, because these have been attacked by drones bringing about the deaths of many participants. Social activities in general are threatened by an overall sense among people that "they could be attacked at any time."

The claim of humane killing is reminiscent of the historical sequence of executions in carrying out the death penalty: from hanging and firing squads, to the guillotine, to electrocution, to the gas chamber, to the lethal injection. Each was introduced as more "humane" than the previous ones; yet with each there have been instances of highly painful and grotesque forms of dying. The dream of ever more humane killing goes hand in hand with advocacy of the death penalty. Psychologically, the more "humane" the method of execution is considered to be, the less it seems like actual killing. But the irreducible truth of killing is that it converts a person into a corpse. Ostensibly humane methods are meant to ease the individual and collective conscience of those who carry out or support the killing. The claim of humanity can thus lead to more killing.

V. Another illusion has to do with ownership of the drone technology. As with nuclear weapons, we take on the sense that the know-how and the product permanently belong to us. Of course we are aware that other countries have drones -- at last count 76 such countries -- and that drones, unlike nuclear weapons, are a relatively easy technology to acquire (not only for nation-states but for non-state groups and terrorist organizations). But there is nonetheless a kind of assumption that we will always dominate and control this technology.

What does it mean, psychologically and historically, to have such a proprietary attitude toward a technology, especially a technology associated with killing? It has something to do with American exceptionalism, but also with the powerful technological component of the superpower syndrome, the collective fantasy of permanent omnipotence. The "shining city on a hill" seems to extend to the resources and factories and airplanes and stock markets, to whatever combination of technological and industrial power that made our country so rich and delivered it a victory in World War II. This collective psychology is parallel to that of an everlasting empire, blocking out any sense of historical shifts, pendulum swings in military and industrial power, or the rise of newly powerful nations or other superpowers. Such proprietary attitudes toward technology and industrial power, then, require a static or numbed view of history and of one's own continuing national hegemony.

Go to Part II.