The American public cannot get enough drones

The drone that captured our hearts or, if that was not possible, incinerated them with a missile

The drone that captured our hearts or, if that was not feasible, incinerated them with a missile

Despite our misgivings about using them to kill US citizens overseas, the American people love drones. It’s like the way we can hate Darius Rucker but still like acoustic guitars. An ABC-Washington Post poll from February of last year found that 83% of respondents approved the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists overseas. Two thirds of them said they approved such strikes even when the alleged terrorists were American citizens. And why not? An unmanned drone comprises all of man’s deepest yearnings: to fly, to play video games, to kill people on the other side of the world without having to look them in the eye.

The obvious advantage of an unmanned drone is that if it gets shot, no one’s family is sad. It brings us that much closer to the ideal war, in which no one is killed but a bunch of stuff explodes and we get what we want. From a narrowly American perspective, drones are that ideal war. Theoretically, an all-drone military would allow us to prosecute any armed conflict with zero loss of American lives. We could invade Iran or finally make Kim Jong-un shut up, all from the safety and comfort of computer labs in Texas.

Which brings us to a crossroads. Pretty much throughout history, the major advances in military technology been offensive. Nuclear weapons, the machine gun, cannons, the longbow, steel blades—all of them increased killing power and, therefore, casualties on the other side. Exceptions include trench warfare and tanks, but the latter have artillery mounted on them and no one wants to employ the former ever again. The point is that drones buck this trend.

Drones are not valuable to us because they are such devastating weapons. They’re scary, but compared to a hydrogen bomb or an aircraft carrier they are not an instrument of superior force. They are weapons of minimal risk—zero risk to life, which I submit is the primary deterrent to war. They’re expensive, but the United States has not shied from spending money on its military. What we don’t like to do—what we like to do way less than, say, radical Muslim terrorists—is expend human lives.

That’s why we’re better than those people. It also provides them with their own paradoxical strength in so-called asymmetric warfare. “You love life,” Osama Bin Laden said before we shot him in the eye, “and we love death.” The willingness and even desire to die gives the suicide attacker advantage in many situations. The introduction of unmanned drones is a counterweight to that; if they do not care whether they die, we can construct engagements in which dying is, for us, impossible.

The problem with suicide attackers is that one loses the threat of death as a deterrent. The thing that prevents you from invading your neighbors house and wrecking his stuff is not that you can’t get in; it’s that you can’t get out. The number of places that are safe from attack goes way down when the attackers take their own deaths as a given, and by the same token, the number of wars that sound appealing goes way up when you know that none of your people is going to die.

If you were the president of the United States, which would be a more difficult order for you to sign:

  1. Dispatch 10,000 Marines to Darfur? or
  2. Dispatch 5,000 unmanned aerial drones to Darfur?

Now replace “Darfur” with “the rich oil fields of Iraq.” From an American perspective, drones are great because they reduce the human cost of war. From a global perspective, drones are a disaster because they reduce the human cost of war for one particular nation.

Another way to put it is to say that drones do not reduce the number of people killed in warfare; they change the kind of person killed in warfare. Given the radically lower cost of deploying them, it seems reasonable to worry that drones might reduce American casualties of war but increase our willingness to prosecute military campaigns, leading to a net increase in number of casualties total. They make war safer—for us—and therefore more appealing as an instrument of international diplomacy.

Right now, of course, we do not have that many drones, and they are not that sophisticated. Thanks to James Cameron, though, one can easily imagine our future robot army. Perhaps we will use that army with the same forbearance and respect for human life that makes war a last resort now. Or maybe we will send our robot army all over the world, as ambassadors of our abiding belief that our lives are worth saving at any cost.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. I haven’t seen the quantitative analysis that shows drones are cheaper than human soldiers, but if the cost of warfare is going down as you suggest, it is plausible that warfare would be a policy instrument we reach for more often. But the choice isn’t between drones or lives, it’s between war and war’s alternatives: diplomacy, trade. War will remain prohibitively expensive in an increasingly globalized world. It just doesn’t make sense when you can take someone’s resources with the World Trade Organization.

    That is, when war is caused by the hegemonic purposes you’re suggesting here. War continues to be the preferred means of eliminating nearby people who believe in the wrong God or have the wrong skin, and we can continue to expect those conflicts to get worse and worse.

    Referencing the war in Iraq as an example of a resource grab is daft. The war interrupted the oil supply which was being traded on the global market. Multi-national corporations competed for it before, and they compete for it now that it is finally back to 100% of 2000’s levels. This old saw needs to be scrapped.

  2. American attitudes toward flying killer robots may change immeasurably in a few years, when mini-drones are sneaking into American airspace, bombing their terrorist camps (or drone command centers, whatever), and killing adjacent children.

  3. Actually, we’ve had the experience of killers sneaking into American airspace, on American (and United) airplanes, and killing adjacent children, some in the next airplane seat. We, along with several other western, middle eastern, and asian nations, have experienced and inflicted “death from above” for decades. An unmanned drone is no less personal than a “flying fortress”, land or air-fired missiles, German drones and bombers over London, or the Enola Gay. Drones may reduce loss of life (on either “side”, if there’s a “side”); but war remains an ugly business.

  4. Daft? Please. The fact that Bush wasn’t history’s most successful resource-grabber doesn’t mean the intent wasn’t there. Yes, the war interrupted supply–but the planners talked ad nauseum about how it would be easy and how the war would NOT interrupt the supply. Again, their incompetence after the fact doesn’t alter the intent. And not to argue by citing authorities, but whenever the powerful make an unguarded statement against their own interests, it would be wise to listen:

    “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
    –Alan Greenspan, in his memoirs

    “They [American forces] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.”
    –Henry Kissinger

    “Look, the primarily difference — to put it a little too simply — between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.”
    –Paul Wolfowitz, 11 days after the start of the Iraq War, when asked why we attacked Iraq and not North Korea

Leave a Comment.