The Inhumanity of Unmanned Drones

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I have never been in the military, and I have never been in a “kill or be killed” situation. That, however, is a trait I share with our last three presidents[1], so maybe my lack of combat experience doesn’t totally disqualify me from offering an opinion on this matter.

The use of unmanned drones to kill our enemies in war greatly concerns me, because it places such an enormous distance between combatants. There have been technological advantages in warfare for thousands of years — chariots, stirrups, the English long bow, firearms, and so on — but it wasn’t until the 20th century that one side could be removed from the battlefield and still cause enormous damage. Unmanned drones take this separation to a new level, with several dramatic consequences.

  • They reduce the human cost of waging war to zero. An unmanned drone can be piloted hundreds or thousands of miles away from the combat zone. A drone pilot can engage the enemy at no risk to his own safety. Isn’t this a good thing, though? No — the decision to go to war and kill other human beings ought to be something with enough risk to make it an option of last resort.
  • Without personal risk, the decision to wage war becomes deceptively easy. The discovery of Richard III’s body reminds us that, once upon a time, heads of state personally led their troops into battle. The cost of a foolish decision or poor preparation was often the monarch’s own life. We’ve come a long way from those day. With unmanned drones, presidents and prime ministers can send “troops” into battle without even the worry of seeing their citizens killed or wounded.
  • The human costs of war are disproportionately borne by one side of the battle. We find the accounts of war against women and infants in the Bible hard to stomach — and rightfully so. I don’t think we’re supposed to take pleasure in these measures. Today, however, we have the capability to wage the same kind of total devastation, without our soldiers even being present for the carnage.

Early in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Ned Stark sentences a deserter to death and carries out the execution himself, beheading the man with his own sword. He even has his sons watch the execution, to drive home the brutal nature of his duty. In contrast, the king, Robert Baratheon, employs a full time executioner and usually does not even attend the executions he orders. We are meant to understand that one man understands the value of human life and the heavy cost of taking it, while the other treats his power over life and death casually and dishonorably. One of these men is a barbarian, and it’s not the one who wields the sword.

What do you think about unmanned drones in combat? If you disagree with me, let me know why.

  1. True, George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, but he never faced combat or even the risk of combat. Jimmy Carter was discharged from the Navy in 1953, which means it has now been 60 years since a future president was in active military service.  ↩