Drones and the Post-Heroic World of Conflict

Tate Krasner is a junior at Boston College majoring in International Studies with minors in Chinese and Russian.

Early on the morning of May 2nd, 2011, two American stealth helicopters crossed over the Pakistani b­­­order undetected en route to the city of Abbottabad. On board, two dozen Navy SEALs prepared to carry out one of the most significant and daring operations in U.S. history. Upon their arrival at the compound, the SEALs swiftly secured its perimeter, breached its walls and doors, and advanced into the house inside. Within minutes, Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, lay dead on the floor.

Just weeks earlier, CIA drones hovered over Pakistan’s tribal region, just south of the village of Angor Adda. Circling around, they waited to lock onto their targets, a pickup truck and a motorcycle. In a flash, they released two missiles, which streaked toward the militants. Seven fighters were dead, and six others were wounded, almost instantaneously.

The contrast between the reactions to these two incidents could not have been starker. Due in no small part to the high-profile target, the former became a national, if not international sensation, spawning a media frenzy, books, movies, and chants of “USA! USA! USA!” in stadiums and even Times Square. The latter became a footnote in the history books, relegated to the back of the national conscience and grouped together with over 70 similar strikes that year in Pakistan alone. These two juxtaposed cases represent our shifting views and changing nature of warfare in the 21st century.

David Hastings Dunn has commented:

“The coincidence of this technology with the post-9/11 security environment has led to a new form of warfare that presents a series of challenges to traditional ways of thinking about combat. Rather paradoxically, at a time when heroism and self-sacrifice have become prominent themes in public discourse as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drones present warfare as the antithesis of these values. They represent warfare as post-modern and post-heroic.” (1238)

What is the post-heroic world of conflict, and what are its implications for the future of warfare? The concept of heroism is subjective by nature, the product of differing philosophies, histories, nations, and cultures. Yet, grounded at the core of this concept is a common human element, namely the facing of human mortality. This element has survived the test of time, dating back millennia. The hero of the Iliad, Achilles, boldly claims before going into battle:

“For my own death, I’ll meet it freely—whenever Zeus
and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on!
Not even Heracles fled his death, for all his power,
favorite son as he was to Father Zeus the King.
Fate crushed him, and Hera’s savage anger.
And I too, if the same fate waits for me…
I’ll lie in peace, once I’ve gone down to death.
But now, for the moment, let me seize great glory!
(Homer, The Iliad, 18.137-144)

In short, we tend to heroize those not only for the sacrifices they make, but mainly because of their acceptance of the risks of the ultimate sacrifice, death.

How do drones bring about a post-heroic world of conflict? As Dunn points out, “They disrupt the calculus of risk of the participants in this form of combat by transforming the balance of vulnerabilities” (1238). This disruption of the calculus of risk stems from the removal of the direct human element. I use the word direct because studies have proven that drone pilots do indeed suffer very real human effects such as PTSD. But ultimately, drone technology, due to its inherent nature of being unmanned, removes the direct risk of mortality on the part of the belligerent. And, given the connection between mortality and heroism, it follows that the removal of the element of mortality from combat has the potential to remove the element of heroism as well. As shown by the two cases above, it is difficult to view a remote, classified, surgical precision drone strike even in the same light as a remote, classified, surgical precision SEAL strike. The human element, at least to outside observers, simply does not exist.

One may reasonably ask that, if both types of attacks generate similar results, do our intersubjective understandings of warfare and its nature really matter? Yet, there are potential ethical, normative, and even tangible implications of post-heroic conflict. There appear to be two contrasting paths of possibilities.

On the one hand, post-heroic conflict has the potential to limit the societal value that we place on war. As those like Chris Hedges have pointed out, there is a psychologically addictive aspect of war. It’s exciting, it’s appealing, it’s intoxicating. Much of these views stem from notions of human sacrifice and ideas of glory on the battlefield. Yet, drones change this context by removing those exact features from war. For the most part, the majority of military and political leaders have attempted to make war as precise, focused, and limited as possible; but drone technology facilitates that precision in a revolutionary way. In the process of becoming “better” at war, there exists the potential to ironically remove some of the psychological factors that seem to perpetuate the societal promotion of conflict.

On the other hand, this type of surgical precision has the potential to bring about complacency with conflict. In other words, if war becomes limited to the point where only those individuals responsible for violence are targeted, there becomes a lessened motive to move away from war as an institution. This requires a bit of explanation. As stated earlier, the heroics of war are grounded in the facing of human mortality. Similarly, it is this recognition of human mortality that has long-spurred our instinctual revulsion to war. By removing this element, by relegating death to numbers and statistics to footnotes of annual reports, we run the risk of losing that innate human drive toward peace. This is not to say that drones directly promote risk-free killing; rather, it suggests the risk of dehumanizing conflict to the point of complacency.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize two factors. First, emerging technologies have the potential to shift our perceptions of conflict. Second, in turn, these shifting perceptions have the potential to tangibly shift how we approach and wage conflict. Drones, while not an incredibly recent emerging technology, have nonetheless advanced the notion of “post-heroic conflict,” in which distanced, precise, and technological killing has removed a certain human element from war. However, it is up to us how we interpret this shift. Will we view this notion as progress, as a concept which removes the sensationalized, heroic element that perpetuates war? Or will we view this notion as one which removes considerations of risk and promotes complacency with the status quo?

 

References:

Dunn, David Hastings. “Drones: Disembodied Aerial Warfare and the Unarticulated Threat.”International Affairs 89. Print.

Fagles, Robert. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1990. Print.

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