The elusive debate over war without valor
About five years or so ago, I read my first detailed account of just how aerial combat drones work:
At a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, there were two small, non-descript portable buildings. One had a sign over it reading “Iraq;” the other was labeled “Afghanistan.” The “operators” as they were, all former combat veterans, worked three shifts around the clock. At 9 a.m. a pilot would come in, connect up a headset and joysticks in this advanced version of an Internet café. With commands coming from troops on the ground in Iraq, he would fly in this (for him) virtual environment over the real landscape to take out a sniper hiding in a minaret, or flatten a convoy of “terrorists.” At 6 p.m. quitting time, he’d hand the joysticks over to the next shift worker and hop in his car for the quick ride home to be with the wife and kids, maybe put up his feet, pop a beer and watch some TV.
Some 20 years ago, the futurist Alvin Toffler foretold in the seminal book “War and Anti-War” of the coming age when computers and surgical strike would the weapon of successful armies. The future is now here. The reduction of risk for one’s warriors can only be welcomed. But as we eliminate for the first time in the history of warfare the necessity of valor, do we also impair judgment?
As drones take their toll in the form of accidental victims in the Pakistani spillover of the Afghan war, as their use rapidly expands into new places such as Somalia, and as Turkey ramps up to join in this technology along with some 40 other nations, it’s time for a debate we are not having.
Last September, New York University law professor Phillip Alston captured attention with a detailed legal argument in the Harvard Journal of National Security warning that this technology is now essentially beyond legal control. Effectively exempted from domestic U.S. law, and unconcerned with what international law exists, “there is no meaningful domestic accountability for a burgeoning program of international killing,” he argued.
This week, the former legal director for the Congressionally mandated “Project on National Security Reform,” set out the stakes in an essay in the New York Times. In short, there is no “doctrine” for use of these new technologies that essentially define the future face of war.
“The United States risks achieving near-term tactical benefits in killing terrorists while incurring potentially significant longer-term costs to its alliances, global public opinion, the war on terrorism and international stability,” he wrote.
A Turkish defense expert familiar with the history first of Turkey’s Israeli-made, surveillance-only Herons and the first 10 of the largely home made “Anka” drones, explained to me that at the moment, only the U.S. and perhaps Israel can actually use the combat version. But the day of remote control war by the Turkish military is coming nearer. As it is for China, Russia and others.
As so much other debate surrounds the control and mandate of Turkish military assets along with that of the National intelligence Organization (MİT), it is difficult to expect Turkey to join in this search for doctrine. Our attention spans are stretched. Another important debate eludes us.