In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. ~ Marshall McLuhan
Sonia Kennebeck’s film National Bird illuminates the tragic personal aspect of America’s drone wars. The film explores the aftermath of drone strikes from the personal experiences of several people, some of whom were on the receiving end and others involved with targeting and weapon delivery. The tragedy of the survivors and victims’ families are visceral and obvious. National Bird also gets up close and personal to what may have been less obvious to the audience prior to the film, namely the haunting psychic turmoil of some of the U.S. service members involved in the drone operations. While these latter stories are a compelling compliment to those of the victims, the inquiring public and policy makers do not require inside information on the drone program’s targeting deliberations and trigger-pulling decisions. A simple thought experiment is all that is needed to clearly show why our armed drone program is a moral failure.
Supporters of America’s use of armed drones in counterterrorism operations typically point to the program’s advantages of a comparatively light footprint of US forces on foreign soil, the accuracy of weapons delivery verses that for manned aircraft, and to the reportedly strict vetting process for targeting. In addition to challenging these assertions, opponents decry the scale of the program, the tally of the dead and maimed, and the risks to accountability given the sparse and ambiguous language of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40).
These are important questions. But they do not address the fundamental problem with our armed drone program. Rather, the essential problem is the abhorrent message the US sends via the way that these strikes occur as a bolt from the blue into people’s homes and neighborhoods. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the means of our actions, in other words, the medium, is itself the message and not our purported intent, our expressed philosophical and legal explanations, or even whether to kill or not to kill in general.
The main problem with our counter-terror drone program is not the degree of our technical proficiency or the degree of certitude in placing a target on the kill list. Nor is it about a least-worst argument such as that offered by Michael Hayden in his assertion that “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher if we had not taken action.” [Michael V. Hayden, “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare,” New York Times, February 19, 2016.] The essential problem is not the legitimacy of the kill or the reliability and accuracy of the means. Instead, the problem is with the morality of the message that is expressed by what happens on the ground before, during, and after an attack.
The thought experiment requires a few controversial stipulations for argument’s sake, but these will get to the heart of the basic question and side step the rhetorical straw-men and numericist rope-a-dope that result from debates on scale, accuracy, the vetting process, and the program’s legality. In short, we will grant all of the supporters’ claims and even assume that the drone program is legally and technically error-free.
Here are the stipulations about the drone program:
1. "Target" identification is perfect every time.
2. Killing the "targets" is legal in a broadly acceptable sense in every respect.
3. The drones’ weapons hit the intended targets 100% of the time.
4. At point of impact, weapons off of armed drones are not fundamentally different from Tomahawk missiles or weapons off of armed manned aircraft that have the same accuracy. In other words, there is nothing special about the munition because it was launched from a drone.
And here’s an additional stipulation in order to make the point:
5. The death penalty in the US is legal, accurate, and error-free in every respect.
Let’s add a twist to this latter stipulation. Our domestic capital punishment program is conducted virtually, with the accused convicted and sentenced in absentia. The sentenced criminal – the "target" – remains out and about in the world and may not be aware that he has been sentenced to death. He now has a legally legitimate dot on his head, so to speak. But instead of picking the target up at a later date of the state’s choosing for an appointment with the lethal injection table, the process is to find, fix, track, target, and engage the target somewhere out in town at our convenience. In this system, the capital sentence is executed via a legally-sanctioned sniper who employs well-established law enforcement tactics, techniques, and procedures under use similar rules of engagement and collateral damage estimates that we abide by for the drone strike program.
So, now dad, or Uncle Jim, or the guy a few blocks from the house has the dot on his head. Maybe he hasn’t told his friends, family, and associates and maybe he doesn’t know. One day on his way to doing something legitimate or criminal, the target is duly shot under the sanction of the legitimate death sentence. The due diligence, the means, and the ROE are all kosher. After several of these, maybe a few dozen, legal killings happen in the neighborhood, town, or region at different times and places, to guys and gals who dress like clerks or farmers, the townsfolk are on pretty constant edge.
Indeed, many of these folks were aiding and harboring the sentenced targets but there is also plenty of latitude in the simple language of the AUMF, a lot of room to interpret who and what falls into its sweeping categories. How many degrees of freedom away from the direct perpetrators are those who "harbored" or "aided" them? It is a matter of whom and what the president "determines." Philosophically, the Kevin Bacon game could be an adequate model for the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force." But, maybe the full six degrees of Kevin Bacon freedom aren’t swept into the aiding or harboring camp. Or maybe not. We don’t know, and those on the ground, targeted, aiding, harboring, or otherwise don’t either.
The pro-con debates about our counterterrorism drone strikes are overly centered on legality, accuracy, and scope. But this program is not simply one of legal and accurate air strikes which may be more accurate and discriminate than air strikes from manned aircraft. This also a substantial social provocation at the local level. Amid the perceived watching persistence and the staccato nature of these strikes, it remains insufficient that we try very hard not to kill supposed or actual innocents.
Our message to the world is that if we decide that you are a problem for us to a degree of our definition we might decide to put a few armed aircraft over you. We might conclude that, in our view, the most ethical, legal, and discriminate way to do this is to put some drones over you, and according to the local rumor mill or the Internet, these are invisible – you won’t always see or hear them – and are always up there. This needn’t be true all of the time, everywhere, but how will you know. The US is watching, looming, and once we’ve decided that we’ve met our self-defined strict standards of evidence and deliberation, we may send some explosives on or near you or on or near someone you know.
There are, of course, many questions about the legality and morality of our domestic capital punishment system. But even if we were to accept the stipulations of this thought experiment, would we accept this hypothetical procedure for executing the death penalty in our own country? It is no stretch to say that this would never be acceptable. The message we are sending is not the rhetoric of our official assurances of legality and technical accuracy. It’s not what we say about why we do what we do. It is simply what, where, and how we do it and how this would be viewed by reasonable people in the local area. Our national message is that from time to time people in some of the world’s neighborhoods will be blown to pieces out of the blue.
Dave Foster is a currently US Navy civilian analyst. Dave was a Marine Corps officer and has degrees in engineering, management, and history. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government. Please send comments and questions to email@example.com.