“What hath God wrought” now?
I recently caught a rerun of a “60 Minutes” report on the use of Predator drones in Afghanistan. A pilot sitting in the relative comfort and safety of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada can control a precision-camera-equipped drone flying some 8,000 miles away. These drones can fly high enough so that the enemy can’t see or hear them, and they can stay aloft for up to 20 hours. Each drone, moreover, is equipped with two Hellfire missiles, which the absentee pilot can launch.
The “60 Minutes” report included a demonstration of the amazing resolution of the camera and a video of an actual strike at night. The image was a little soft and resembled a black-and-white film negative, but the view was amazingly good considering the altitude of the drone. The pilot was able to lock on to the heat from an insurgent’s recently fired AK-47. Bye-bye, insurgent! He never knew what hit him.
I confess to having mixed feelings about this development, and I’m not the only one. Syndicated columnist David Sirota, in his column of August 30, charges the Pentagon with promoting a sanitized image of war as video game. Recently, the Air Force has been featuring these drones in television commercials, Sirota maintains, in order to bolster recruiting and to counter increasing public opposition to the war. Maybe so. I wouldn’t put it past the Pentagon. But there are a few other aspects of this development that trouble me.
Compared to the grunts on the ground, pilots have long been insulated from the death and destruction they cause. Up until now, however, most pilots were at least stationed in the same theater of operation as the grunts. They had to endure family separations, and depending upon the type of aircraft, flying their missions involved some degree of physical discomfort and danger. They went off to war, and their minds were on a war-time footing for as long as they were deployed. For Americans at least, there used to be a clear line of demarcation between the world of war and the home front—and some period of transition in moving between them.
But what about today’s pilots who acquire “targets” and launch missiles from an easy chair, risking nothing more than eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome? What does it do to a man’s—or in today’s Air Force, a woman’s—psyche to kill people in the morning and then go home to play with the kids and have a nice family dinner? Or are these pilots so inured to it that they see themselves as just playing videogames?
I also wonder about the obvious inequity and the wisdom of resorting to such a disproportionate response. It’s not that I think those World War I British generals were right to reject any tactics they considered to be unsporting. The American way of war has always included the hope that firepower and technology could, in large measure, substitute for manpower. And truth be told, were I a grunt on the ground in Afghanistan, I would be all for letting a hellfire missile “neutralize” a sniper rather than risk my life in trying to find and kill him. But, looking beyond my self-interests, I understand that we’re dealing with an ideologically committed enemy and a culture that celebrates martyrdom. Are we not handing them a wonderful recruiting tool in being able to brand us as cowards afraid to fight them on their own terms?
I worry as well that we’re falling into the same trap we fell into in Vietnam. Some held our recourse to overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower there to have been immoral. Whether it was immoral or not, it was certainly self-defeating. We inflicted a lot of so-called “collateral damage”—our euphemism for the property we destroyed and the noncombatants we killed. I doubt that our Predator-fired hellfire missiles have always hit exactly what the pilots were aiming at and nothing else. No less than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mullen himself, has expressed concern over the number of innocent Afghans we’re killing. He realizes that winning hearts and minds is the name of the game in a counterinsurgency.
We have to remember, as former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak recently wrote (the URL appears below), a counterinsurgency cannot be won with “bullets” alone. A counterinsurgency is a contest of ideas, and the key to winning one, Krulak reminds us, is to sell the people on “better ideas.”
Finally, were I one of those lowly grunts in Afghanistan I would have a more personal worry. I would worry that, some night, one of those R/C pilots back at Nellis, eager to rack up points--and limited to the shadowy, negative-like images of an infra-red camera--would mistake my warm rifle barrel for that of an insurgent. One night in Vietnam my unit was fired on by one our own planes. I realize that the technology today is much better, but I also know that friendly fire incidents are not yet a thing of the past.
Still, I’m not advocating that we stop using Predator drones and Hellfire missiles. I’m just hoping that those R/C pilots back at Nellis are damned sure they know what they’re firing at and that the risk of collateral damage is minimal or nonexistent.