Simon Jenkins on Drones

First, a brief introduction. Simon Jenkins is the sort of high-calibre contributor of well-informed opinion, these days primarily for the Guardian, whose reputation and general quality I aspire to achieve. A sound ambition, but I’m no sycophant, and Jenkins is one of a few prominent columnists whom I enjoy but also frequently take distinct issue with.

The purpose of this third aspect of my blogging enterprise will be to confront those articles that particularly engage me, or elicit my respectful ire. Who these other individuals are will be divulged as and when they enter the crosshairs, but for the moment there’s plenty to work with courtesy of Jenkins alone.

While a few days ago I was driven to fits of incredulity over his assertion that Nick Clegg is secretly a master political operative, I’m far more driven to address his most recent publication on the futility and dangers of the proliferation of drones. Although I take less offence from this offering, it is far more interesting and challenging, and by happy coincidence occurred only hours after an extended conservation on the matter with a friend.

The overarching theme of the article is broadly accurate. The attritional use of drones on an enemy with an extreme ideology is strategically ineffective, and doubly so when failures of the weapon’s much-lauded precision result in the deaths of civilians. A tactical imperative of war may to be to kill the enemy, but Jenkins rightly indicates that this is worthless in a situation where the employed method does just as much to replenish the enemy.

However, his outright rejection of some of the more commonly bandied advantages of drones bears more scrutiny. Some months ago, the Guardian introduced me to the very contemporary philosophical works of Bradley Strawser, who espoused the moral virtues of drones. Your first impression might be that here is a contrarian notoriety-seeker but, having taken some time to read Strawser’s slightly arduous “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles”, I was willing to concede to elements of his controversial, dark logic.

There are definitely problems with his argument, most clearly with his acceptance of the concept of a just war, from which a great deal of his defence is hinged. But if you can still allow for later stages of the argument, there is undeniable resonance with the idea that there is a paramount responsibility for the commanders of warfare to limit, as reasonably as possible, the danger to their armed forces.

Imagine a scenario in which there is a clear military objective, where the destruction of either enemy personnel or assets is implicit and can be equally achieved through two options – a manned or remote mission. To command human forces into a life-threatening situation, being demonstrably unnecessary, in light of the availability of the remote use of drones, is wrong. The argument that there needs to be a human experience of war in order to avoid dehumanising it is moronic. Forcing a person to experience war, being demonstrably unnecessary, is in my mind tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

This line of thought brings me to defend Chuck Hagel from a limited attack by Jenkins, for his so-called “enthusiasm” for death-dealing UAV’s. The under-fire nominee for Secretary of Defence has courted the rage of political hawks for his anti-war mentality, which itself is the result of Hagel’s horrendous experience of the Vietnam War. The man who goes to war and comes back with a profound aversion to it, is in my opinion exactly the sort you want for his offered role.

Jenkins also draws criticism to the manner in which Obama supposedly signs-off on “death lists”, which if true clearly does lack even a perfunctory attempt to appear genuinely judicial or in obedience to the conventions of a transparent war. Perhaps he would also criticise me then, if admitting that I can find it difficult to hold to a notion of maintaining an unimpeachable moral slate when effectively confronting an enemy to whom morality is completely meaningless. Not that I’m defending or advocating clear acts of inhumanity. There is a difference between that and being more prone to accept issues like the morally complex one of drones.

Ultimately though, I share Jenkins’ distaste for a picture of the future where drone warfare is prevalent. Not necessarily on moral grounds, but practical grounds, as it seems to me that real warfare needs to carry an existential threat to one side or the other. There needs to be the potential for tangible loss in order for any outcome to be achieved. What happens when one military shoots down all the drones of the other? A gentlemanly admission of loss by the loser? Or the realisation that war isn’t really over until the will is broken by death, destruction and destitution?

Assuming there will be in the future stakes high enough to drive the need for warfare, and there undoubtedly will be, drones could surely only ever be the precursor to greater conflict. Unless the manufacturing of drones became so integral to an economy or society that their mass destruction carried greater meaning than distant material loss, how could it be otherwise? My criticism is mainly that they represent a false hope for the civilising of war.

Down the gauntlet hath been laid Sir Simon!


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