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Ban Armed Drones
February 6, 2012
by William P. Meyers

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Armed drones have been used extensively by the United States to target alleged enemy soldiers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and probably other places around the world. Other nations have developed armed drones, so it is just a matter of time before they are deployed. Without a doubt private, criminal, religious and ideological groups will soon be able to obtain drones.

Killing others from a vantage of complete safety has always been a highly sought goal, from Presidents, Prime Ministers and Generals down to the ordinary person who sees some advantage in killing someone else. Many modern weapons have given some sense of this: artillery, machine guns, air forces, submarines with their deadly torpedoes, and missiles, for instance.

Armed drones give a new level of immunity. The ability of Afghan tribal warriors to strike back against helicopter gunships, bombers, or even artillery was already minimal. Striking back against a drone operated from a command center that can be at the other side of the world is possible only to those who have ICBMs. Not many nations have ICBMs, yet.

The predecessor of the drone is the cruise missile, which really is a drone designed to strike a pre-designated location. Drones give video or other feedback to the operators, allowing more flexible targeting.

Should deploying, or even manufacturing armed drones be designated as a war crime? Or is a drone just another form of artillery or fighting aircraft, to be distinguished by its use, rather than by its lack of an onboard, human pilot?

The idea of chivalrous or just warfare is of course an old one, but the idea of the need for civilized rules of war (and hence war crimes, the breaking of those rules) became widely discussed in Europe after 1850. The main ideas that came out of the discussion before World War I were: avoid killing civilians; treat captured soldiers humanely; and the aggressor nation's leaders are criminals.

The theory is there for anyone to look at. A good place to start is "war crime" at Wikipedia. Unfortunately there has never been an impartial, global system of justice to put war criminals on trial. Thus for instance, after World War II of the many Japanese convicted and sentenced to death for war crimes, a number are now generally thought to be innocent. Despite widespread commission of war crimes by the government of the United States of America and its allies, no victors were convicted or even tried for war crimes. The most obvious and terrible war crimes (aside from the acts of aggression that started the war), the fire bombings of German and Japanese cities and finally the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ordered by President Harry Truman (Democratic Party), were treated as legitimate acts of war (by the victors) even though civilian casualties were far higher than military casualties.

Limits on the use of types weaponry have been made largely based on their secondary effects on civilians. Poisoned gas was banned after World War I, really because of the sheer horror of it, but excused by the possible drifting of poison into civilian areas. Biological agents have also been banned, and civilized nations (though not the U.S.) have banned or limited the use of landmines (See Ottawa Treaty).

Aerial bombardment has always been a problem for both theorists and militarists. Dropping a bomb on an enemy battalion in the countryside might kill some sheep or an unlucky civilian or two, but it is generally considered acceptable. Since firing artillery shells into urban (or presumably suburban) areas was designated a war crime before World War I, most honest people thought dropping bombs on cities was a war crime, by reason of analogy. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic Party) and Cordell Hull said as much (criticizing Japan for some use of the tactic in China against ally Chiang Kai-shek's troops who used cities as fortresses) making speeches as late as 1939 calling on all nations to not drop bombs on cities. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they did not attack urban areas, only military bases. But when Roosevelt struck back the complete and merciless destruction of Japanese cities was one of his priorities.

We powerless theorists would prefer not to have to classify drone attacks as either legitimate executions of war (when they hit military targets) or war crimes (when they hit civilians). When a nation is at war against an occupying imperialist power, as Afghanistan is now, the average citizen-soldier often stays very close to his family. Deaths of civilians from drone attacks are predictable.

In practice U.S. drones have killed a lot of women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan; many of the adult male casualties were probably civilians too. For me that is reason enough to ban them.

Consider, however, what could happen when drones are more plentiful and are used in a war between two advanced nations. Foot soldiers and probably even soldiers in armored vehicles will be subject to slaughter. Other men will enjoy snacks and hot coffee as they sit in deep bunkers playing playing video games in which real people die.

War itself should be banned. That could be achieved through a disarmament process. Adding new, lethal toys for uncivilized boys will help no one.

In teaching the world to use fighting drones the U.S. has certainly created a monster that will come back to haunt us. Perhaps that is the strategy of the corporate security state. When others start using drones, it will require drone escalation by the U.S., putting more and more power (and money) into the hands of fewer and fewer decision makers.

There is nothing to be gained with armed drones. They have not stopped the Taliban; they just make the survivors madder. The United States should call an immediate halt to the use, manufacture, and development of drones while working on a global treaty to ban their use.

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