A Dialogue on Armed Drone Attacks and Other Moral Questions.

By | November 29, 2011

By Juan Bernal

The characters of the dialogue:  I use Spanish terms for the frog, “El Sapo”  and the snake, “La Culebra.”  But don’t take for granted that la Culebra is the bad guy.  Actually I’m using the term “culebra” similar to the character in Old Testament mythology:  the serpent represents the wisdom of Satan, which all too often gets a bad rap.  My snake is not a villain in this short dialogue, and the frog’s moral intelligence has its limits.


El Sapo :  Someone sitting at a computer console in Nevada presses a few buttons to guide a military drone aircraft and fire deadly missile strikes in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and people are blown to bits.

La Culebra:  Yah, so what’s your point?

El Sapo:  Is this a justifiable act in a justifiable war?

La Culebra:  Sure, why not?

El Sapo:  But it is neither a justifiable war nor a justifiable act!

La Culebra:  From a military point of view it is certainly justifiable.  It’s effective and does not jeopardize lives of US soldiers. Inasmuch as they allow strikes on terrorists and insurrectionists with minimal jeopardy to our soldiers and airmen, drone air strikes are morally justifiable acts.  However, I won’t argue the merits of the original decision for military intervention in those countries.

El Sapo :  Leaving aside for now the question(s)  regarding the effectiveness of this action (tactic),  doesn’t the use of armed drone aircraft raise questions about the morality of such action (and the policy that leads to such action)?  Furthermore, what does it say about the moral values of people who allow such action?

La Culebra:  Our policy makers and military officials see drone strikes as effective and good tactics in killing more of the enemy and protecting our military persons on the battlefield.  Why shouldn’t citizens approve of such policy?  Surely it does not reflect badly on their moral values.

El Sapo :  But isn’t this just another indication that our military tactics and actions have become increasingly automated and impersonal?  Isn’t it an additional logical extension of war policies which call for obliteration of cities by air bombs initiated from bomber aircraft at thirty thousand feet altitude or missile strikes from ships or bases hundreds of miles away?

La Culebra:  So now you want to ponder the morality of aerial bombing and missile defense?

El Sapo:   But surely even you are bothered by some of this.  Do you rest easy at night (when do snakes sleep?) knowing that your country is ready to kill thousands of people who have nothing to do with the decisions of their leaders.  Can you say that abstract, computerized annihilation of human beings has become an acceptable way of doing war?

La Culebra:  I would put it differently:  the use of computer technology in military action against the enemy is surely an acceptable way of doing war.  War, after all, is not a picnic to make human beings feel good about them selves.

El Sapo:  The killing by remote control is apparently hardly worth more than passing reference by our leaders, news media, religious and academic spokes people.  They should be infuriated by it; but they hardly seem to notice anymore.

La Culebra:  Fighting a war by remote control is just part of what must be done to fight terrorism in distant parts of the world.  Surely, as a nation we don’t have to apologize to anyone for it.

El Sapo:  Maybe not.  However, imagine this scenario:  You and your family are camping in the Mojave Desert. (Your species likes the desert, right?)  At dawn, without warning and for no obvious reason, a drone flies over the ridge toward your camp ground, releases it’s deadly missile, and your family is obliterated.  Would this be worth more than a passing reference by our attractive, friendly news anchor on Channel Seven?

La Culebra:  Well, I surely would not approve of such a use of armed drones; and surely our society would not let such an atrocity pass without proper action.   But my family and I are not at war with anyone; and have a right to expect not be attacked by a remote-controlled drone.

El Sapo:  Well, I imagine that many victims of our remote controlled drone attacks feel the same way about the atrocities committed on them.  But let me turn to another implication of this computerized, remote control way of fighting a war. It is likely that the use of remote controlled armed drone aircraft and other automated, computerized weaponry will redefine what we understand by the ‘battlefield,’ and ‘combat.’ The concepts of agent and act become somewhat nebulous and ambiguous.  What is done takes place thousands of miles away and it is not obvious that the agent performing the act is the technician pushing the button on a computer console.  But in one sense, the fighter-bomber ‘pilot’ becomes a person sitting at a computer console thousands of miles away from the action, which is a missile strike destroying humans and property.

