By Other Means

Drones in Our Time

Why Obama was fibbing about America's wars coming to an end.

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez
U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez

Philip Larkin, that famously crotchety British poet of political incorrectness, knew a lot about a lot. He knew a great deal, for instance, about the general f***ed-up-ness of families, the shimmering mirage of the sexual revolution, and the creeping fear of old age and death.

But he never even conceived of drones.

This, at any rate, was the thought that flew irrelevantly into my head as I listened to President Obama discuss "peace in our time" in his second inaugural speech. (And this, mamas and daddies, is also why you shouldn’t let your babies grow up to be English majors: they will fritter away their time writing columns, and find any excuse to name-drop famous poets).

But really — what would Larkin have made of drones?

Consider "Homage to a Government," his 1969 elegy for the British Empire.

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

(Mandatory disclaimer: I know, the British Empire really stunk for millions of people, so one shouldn’t get all weepy about its demise. But it’s just a poem, damn it.)

Military commentators (probably all former English majors!) love to quote this poem, because it is (a) a fine poem, objectionable though we may find British imperialism, and (b) painfully a propos as American imperialism moves into its death throes.

But Larkin’s poem is inapplicable to our current situation for two reasons. For one thing, we don’t have a hope in hell of leaving our children any money. We’ve already squandered it, both on soldiers and on ourselves at home. And for another thing — if I may add another poet to the convoluted mix — the American empire will be going out, contra Eliot, with a bang, not a whimper. Or rather, with many and many a bang — because though we may lack money, we’ve still got a whole bunch of drones.

This is what we’ll be leaving our children.

Drones, of course, constitute the weapons that dare not speak their name: officially, the president and the rest of the U.S. government still have no comment on the question of whether or not we might be using or not using drone strikes in certain unspecified countries. You know: covert is covert, even when it’s sort of overt. So President Obama didn’t say a word about drones in Monday’s inaugural address. Instead, he alluded to our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and our planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, assuring us that "A decade of war is now ending."

This was a crowd pleaser, as well as a somewhat less poetic variant of "Next year we are to bring the soldiers home/For lack of money. And this is all right."

And it is all right, because as Obama put it, "We, the people…believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." This, in turn, is the president’s polite way of acknowledging his suspicion that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan only made trouble happen.

But it’s also all right because perpetual war no longer requires soldiers — because we, unlike Philip Larkin’s Britain, are a nation proudly possessed of drones.

With drones, we can pretend to have peace while actually having perpetual war. We can bring the soldiers home, something the public is manifestly eager to do, but still make trouble happen in places a long way off.

And we will. Don’t let the president’s peculiar evocation of Neville Chamberlain fool you: we may withdraw from Afghanistan next year as planned, but we’re about as likely to have "peace in our time" as the British were in 1938.

That’s because even as our ground wars have wound down, our covert drone wars have been ratcheting up. We’ve used drones in conventional "hot battlefields" (Afghanistan, Libya) and this is relatively uncontroversial, but we’ve also relied on drones to go after targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. There have been unsubstantiated allegations of U.S. drone use in Mali and the Philippines as well. Since most to this drone activity remains covert, it’s hard to know how extensive the U.S. use of drone strikes has become. Best estimates place the number of drone strikes outside conventional battlefields in the hundreds, and the number of deaths well over 3,000. (The number of civilian casualties remains hotly debated.)

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s nothing inherently "wrong" with the use of unmanned, armed aerial vehicles. They’re just weapons-delivery systems. Aerial bombing by manned aircraft kills people just as dead as drone strikes.

But rapid technological breakthroughs in the last decade have been game-changers for how the United States thinks about the cross-border use of force. Today’s UAVs don’t enable the United States to strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, but they do make the use of lethal force in foreign states more economical, more precise, and less risky from the perspective of domestic constituencies: When going after a suspected terrorist requires no short-term risk to U.S. lives, the public is a lot less likely to object.

The trouble with drones is that they make it a little too tempting to use force. When you have a nifty tool that allows you to deniably knock off potential bad guys with no risk, why wouldn’t you use it more and more? Thus, we’ve seen drone strikes evolve in the last decade, from a tool used in limited circumstances to go after specifically identified high-ranking al Qaeda officials to a tool relied on in an increasing number of countries to go after an eternally lengthening list of putative bad guys, some identified by name, others targeted on the basis of suspicious behavior patterns, with an increasingly tenuous link to grave or imminent threats to the United States.

From a legal perspective, this isn’t necessarily a problem: if the law of armed conflict applies, it’s not hard to make a case for the legality of U.S. drone strikes. From a rule of law perspective, though, it’s beyond disturbing: unknown numbers of unnamed people executed by the United States for unspecified reasons in unacknowledged drone strikes, with no safeguard against abuse (or simple mistake) beyond the good faith and good sense of executive branch officials.

History suggests that this ain’t much of a safeguard.

In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged that America would always respect the rule of law, because "peace in our time requires the constant advance of [such] principles." That’s a fine sentiment, Chamberlainian echoes notwithstanding, but there’s been little public sign that the Obama administration is truly interested in bringing drone strikes under the rule of law umbrella. The president’s silence on the ongoing drone war in his inaugural remarks speaks volumes about his unwillingness to increase transparency in even the most minimal way.

But increased transparency is something we desperately need. Without more transparency, how can we decide if the U.S. use of drones is lawful or unlawful? More pragmatically, without more transparency, how can we evaluate whether the U.S. drone war is doing us more good than harm? How can we tell if it’s actually weakening terrorist networks? How can we evaluate its second-order effects — is it inspiring more anti-U.S. violence than it’s preventing, or setting a dangerous precedent for other states? How can we tell if drone strikes are a sound strategy, or, as a military acquaintance puts it, merely a tactic in search of a strategy?

We can’t. Unquestionably, there are individuals and groups out there who’d be tickled pink to do us harm. Whether our current use of drone strikes is the most effective or wise response to militant groups remains unclear, though — and evidence is mounting that we may pay a price for it. But if the president won’t even acknowledge the program, much less do anything to promote meaningful public debate, how will we ever know? How will we keep the drone program from giving us little more than perpetual war?

When in doubt, we English literature majors fall back on random scraps of verse. So — why not? — I’ll close by saying that all this all brings to mind another famous (and even more irrelevant) Philip Larkin poem, one most certainly not written as a comment on drones, or war, or the setting of the sun over waning empires. I suddenly find myself contemplating Larkin’s anguished closing lines in "High Windows":

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Which, in the end, is not a bad metaphor for America’s drone war.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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