11:56 a.m. October 10, 2012

The War Nerd: The Drone of Morality

Drones. It’s a magic word these days, with the power to turn everybody who talks about it into a complete idiot. Or a “philosopher,” which is the same thing.

I’ve been trying to sort out all the nonsense you hear about drones, and I have to say reading through the whole so-called “range” of commentary really brought me down a few notches—haven’t I taught you people anything? It’s been what, a decade since I started doing this?

The first problem is that most of the people talking drones are totally ignorant of warfare. Worse yet, most of the arguments come down to the morality of war, and that’s like arguing about God: You’re talking about something that doesn’t exist, and you get points for being more ridiculous about it than the next guy.

In other words, I’m arguing with idiots, and that’s exhausting. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but arguing with idiots is hard. Frustrating. Makes you start thinking of drones, in fact: “Well, you stay here, I’m going to leave the room and call in a love letter to you about the morality of war—just stay there, don’t move…”

Drones aren’t the problem here. What are drones anyway—they’re simple, obvious weapons, the next step after manned fighter aircraft. They’ve been around a long time. The IDF adopted them long before the USAF did because the Israelis were in a real fight for their lives and had to go with cheap, effective weapons; the USAF had to be dragged into funding them because they weren’t sexy like manned fighters. But that changed after 9/11, since nobody in the fighter wing really wanted to spend weeks orbiting at low speed over the Af/Pak border, peeing into a tube while looking down at the wasteland for Taliban. So they finally brought the drones into service, first as recon and then as killers—the same evolution that manned aircraft went through in 1914-15. I’ll talk more about the history and the procurement wars over the drones in my next column.

First I have to get something else out of the way: all this talk about the morality of drones, or the argument that there is any morality, or immorality about them. It’s not something I like doing, because it’s amateurs arguing this stuff. And when amateurs think about war, they only think about the same handful of famous wars, over and over. And even then, they always manage to notice all the wrong things.

Take the manned bombing raids of WW II. All these debates about drones start with the pro-drone side saying precision drone strikes are better than the mass bombings of WW II. Everybody nods on cue: yes, yes, Dresden, Tokyo, what a shame. Agreed, agreed. Then they move on. They love “moving on,” these people, so they can get to the philosophy bit and away from the smell of burnt meat hovering over Tokyo and all those other great cities.

Well, I got a better idea: Let’s not move on. Let me remind you what Jimmy Stewart and those other heartland heroes were doing up there in the sky before they came home to invent the suburbs.

Jimmy Stewart and his pals took off for Tokyo or Dresden with their hulls full of incendiary bombs and flew over the residential districts and dropped their cargo and turned a quarter million women and kids into carbonized bees, like we used to do with magnifying glasses. The pathetic Japanese and German air defenses in 1944-45 gave them as much chance to fight back as those bees had. And everyone cheered, on the left, on the right, everybody.

To be honest, the lesson I take from this is that no one has any moral instinct or whatever about any of this. I vote the straight nihilist ticket on the “morality of war” question: there’s nothing there, nothing but disguised bleating for the home team and gloating over enemy dead, dressed up as philosophy somehow. And this drone talk is the same totally contemptible showing-off, with absolutely nothing behind it.

Let’s stick with Tokyo/Dresden, if only because nobody else wants to. Nobody will say the obvious: all the philosophers back in 1945 were just fine with those raids because the Germans and Japanese were truly scary. And today they’re not fine with the drone raids because, once we got over 9/11, we realized that we’re dealing with a standard Pashtun irregular war, like the ones young Raj officers used to get promoted for a hundred years, and it seems less than sporting to use serious weapons against them.

That’s the key here: threat level. When people think there’s a real threat, everyone wants to use those nukes RIGHT NOW. When the threat level goes down, the same people never miss a chance to show off their soft hearts.

That’s why there’s something show-offy in all these anti-drone “morality of war” editorials you see every day. Like a lot of mainstream articles, they’re dumbed down on purpose. They’re a chance to show your superiority to the public at a time when the public wants to be fed fake antiwar morality—what they aren’t is a serious argument about war.

Let’s have a look at a typical anti-drone editorial from The New York Times editorial page, called “The Moral Hazard of Drones.”

This little morality story was co-written by two professors, according to the note at the end: “John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Sarah Kreps is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University.”

