The case for and against drones

Earlier this year, an American philosopher at the Naval Postgraduate School, Bradley Strawser, made what he called “the moral case for drones.” Perhaps realizing that this was a somewhat unusual argument, he received coverage in both the Guardian (also here) and the New York Times. His basic argument was simple, and certainly seriously proposed:

after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them [drones] to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.

Whatever you think of this argument on its own grounds, or whether the data are sufficient to assess it, it is not possible to either ignore it or dismiss it. Why not? Simply because it is the prevailing position of the Bush/Obama administrations and policy-makers.

The post-election lull in US drone strikes now appears to be over. Thus, geographers and others will need to once again address this argument. Engaging on the moral calculus of death (for example the claim that drone strikes are more precise than bombing) will strike many as iniquitous. But if it’s not done, then this argument hangs out there. (Good work on this thankless job has been done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.)

Drones are not yet a major part of warfare in terms of numbers or in munitions deployed (around 9% of the latter are from UAVs). No one thinks that number will go down. So here are the top three counter-arguments against armed drones, leaving out objections on personal moral grounds for the moment:

1. They contribute to an increasing militarization of everyday life, not just “over there” but domestically too. Police departments, companies–even universities–are applying for waivers to use drones, and we may soon see America’s skies  occupied by state and/or private drones, either for surveillance or weaponized. Additionally, everyday life becomes weaponized, not just our activities and practices, but the knowledge we produce as well. Here I’m thinking of the enrollment of scientific and scholarly knowledge (“cloak and gown,” military-academic-industrial complex), area studies, overseas expeditions, etc.

2. Drones make military activity more likely. As Derek Gregory points out, in an important post, they are cheaper and less likely to involve domestic troop injuries or deaths (because operated remotely). (By “domestic” I don’t just mean the USA; there is no reason to suspect that China et al. won’t develop weaponized drones capable of flying overseas.) This argument, like the first, requires a supplement to detail exactly why or when “military activity” may be counter-productive. Ie., many people are of the opinion that it is justifiable if it produces certain ends, security for example.

A related point made by Gregory is that they carry out this military activity by stealth and are therefore less accountable. Part of the reason for this stealth is that drone activity is taking place far from the battlefield or even in countries with which the US is not at war.

However, this is an argument that could be rebutted. Perhaps these factors are really part of the same point–what if drone strikes were only in places with which the US was at war and the order for their use went up through a proper chain of command? What if the Obama administration published an official list of drone strikes every time (or, for more political distance, tacitly endorsed an approved agency or contractor to do so)?

3. Thirdly then, I would like to explore the argument that drones–as part of a larger strategy of countertorrism, foreign intervention, special ops, and signature strikes–are not “sustainable.” Here I mean sustainable in the sustainability science meaning of not being possible to continue because they will decrease human well-being. There are two issues worth pointing out here. First, we are talking about not just a single technology and activity (drones), but an assemblage. Here I’m talking as much about an integrated military strategy of which drones are a part (occupying the skies from low-altitude to satellite constellations), and especially understanding satellite/drone imagery and surveillance not so much as a product, but as data files and calculative “code space.”

Second, does sustainability science give us worthwhile data measurement proxies and leverage that allow us to get beyond on the one hand objections to war on personal/ethical/moral [religious] grounds, and on the other acceptance of it because it leads to security? Neither of these arguments appear to me to be particularly fruitful, because you can’t do anything with them. Would sustainability/resilience/well-being provide such an avenue? Perhaps no more than climate science and the IPCC has, but surely no less than either. In a time when the US spends $1T a year on security, surely we can ask, is that even sustainable?


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