Sunday, November 25, 2012

Droning On

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is the more technical name for what we commonly call a drone. The UAV or drone is, simply, an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a navigator or pilot, which the military calls a Combat Systems Officer.  
UAVs (drones) are of particular concern to many people (including me) at this time because they are systematically killing people in several different countries. For example, the U.S. government has made hundreds of attacks on targets in northwest Pakistan since 2004 using drones controlled by the CIA’s Special Activities Division.
There are a number of groups monitoring the use of drones in covert warlike activities. One such group is the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They report that as of this month, some 350 drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed between 2,600 and 3,400 people, including as many as 885 civilians.
The U.S. is not the only country to have drones, of course. The Israelis used drones in their attacks on Gaza earlier this month.
UAVs are sometimes called “killer robots,” and Human Rights Watch, based in Harvard Law School, earlier this month released a 49-page document titled “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots.” The report “calls for an absolute ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.” (That extensive report can be accessed here.)
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) is another organization actively seeking to halt the use of drones. Last week I participated in their webinar on the subject. The first presenter was Medea Benjamin, the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (Kindle, 2012).
My question to Medea was, Aren’t drones preferable to “boots on the ground?” The response was similar to what the FOR has been advocating since it was founded in 1915: surely there is a better way to solve differences than by the use of drones or ground forces.

One page on FOR’s website is “Faith-based communities say no to drones.” (There is a link for signing a petition against the use of drones, which I have done.) Among the aspects of drone warfare that FOR finds particularly disturbing are these:

The Administration insists that because drones do not risk American lives, Congress need not be consulted, leading to a dangerous abuse of executive power. (This is a similar concern that Rachel Maddow writes about in Drift, the subject of my previous posting.)

The President and his aides draw up a Kill List in which they play the role of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. People on this secret Kill List have never been charged, tried or convicted in a court of law, and are given no opportunity to surrender. (As most of you know, I voted for President Obama’s reelection, but this is an aspect of his administration that I oppose; of course, there would likely have been similar, or even increased, use of military UAVs by a Republican administration.)

If you want to think more about this important issue, click on the links given above—or the many other websites available at your fingertips such as

Steps need to be taken to keep this country, and others, from droning on.


  1. You've raised some extremely important issues here with regard to the use of drones, and I thank you. Thanks for the links as well. I suppose there are a lot of us who are neither pacifist nor militant and martial American exceptionalists who find ourselves uncomfortably in some land-mined middle ground regarding military actions. We don't want war unless it becomes absolutely necessary, and we don't approve of drones unless they're use is better than boots-on-the-ground activity. Your column challenges us to work through more carefully and thoroughly the kinds of policy that are needed to continue to promote a more peaceful world. (Even my phrase "more peaceful world" could betray my own bias against U.S. domination and triumphalism. And I hope I'm not beating around the bush here just because I don't oppose all military action.) Responding quickly, off the top of my head, I would think a non-pacifist Christian, humanist, and "realistic" platform would require such planks as (1) maintaining no more military than is absolutely necessary; (2) a reaffirmation of standard just-war principles (as well as the Geneva protocols and all that sort of thing); (3) dissent from the glorification and romanticization of military service; (4) a call for respect for the integrity and being of other nations in their own right (i.e., not viewing every nation instrumentally in terms of of one's own national interests); (5) constant diligence in the pursuit of peaceful means of resolving conflict; and (6) the quest for turning swords into plowshares by retrofitting the military to serve also, if not primarily, in places and times of natural catastrophes. It would seem to me that the use of drones, which is almost certainly going to expand, should/would be evaluated through such a framework as I've outlined here--at least for those of us who don't oppose all military action. I don't have the answer to the issue, and I don't mean for my post to be in opposition to your position. In fact, I mean to be in sympathy with it, albeit, I realize, from a more Niebuhrian standpoint. Thanks, Leroy.

  2. Another brief, but significant, comment from my esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky:

    "I share your concern and opposition to the use of drones, Leroy. We may save American lives, but that is just keeping ourselves 'out of harm's way' as we wreak havoc on others."

  3. While oversight was mentioned as a negative, it is no accident that drones are instruments of the CIA. Many CIA activities are not publicized due to concerns about national security, but I question that all of their actions would be approved by citizens if they were known.

    The USA has a history of meddling in other countries' affairs. More of these should be acknowledged or not done. One positive of the use of drones is at least the strikes are reported.

  4. Drone technology will inevitably become cheap and widely available. Already today there are iPhone controlled model helicopters available for use by mischievous nerds who want to take aerial photographs of their neighbor's back yards (or whatever else they dream up). I predict there will be a terrorist act of violence utilizing drone technology against the USA in the not too distant future. Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.

    1. Clif, you sound quite pessimistic. Unfortunately, I think you may be right.

  5. I have just corrected my misspelling of Medea Benjamin's first name. I apologize for not getting it correct in the original posting.

    If you would like to see the PowerPoint slides she used in the webinar mentioned above, here is the link (which you will have to copy and paste):