We’ll just call them Kaag-Krepps, with a hyphen like a yuppie marriage. Kaag-Kreps are anti-drone, naturally. All academics have to think the same thing at all times, and the easiest tack for them to take is a no-cost compassion for everyone except the people they actually know. So all academics pity the poor Pashtun, although they’d kill themselves if they had to live among the Pashtun for so much as a day.

And like their hero Socrates, they want to teach us compassion by telling a story, like you do to little kids or mental defectives. It’s a wonderful little story about a wee little shepherd and a king and a magic ring. I’m not making this shit up—they really use a bedtime story to show off just how much they care.

They start by saying the “ethical…pitfalls” of “Dresden-style” bombing are “obvious.” I have a hot tip for war fans: Whenever anybody says something’s “obvious,” slow down and focus very carefully, because “obvious” always means “the stuff the author doesn’t want to talk about.” It’s nothing but the old “acknowledge and move on” trick you learned in junior high: “Granted, I’ve been stealing your smokes, Ma, but the real question is what’s for dinner?”

The authors give just half of one sentence to the concept of total war WW II style, as opposed to drone strikes—because like most of us, they don’t give a damn about the people who died on the wrong side in WW II. Like I said, there’s no logic, no sense, to morality-of-war stuff, just hometown cheering.

What they really want to do is dismiss Tokyo/Dresden to get on to their story. I’ll let them tell it, mainly cuz I’d puke if I tried:

"'Once upon a time, in a quiet corner of the Middle East, there lived a shepherd named Gyges. Despite the hardships in his life Gyges was relatively satisfied with his meager existence. Then, one day, he found a ring buried in a nearby cave. This was no ordinary ring; it rendered its wearer invisible. With this new power, Gyges became increasingly dissatisfied with his simple life. Before long, he seduced the queen of the land and began to plot the overthrow of her husband. One evening, Gyges placed the ring on his finger, sneaked into the royal palace, and murdered the king.' In his “Republic,” Plato recounts this tale, but does not tell us the details of the murder. Still, we can rest assured that, like any violent death, it was not a pleasant affair. However, the story ends well, at least for Gyges. He marries the queen and assumes the position of king. This story, which is as old as Western ethics itself, is meant to elicit a particular moral response from us: disgust. So why do we find Plato’s story so appalling?”

This little fable is so ridiculous it’s hard to know where to start. Even as storytelling it’s rotten. If I’m reading it right, the “humble shepherd” stands for the USA, richest and most powerful country in the world. Great job of casting there, Kaag-Kreeps. And the mighty king must be the Pashtun and Yemenis in their mud huts. So my first advice for K.K. is to see if the universities where they teach have any remedial Composition courses—and if they do, you two need to head down to beg some part-time T.A. to let you enroll late—oh, and ask if you can take it pass/not pass, because it’s gonna bring down your GPA.

Then there’s the moral of the story, or what these profs say is the moral. I couldn’t believe it when they got to that part. “Appalling”? Whoa, whoa, whoa—a shepherd outwitting and knocking off a king? What’s appalling about it? That’s the basic plot of half the stories in the world, and you’re supposed to cheer for the shepherd every time! Plato might’ve been appalled, because he and his buddies were all king-class loafers; for them it was a horror story, and the horror was that if the shepherds came out on top the philosophy students might have to go out and work.

But if you’re not a Greek gasbag who spends his days loitering around the agora, how can you help but cheer when the shepherd kills the king? I sure did. That’s because, from reading about ancient warfare, I know enough about Plato’s world to know what “shepherd” and “king” mean. You know what it meant to be a shepherd in a poor country like Greece, Professor Kaag? Professor Kreps? Spend the night on a hill, in nothing but a rag, while the rain pelts down on your head, then go back to the master’s house to get beaten for letting the sheep get wet. Repeat every fucking night for 20 years. Then tell me about the “hardships” of a shepherd’s life. “Hardships”…that’s one of those words people with a roof over their heads shouldn’t even be allowed to use.

And you know what “king” means? Take the meanest psycho you ever met, put him in a slightly nicer set of rags, give him a squad of psychos with knives and total power over everyone in the place. If he wants your daughter, she’s his. Or if he wants you, sir, this being Greece we’re talking about...

So I not only applaud that shepherd for killing the king, I hope the king died hard. Or that, as the professors say, “it was not a pleasant affair.”