La Culebra:   Yes, I suppose the whole theater of battle begins to have a very different look.

El Sapo:  Combat by remote control implies that many of our combat ‘soldiers’ are more like teenagers playing a computer game than they are like the infantry soldier of past wars.

La Culebra:   Interesting point, but surely you’re not claiming that we should return to the violence and misery of infantry, trench warfare?

El Sapo:  No, that’s not my point.  My point relates to the morality and legality of our military ‘evolution.’  The moral and legal problems that arose with use of technology as a deadly weapon were recognized internationally around the time of World War I when gas warfare was outlawed.  Strangely enough the use of deadly machine guns and early tank attacks were considered fair play in the game of war.  Even more strangely, as we progressed to the war technology of World War II, the massive bombing of civilian centers (cities) was considered a morally acceptable way of doing war.  Finally, the use of atomic bombs and preparation for use of thermo-nuclear warheads, from aircraft and ICBMs were considered morally acceptable.

La Culebra:  War is deadly business; but we live in a dangerous world.  Surely you don’t think that our enemies will be deterred by moral qualms about their use of modern weapons?

El Sapo:  Did any international commission, sanctioned by the big powers or by the UN, ever take up the question of the morality of wholesale killing of people (non-combatant civilians) by dropping of atomic bombs or the use of thermo-nuclear warheads?  Besides the non-official declarations by anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons people, it seems that the answer is “no, they did not.”  No such commission of respectable diplomats and governmental officials ever seriously took up the question of the morality of policies which call for the use of deadly technology of war.  Citizens in most countries in general continued with their business and did not bother themselves with such questions.

La Culebra:  Yes, we have to be about our business of living and earning a living.  But we do to see ourselves as decent, moral people.  Why shouldn’t we?  We often act on humanitarian grounds and condemn violence, cruelty, and injustice inflicted on innocent humans throughout the world.  For the most part, we are morally decent people.

El Sapo:  Oh the grand myth that humans are noble, admirable, morally conscientious beings does have its application  in many cases.   But, when the subject is that of the nation’s war policy, the normal values of humanitarianism and compassion no longer seem to apply.

La Culebra:  Don’t you think that this is mostly an academic problem for moral philosophy, which does not even clearly see the nature of human reality?  Maybe you’re not recognizing that the actions of societies and human beings are not generally guided by moral thought and principles.  Isn’t this rather obvious in war, politics, economics and business?   Doesn’t this also hold true in many other aspects of human behavior?

El Sapo:   A good part of what bothers me is the hypocrisy.  We talk as if we were morally conscientious and ethically grounded beings; but often our actions belie our talk.  The teachings of moralists, ethicists, and philosophers, along the preaching of our church people, are attempts to bring attention to the moral questions.  But ultimately everyone is co-opted by the weight of institutional, political, and economic will.  Hence, there is little or no debate about the morality of our government’s policies and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya (in 2011).

La Culebra:  But let us not go overboard on this charge of hypocrisy.  Instead, let’s recognize that our society (in the US and other Western nations) is a ‘mixed bag,’ neither fully described as moral, immoral, or amoral.    For example, our people would recoil if they learned that our military carried out arbitrary, mass killing of civilians.  Americans would not accept a government program of genocide and the killing of innocents (children, women, old men), even if it was seen as required by “national security” interests.

El Sapo:  You’re right on that!  But I’m still very much bothered by the extent to which our people acquiesce in the killing of civilians and non-combatants (“collateral damage”) that results from US and NATO air-strikes on the territory of other countries, and the fact that they don’t demand the strictest safeguards against such ‘accidents.’

La Culebra:   What can I say?   Surely this is not the most perfect world, regardless of what Leibniz argued.

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