William J. Astore asks: Are Drone Strikes Cowardly?

Heroic warriors?

A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.

The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed. Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise. Intelligence is often wrong. Missiles don’t always hit their targets. Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.

Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?

America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself? Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?

Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior. Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill. Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.

But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way? Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?

Don’t get me wrong. Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.” PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some. But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?

Back in 2012, I wrote an article on the temptations of drone warfare. I suggested that, “In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General [Robert E.] Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”

That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war. Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?

There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.

A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly? If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.