Only a total fool, totally insulated from any memory, even, of what it’s like to lose, could think the shepherd's the bad guy here. Just like only a pampered academic from the winning side could wave away Tokyo and Dresden in a sentence. Like I said, these people have no idea about war. Or anything else, as far as I can see. They don’t live in the nasty world most of us know, and they don’t want to learn anything about it.

It’s not that they haven’t had the chance to learn. They just don’t want to. Kaag and Kreps could have learned what war feels like, because they were probably living in NY after 9/11. If they wanted to remember what people feel like when they’re really scared — everybody wanting to nuke the whole Middle East, from Suez to Kashmir — if they wanted to remember that, they could. But they don’t want to; instead they want to stick around in the mummified little moral world they’re comfy with.

The reason they can have it, now, has nothing to do with “philosophy” or Plato. It’s just that Al Qaeda turned out to be a one-hit band—no followup, no second act. So that means civilians can afford to get Platonic about war all over again.

When you see how and when the drone-deploring started, you see how it tracks, and I mean exactly, with threat level. Right after 9/11, all these “libertarian” sites that are leading the whinge about drones were calling for blood, blood, and more blood. A perfect example is when the Cato Institute published this hilarious piece in November 2001 called “Terrorism’s Fellow Travelers.” This little number basically said that all those goddamn peaceniks oughta be strung up before we go after the Muzzies, because them peaceniks and America-haterz are just as bad, maybe worse, than the Jihadis. Here’s a sample, if you can stand the pompous gravitas-speak these guys always fall into:

“The external threat now properly dominates our attention as Americans—who first crushed fascism, then contained and outlasted communism—prepare once more to confront the totalitarian menace. But let all of us now reacquainted with freedom’s gentle unity remember those among us who reject and despise it. However ideological divisions are reshaped in the aftermath of September 11, let the first and deepest division be between us and them.”

When you sift through all the huffing and puffing and flag-day jabber, the argument here is simple: those goddamn peaceniks are even worse than the Jihadis, and it’s the peaceniks we ought to string up first.

Oh, but you should see what happened to those fire-breathing warriors once it was clear Al Qaeda didn’t have legs. That same Cato Institute is now leading the charge for civil liberties. They started doing that around 2003, in a sneaky cowardly way, and when it was clear that we weren’t under serious attack—took a year off in 2005 when I guess the Kochs had other business to attend to with Dubya in the post-election celebration—but then some time around 2006, suddenly the Cato Institute guys got all fierce defending the rights of those same peaceniks they used to want to see hanging from the nearest stoplight.

Most writing about “law of war” is like that: worthless. There’s nothing behind it, nothing but cheerleading for the home team dressed up as philosophy. Some of it is downright disgusting.

The worst case I ever read was by this Michael Walzer guy. A while back I remember—can’t forget actually—reading a book of his called Just and Unjust Wars, to see if I could find some sense in it. Instead I realized once and for all, these writers ain’t just stupid, they’re corrupt as Hell.

Walzer’s take on just and unjust was real simple: Whatever Israel does is just; whatever any other military power does is unjust. If you think I’m oversimplifying, read the damn thing yourself. You’ll see. Walzer is one of those old-school American Jews who think Israel can do no wrong. The prejudice comes first, the “theory” is just a paint job.

That’s the way it usually works. Let’s face it, the reason we don’t feel that bad about Tokyo and Dresden is that we don’t like the Japanese or the Germans all that much. I noticed that after the quake and tsunami: nobody cared, because the Japanese are all stoical, don’t weep on camera like the hams we enjoy feeling sorry for. Besides, they were scary back when we bombed them. So were the Germans, and they’re not easy to like either. And who really wants to make those nice heartland American boys in their flying suits into bad guys?

The Pashtun aren’t exactly easy to like either, but it doesn’t really matter because you can count the Americans who actually know anything about them on one hand—one of Abu Hamza’s hands, in fact. What we do know by now is that they’re no real threat, so we can afford to be pacifists about it, a nice temporary stance like those rich college girls going LUG—“Lesbian Until Graduation.”

What we’ve got now you could call “PUAA,” meaning “Pacifist Until Another Attack.” And just coincidentally that’s sorta like the sound I make when I puke.

If you’re a real pacifist—if you hate drones because you hate war—then fine. Pacifism seems weird to me, but at least it’s a consistent philosophy: no war, ever, for any reason, period. Fair enough; been nice knowing you, because in the world I know you won’t last five minutes on your own; but OK, at least it’s a clear, consistent philosophy.

