Christopher Kutz on drone warfare: The real moral debate

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By Christopher Kutz

Despite all the sound and fury of the Presidential primary campaign, the candidates have been effectively silent on one issue: our use of drone strikes as the central tool of security policy. Perhaps they could watch Eye on the Sky, by director Gavin Hood. The film vividly imagines two nations’ officials confronting a classic military dilemma, whether to kill an enemy at the risk of civilian life. In the movie, British officials, using drone-based cameras, have identified the home of two al-Shabbab terrorist leaders (one of whom is a British woman) in Kenya as they prepare young militants for a suicide terrorist mission. Given al-Shabbab’s history, which includes the attack on a Tanzanian shopping mall, the British officials have good reason to suspect an attack against large numbers of civilians. Because local forces are unable to storm the compound, the officials request support from an American drone with a Reaper missile.

The movie’s theme is that while drone technology appears to make war ethically easier, by reducing risks to civilians and soldiers, it mainly shifts the scene of responsibility, from the battlefield to the conference room and control center. The movie gains its dramatic power by reintroducing the dilemma, in the form of a little girl who comes to sell bread outside the compound during the crucial moments. The British and American officials and drone operators must now decide how to weigh the likely death of this concrete and identified girl against the unidentifiable civilians who might be killed in a terrorist attack. The film very effectively personalizes this debate by foregrounding a few of the officials and soldiers with clear views, for and against the strike, against the majority of officials who seek only to refer judgment to other layers and departments in government. (The movie indulges in a – perhaps accurate – stereotype of Americans as callously decisive and Brits as hand-wringingly nuanced and unsure.)

Eye on the Sky is right to remind us that the ethical dilemmas of war survive the shift to drone warfare. But I believe it makes a dangerous mistake about the real ethical problem with drones. The real problem is not that officials are too rarely courageous or principled. The problem is that we citizens have given up our own responsibility for the choices of war. What ought to be a wrenching decision for a democracy, about when to kill foreigners in pursuit of its interests, has been confined within the consciences of a few.

Few doubt that a state can use lethal force in the classic circumstances of national self-defense, with an invader at the border or missiles and bombs raining in. But drone campaigns are not like this: they involve decisions made through national security bureaucracies about killing people (or categories of people) identified through disparate intelligence as members of hostile networks, whose hostilities are often directed not at the US but at local and temporary allies of US security policy. According to public information, far from strapping suicide vests onto would-be martyrs or assembling dirty bombs, most of the targets identified in intelligence or surveillance reports are, essentially, young men with rifles. What used to be a strategic decision to go to war, with Congress involved and citizens rallied, has become a matter of executive decision making at the tactical level, made by the President and his security team, and the director of the CIA.

The personalization of the decision to kill is not unique to the drone program: special forces killing teams have been part of US security policy for decades. But the emergence of drone warfare has both let the policy of secret killing come out of the shadows on the one hand, while keeping it even more deeply in the shadows in another respect, placing it largely within the confines of the CIA, with White House oversight. While even former CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledges the myth of the surgical strike, since inevitably non-combatants, including women and children are killed, the lesson we citizens are asked to accept is that these are difficult but reasonable choices for the President, not for us.

We should fear the loss of our accountability as citizens more than the myth of the surgical strike. Presidents and CIA advisors, not to mention drone operators, may well agonize over the potential deaths of innocents. But I fear our own complacency, in wanting these dilemmas to be theirs, and theirs alone. The deaths of civilians and militants alike belong to us as citizens, and we must be prepared as citizens to deliberate about our killing policy, and accept its consequences. Instead, the complicity of the media in personalizing drone warfare keeps us citizens in a fraudulent innocence.

How can we stop the fraud we are perpetrating on ourselves? We must put ourselves in the imaginary position of the drone warriors, and come to think of ourselves as making the decision when to kill. President Obama has done little to make good on his promises of greater transparency in the drone program. To the extent the primary candidates have addressed the issue at all, Bernie Sanders has said only that he would seek to use drone strikes rarely, while Hillary Clinton has praised drone strikes as a critically effective counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, on “carpet bombing” and killing terrorist families, does not suggest much reticence on their parts. Only John Kasich has offered a specific position that moves in the right direction: to effectuate the transfer of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon — a shift that was promised two years ago by President Obama but later abandoned. Such a move would work to increase accountability for drone killings, and to locate decisions within an institution historically better suited to considering legal and ethical limitations on the use of force. (Recall that the use of torture in interrogation was much more firmly resisted by military than CIA officials.)

We need to force our candidates, and our media, to do better than this, to discuss what we citizens must know if we are to take honest responsibility for the deaths of the children and other bystanders in our security policy. While Eye on the Sky does a terrific job of provoking a debate on the way out of the movie theatre, we need a debate that extends all the way to the voting booth.

kutz on war and democracy jacketChristopher Kutz is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.

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