Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Last night at around 3am I made a snap decision in the process of writing an as yet unfinished post for this blog (on nomophobia). As a consequence, I ended up going to a history talk today (actually given by a history lecture I know of) which formed part of the Winter Lecture series titled "Global War, Global Catastrophe". At the end of the talk (this one was "Why WWI Matters") I overheard a fairly old looking lady talking about drone strikes.

Now, drone strikes, in the overheard conception, are an extraordinarily expensive way of killing (I think) three people (possibly relating to this article I have not read). This is, broadly, correct: killing people with expensive technology is, obviously, going to be expensive. Yet I still wanted to say something.

Firstly, let's imagine that you have located two known targets that you're authorised to kill legally and are instructed to do so. Imagine that said targets (and you know this for sure) are in a house in a one horse town. Imagine that you have three options (whatever happens you're ordering these people to be killed, this is not the decision at hand). One: human operatives (standard soldiers/wetworks whatever). Two: manned aerial operation. Three: drone strike. There are various advantages and disadvantages to each of these options... and there are other options but we'll ignore these.

Human operatives have the potential to be very precise. On the other hand, they will probably take a while to arrive (even if you use paratroopers... but this adds more complexity and, therefore, more room for error). Likewise, there is such a thing as human error (not that this doesn't exist with the other options) which could well manifest itself by your team getting caught/being spotted before the mission can happen. Also, there are risks. Ideally (?? I watch too many thrillers) you probably want to be killing as few of your own people as possible. Unless you've already got people in place, then, you're probably not going to utilise this option. We will assume that this is not the case. Human operatives are out.

A manned aerial operation will probably mean a jet with a missile or some sort of bomb being dropped. These options will cause a lot of damage. Think about this. For every person that you kill, you provide an incentive for at least one more person to not agree with your actions and decide to act on that. Hearts and minds, people. It seems natural that you want precision.

Under this conception, and this is hardly the most thought out explanation for using drones, a drone strike looks like a decent compromise. Ultimately, you risk money and technology rather than your own people (in my opinion, people who make decisions in conflicts are somewhat myopic for a reason), and minimise the collateral damage. You can also make the human case: is it not better to put a high price on ending another's life? After all, doesn't this make you less likely to take more? Doesn't the high cost and technological investment mean that more discerning decisions are made? 

This post was not constructed to weigh all the angles. It used an example to make its point that reduced the situation enormously. I do not think the poor souls tasked with these choices get to be so certain about the circumstances as we were just then. I do think, though, that you can generalise the precision argument. And, really, that's the one I wanted to make. Good conduct of war, such as it can exist, takes out legitimate military targets: precision is core to this. Good conduct of war, also, seeks peace as fast as possible... creating an environment which sustains the motivations to fight through imprecision is not this, is it?

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