Jim Caton on Drones and War

Jim Caton (an economics student at San Jose State University) takes issue with my recent response to Brian Doherty on drones. He thinks I neglect two points (let me know, Jim, if you think I'm being unfair in my summary):

1. Reducing the cost of war to soldiers makes Americans non-chalant about war which makes us more likely to go to war.
2. Drones separates soldiers from their killing, making them non-chalant about their work.

I don't understand these objections at all. This sounds like Charlie Rangel's call to bring back the draft so that Congress will be less likely to go to war. So our soldiers have to put themselves in more danger just so we at home will feel bad for that danger that they're put in and be less likely to send them. Do I have that right?

I don't know, I think it's a terrible flop.

The same with the second point. I could see how some drone operators could treat what they're doing like a video game, and not consider the gravity of it. But again, what is the argument here - that to prevent that from happening we have to make life even worse for soldiers: make them less safe (and the countries they are operating in less safe) by being there, on the ground, with far less precision or time to make life and death decisions.

These points seem unserious to me.

Should we children and make them fight with bayonets? I usually don't like abusing reductio ad absurdums, but I'm really not sure what else to make of this "we have to make soldiers lives hell and pose more of a threat to innocents abroad so WE make the right decision" argument.

The other weird thing about the post is that he acts as if I'm ignorant of blowback. Of course blowback is a problem. That's why we never should have gone into Iraq, for one thing. But there are reasons for taking out al Qaeda (which is not especially popular in most of the Middle East), and if we're going to do that and if you're worried about blowback (as I am), it seems to me you want to do it in a way that minimized innocent casualties! I don't understand why Caton is under the impression that he's the one mindful of the blowback. That's a critical reason why I think drone strikes make sense. Of course they're not immune from blowback - I've claimed no such thing. But I don't see any reason to think they inspire less of it than boots on the ground invading and occupying a country and causing significantly higher civilian casualities.

Questions of drone attacks on funerals and of rescue workers have come up too.

I really don't feel comfortable speaking to this because these claims are highly contested. It's a moot point anyway. I've argued that drones are important to use. There's nothing in the drone's programing or design that requires we use them in dumb ways. So you support the administration's use of drones and oppose its targeting of funerals, etc.

But let's keep in mind how tough to verify those accusations are - something that all the reports have taken care to point out.

I think our reaction to it ought to be contextual too. What are "rescuers/first responders"? Is this a group of al Qaeda affiliates that has another group of militants rush over after the strike? If so, that's obviously not the same as targeting civilian EMTs. And what is the funeral? Is this four or five other al Qaeda members burying a compatriot in the middle of nowhere? Again, that's very different from a funeral with family and civilians around.

I don't know any of this, and I don't think it's clear that anyone does. My view is that these sorts of circumstances should be avoided entirely, and none of that detracts from the argument for drones.

Drones are safer for soldiers, they are safer for civilians, they are more dangerous for the enemy. I don't need a soldier to suffer for me to think carefully about the policy decisions we make. Congress shouldn't need that either. And supporting the use of drones is of course not the same as supporting every use of drones (just like supporting gun rights is not the same as supporting every private use of guns or supporting the existence of a military is not the same as supporting every use of that military).