The Drones of War…and Democracy(?)
Sunday’s New York Times carried an opinion article about the increased use of armed drones and Presidential war powers…and the decreased influence of Congress regarding both. Peter Singer, Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict of the 21st Century”, considers how the continued technological advancements in unmanned weaponry (robotics), and the President’s willingness to use those weapons, is gradually unlinking the traditional and deep bonds between Americans and their wars.
Today America has about 18,000 “unmanned aerial systems”, popularly called drones. Last year those drones carried out hundreds of strikes (overt and covert) in six countries. These strikes have killed hundreds of people in countries with whom we are not in a “state of war”. What bothers Singer is how technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process “for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make. Something that would have previously been viewed as a war is simply not being treated like a war.”
When technologies develop to the point that they remove humans from the battlefield, we enter a “new normal” for war. The new standard for establishing what used to be considered an act of war, is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way…not for those that involve waging war by other means.
The United States has carried out more than 300 unmanned system strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing an estimated average of 2,000+ combatants and civilians (New America Foundation). “Yet the Pakistan operation has never been debated in Congress; more than seven years after it began, there has not even been a single vote for or against it.” Having armed drones means that we can now kill other people without fear that our own sons and daughters will be killed in the process. This “convenience” removes one of the last political barriers to war. We no longer have a draft. We no longer declare war (the last time we declared war on another country was 1942). We don’t buy war bonds, or pay war taxes anymore. “During World War II, 85 million Americans purchased war bonds that brought the government $185 billion; in the last decade, we bought none and instead gave the richest 5 percent of Americans a tax break.”
We no longer treat the weighty matters of war and peace the same way.
“Without any actual political debate,” Singer writes, “we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it. Freeing the executive branch to act as it chooses may be appealing to some now, but many future scenarios will be less clear-cut. And each political party will very likely have a different view, depending on who is in the White House…..These days when it comes to authorizing war, Congress generally sits there silently, except for the occasional clapping. And we do the same at home.”
Singer’s argument is a thoughtful and provocative one. This is a subject that we should not treat as an abstract consideration just because we are not directly involved. It is precisely because we are not directly involved that we should take it seriously. We’ve never walked in these shoes before, and we need to consider very carefully the path we’re taking, and the precedents we are setting.
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