Down in Texas a few years ago, a ranch owner started a novel hunting operation: For a fee, guests could hunt deer with a high-powered rifle, remote-controlled by a video-fed online gaming console - just like any shoot'em-up video game, only blasting real flesh and blood instead of digital avatars. After outrage voiced by both the treehugging and hunting communities alike, it was shut down in quick order.
Most thought it violated the basic spirit of hunting as a sport. To keep the online customers - a notoriously impatient lot - happy, the deer were well stocked on the ranch and lured into rifle range by generous feed. No, this was a too distant, remote, easy way of killing. Too antiseptic. It seemed to cross a line, and that opinion was almost unanimous.
But how was this remote-control hunting operation different, really, from our killer drone campaign overseas? Most of the heavily armed Hellfire drones cruising over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in search of al-Qaeda camps, or any "suspicious" gathering, are currently remote-controlled by CIA personnel in Langley, Va. After an epidemic of "collateral damage" and apologetic accidents - such as the "suspicious gathering" of Afghan schoolchildren gathering firewood being blown to bits by a drone missile - Obama now wants to move the drone war command over to the Pentagon, where more discriminate targeting will supposedly be practiced.
We seem to tolerate it because the only casualties are the occasional crippled or MIA drone - no POWs or boys coming home in coffins. A perfectly distant, risk-free, antiseptic, and not very heroic way to wage war.
Like mustard gas, hollow-point bullets and nuclear weapons, this is new technology whose morality and limitations we are now - or should be - wrestling with, as they are evolving rapidly under DARPA's (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) aegis, with ever greater sensory input, intelligence and capability to make life-or-death decisions autonomously.
One man who has wrestled with both the moral and strategic implications of remote-control weapons is Army Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, an Iraq war veteran who recently published an essay in Military Review, "The Rise of the Machines." According to the best sources, he states, the ratio of noncombatant to combatant deaths from drone strikes has been 1:4 or 1:5 - better than carpet bombing by B-52s.
But he cites a survey conducted by Stanford and New York University Law Schools of residents in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, describing a population experiencing PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) on a massive scale, with 6 in 10 residents supporting suicide attacks against the U.S. military forces, and 74% of Pakistanis nationwide considering the U.S. to be an enemy. This seething hatred is destabilizing a nuclear power and working against our long-term interest. It is yet another example of a chronic malady afflicting our nation: Myopic obsession with short-term results, while sowing the seeds of long-term disaster.
Pryer argues that the main justification for drone strikes - they reduce American casualties - is short-sighted, as they have inspired an increasing number of vengeful suicide attacks on American forces. "It also looks more like summary execution than warfare when an enemy soldier, facing a superior force and imminent death, is given no opportunity to surrender," says Pryer. "The face that America shows her enemies, foreign populations, and coalition allies in those countries the U.S. patrols exclusively with armed drones is a wholly inhuman face... tantamount to a kind of slow moral suicide, motivating our enemies to fight and prolonging our current wars."
The drone strikes are also destabilizing Yemen. When they began in 2009, there were only 200 to 300 al-Qaeda members in Yemen, and they controlled no territory. Now there are more than 1,000 al-Qaeda members, and they control "towns, administer courts, collect taxes, and generally act like the government" according to a Yemeni lawyer. And this anger is fueling anti-Americanism across the whole Muslim world, undermining the fledgling democracies birthed after the Arab Spring.
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador, opined in a Washington Post editorial that "there is a 'Brave New World' grotesqueness to this posture that should concern all Americans."
That grotesqueness is amplified by the "double-tap" strikes that we have used, killing at least 50 civilians in follow-up drone attacks on rescuers and funerals. By definition, that is terrorism, and according to U.N. special rapporteur Christof Heyns, they constitute war crimes.
What Pryer may be missing in his analysis, however, is that perpetual war is actually desirable for some elements of our imperial military-industrial complex. Perpetual war results in the inevitable blowback: Moral suicide, and the steady erosion of basic human rights and civil liberties within our own borders, perhaps culminating in indiscriminate drone strikes in our neighborhoods someday soon.