Monday, July 05, 2010

The Perils of Remote-Control Warfare?

Go figure. A member of the media elite is concerned about the U.S. military's increasing reliance on drones for attacking terrorist targets. In a piece for The Atlantic, Martha Raddatz of ABC News frets that UAVs have made warfare "too impersonal."

Five years later, the CIA’s “secret” mission in Pakistan is equally obvious. Since 2008, the U.S. has launched more than 100 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas; U.S. officials, speaking on background, claim the strikes have killed more than 400 militants. The Pakistanis have professed outrage over the strikes, saying they infringe on their sovereignty and lead to civilian deaths.

Of course, there’s been no such uproar in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Traditionally, when a nation went to war, it had to invest its blood and treasure, but today’s joystick-wielding drone pilots can launch a missile strike from here at home, then hop in the minivan to meet the wife and kids for dinner. War couldn’t get any more impersonal.

Pardon us, Ms. Raddatz, but don't you work for a news organizations that (not so long ago), routinely highlighted U.S. casualties in Iraq, and openly wondered if the American people would tolerate such losses over a sustained period. We agree with Kenneth Anderson, a law professor on the faculty at American University who blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy; he points out that Ms. Raddatz's thinking is not only dead wrong; it's way behind the liberal curve:

Actually, there’s nothing big or special about it. Ms. Raddatz is recycling conventional wisdom that got started back with some bits of Peter Singer’s Wired for War, and then elevated into a shared journalistic meme with Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece last fall. Ms. Raddatz does not seem to have received the memo, however, that the conventional wisdom among journalists is that even if you think that drones mean that US forces are not sufficiently engaged with their own blood, it is impolitic to mention it.


Ms. Raddatz’ “big idea” is at least six months behind the times. Perhaps her bosses at ABC will encourage her to do a walk-back. But it is helpful to have the unfiltered biases of journalists at least occasionally on public display so that we all know what they are, particularly when it comes to the lives of American servicemen and women, as viewed by our leading foreign correspondents.

Just for the record, Raddatz was ABC's Pentagon correspondent before being promoted to her current job as the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent." As someone who's spent time with American soldiers, you'd think Ms. Raddatz would celebrate technological advances that make it easier to track down--and eliminate--the bad guys, while reducing the risks faced by our troops. Instead, she worries about the proper investment of "blood and treasure."

That begs a rather inconvenient question. If you accept her ludicrous premise, then what is the right amount of sacrifice? Would she support casualties on the order of the first day on the Somme (where 19,000 British troops died on 1 July 1916), or the Battle of Iwo Jima, which took the lives of almost 7,000 U.S. Marines in just five weeks?

And Ms. Raddatz's "big idea" misses other, critical points as well. Drone strikes represent one of the few options available for reaching Al Qaida targets in Pakistan's tribal regions. Obviously, the Islamabad government wouldn't tolerate a massive American troop presence within its borders, and ground operations by special forces teams (or CIA operatives) carry their own, considerable risks.

Finally, there's the false notion that drone warfare is totally "impersonal" for our forces. In a previous job, I spent some time at an Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) site, the intel nodes that collect and analyze information gathered by UAVs. Most of the NCOs and officers assigned to the unit worked 12-14 hours a day, six days a week, on rotating shifts. Pilots and sensor operators--who actually "fly" the drones--have similar schedules.

The long hours take their toll and so does the effect of viewing real-time feeds from the war zone. Military doctors have diagnosed PTSD among drone operators and DCGS specialists, many of whom who have watched American troops die while their UAV circles overhead. Not exactly "hop-in-the-SUV-and-meet-the-family at-Applebee's" mindset described by Martha Raddatz.

While the ABC correspondent deserves credit for past visits to the war zone, we wonder if Ms. Raddatz learned anything during her "imbeds." In fact, she seems vaguely reminiscent of a war correspondent assigned to the Iwo Jima invasion, described in James Bradley's Flag of our Fathers.

A few days before the operation began, members of the press corps were assembled for a briefing, letting them know what to expect. The Marine officer was unflinching in his description; the island was heavily defended; Japanese troops were positioned in elaborate fortifications and casualties were expected to be heavy. When it came time for questions, there was only one, from that unnamed member of the Fourth Estate.

"When is the next boat back to Pearl Harbor?" he asked.


Ed Rasimus said...

Somehow the media have embraced the concept of "proportionality" in war--the idea that you should experience casualties and damage only slightly less than you inflict on your enemy. That makes you a good (but often dead or maimed,) person.

If technology allows us to kill the enemy without appreciable risk to ourselves, that doesn't mean we are dehumanized. It means we defend the nation more efficiently and effectively.

Maybe Ms Raddowitz needs to take a ride in a HumVee down some Iraq roads or possibly do some door knocking in an Afghan village. That would make it more personal for her.

Bob Hawkins said...

You know who else would have hated remote-control warfare? George Patton. Heck, he thought that aerial bombing, even with an occupied cockpit, was terrible.

Of course, in his case, the problem was that it takes all the fun out of war.

Vigilis said...

Interesting that a U.S. jounalist suddenly sees fit to mimic the protest of mediocre terrorist and 'Times Square Bomber', Faisal Shahzad.

How convenient that Radditz even considers herself qualified to express her opinion means of waging war. President Obama's increased use of drones is one thing he has certainly formulated correctly, and I believe I know why:
When Obama pulls out of Afghanistan on his schedule, our drones will be the only major, low-risk-to-U.S. troops component for prosecuting whatever the war with terrorism is then going to be called, and we had better be much better at using drones than we are now; instead of blaming collateral deaths on our soldiers, Obama will shift the blame to defense contractors who make the drones.

Shahzad's notion that the U.S. should be accountable a humane approach that occasionally kills civilians is as ridiculous as the terrorists' approach to using civilians both as human shields and part-time combatants.

Shahzad's and Raddatz's naievte is tantamount to wishing the U.S. would not defend with vigor its very way of life, but just have our troops drive single file over IED imbedded roads.

Sounds a lot like what we had the British do for us in our Revolutionary War. Did not work then, will not work now.

Tough luck, Martha, you are no more qualified to express your opinion on using drones than Faisal Shahzad.

Chris said...

On one hand, I sympathize with your point of view. However, on the other, I think it is fair to say that there are serious ethical, legal, and practical questions to be answered about robotics on the battlefield. The fact that "Wired for War" -- which quotes AF leaders expressing just that! -- is on CSAF's reading list for this quarter shows that the journalist you quoted isn't totally out to left field...

Rich said...

The issue here is the fear, or more precisely a mistrust among many on the left in having a democratic nation that can choose to prosecute a conflict which promises "acceptable" or no human costs.
The actual equation for Ms Radditz to consider is that we are already in a conflict - not of our choosing I would argue - that is costing the lives of brave sons and daughters and our ground forces are very "personally" engaged. UAV operations are one facet - one capability that affords an important military and psychological edge in this theatre, but is not likely to end the conflict. If remote precision weapons work to shorten the conflict and reduce civilian casualties, would Ms Radditz embrace them?
Apparently not. It is yet another myopic, thoughtless position by another MSM operative whose very first instinct is to mistrust US motives and principal.

SMK said...

No one has ever denied Ms Radditz the opportunity to invest her own blood or treasure in defense of her country.