But if you’re not a pacifist — if you’re willing to have people killed when you’re sure there’s good reason, as in you’re threatened or as in to stop a supposed genocide that’s being reported on the news every night — then you’d better understand that the other objections to drone strikes are just childish.

There’s the idea that drones are unfair, somehow, which may be the most ridiculous of all. The whole point of warfare is to make it as unfair as possible in your favor. None of this is fair, like the man said. A knife isn’t fair, if you stick it in your buddy’s back. A landmine isn’t fair, napalm isn’t fair, snipers aren’t fair…I could go on, but you get the idea. So if you don’t like all this unfairness, you can either drop the whole dumb notion or go back to Pacifism, because once you accept the possibility of fighting, you’re in the grip of what Stan Goff calls “the iron logic of war.”

If you want a fairer fight, I guess you could send US troops down to the Af/Pak border with nothing but Kalashnikovs and RPGs, to battle the Pashtun on even terms. That would result in this thing called “casualties,” which most of you don’t like either. Casualties are dead people. And people who come home with no legs. From your side as well as the other side. Not a popular solution. Also very expensive.

Besides, if you wanna get technical, drones are manned vehicles in the sense that they’re under the control of a human operator, just like a fighter jet or a tank. It just happens that the people manning them sit at a console in the suburbs of DC while they monitor the image. There’s a real difference between a weapon like that and a booby trap, which is what a landmine is. The landmine goes off at a set pressure level, whether the pressure comes from a soldier in full gear or a village woman carrying a water jug. The drone only fires a missile when the operator gets clearance.

Behind this objection there’s another, even more childish one—something about the meanness of us advanced rich folks using such fancy stuff against mud huts. First of all, the Pashtun wouldn’t like you dissing them like that. They’re good at what they do, world-class, and they’d like a little credit for it. Then there’s that basic law of war I already mentioned: the idea is to make it unfair in your favor.

But there’s something even more fundamental here: none of this is fair, and I’m not just talking about war. What kind of lives do these people live, that they believe in “fair”? Did they go to public school? Probably not, actually. Maybe that’s the difference here.

As for a “fair fight”…If I try to come up with one, I end up thinking of those old-time duels, two guys with rapiers or old flintlock pistols. And even then, they cheated, wore armored vests for sword duels. Andrew Jackson, who loved killing a man any way he could, used to dress up for pistol duels in a giant black coat, because he was skin and bones and weighed about 100 pounds. His opponents couldn’t tell what was coat and what was Jackson, so he took a lot of shots in the outerwear but none hit his precious little hide. Wasn’t fair, but it worked.

I guess I have to keep repeating it: none of this is fair. And like Michael Walzer’s rotten little book showed me a long time ago, nobody even wants it to be fair.

The last objection is the lamest of all: The machines are taking over! SkyNet! This one is just…tryin’ to be patient here…this one is just fuckin’ stupid. They took over already. And it’s not the drones you have to worry about—it’s the banks and the IRS. Little teeny software, that’s the scary stuff, not big military drones. Nobody’s going to waste a missile on you, or me. We’re just not worth it. If they want you the tax people will send you a letter and you’ll have to pay money—nothing dramatic, no Mission Impossible crap, and no drones.

To tell you the truth, I’m a little disappointed in you lefties, because I’ve spent the last ten years trying to deal with right wing whining about how unfair guerrilla warfare is: “Why don’t they come out’n’fight like men, waaaaah!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve had to read some pissed-off veteran whining about how the Iraqis, or the Afghans, or back in the day the Viet Cong, just wouldn’t fight fair, like “I say, you cowardly cur, step out of that jungle and put up your dukes to the attack helicopters! Have you no code?”

Well, those unfair guerrilla tactics worked—in fact that’s why people complained about them—and so do drones.

There are no rules of war beyond cheating in favor of your team, whether you’re setting off an I.E.D. under a Bradley or firing a missile at a mud hut from suburban Virginia, or writing a book on just and unjust wars to prove that your favorite country can do what it wants. None of this is fair. We only blather about fairness in the lulls, when we can afford it—when there’s an audience for these bedtime stories.

That’s really all I can say about the morality of drones, but there’s another side to it: the mechanics and the procurement. I’ll talk about that in my next column, and all you drone-haterz gonna see, there’s some sleazy DoD contractors pushing this anti-drone campaign.