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Arguments about drone-killing

I have been paying almost zero attention to President Obama’s campaign of robotised aerial execution, beyond noting that it has been happening. I didn’t know if this drone-killing was doing good, or harm, or what, besides the potential harm of causing governments maybe later to incline towards drone-killing or drone-harassing their domestic enemies, when foreign enemies have run out or have negotiated a truce. I still don’t know what I think about drone-killing, but recent Islamo-American dramas made me wonder slightly more than usual.

I was raised by an Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer (himself the son of another Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer) and by the daughter of yet another Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer. Barristers, we call these creatures over here. This was the mental and conversational equivalent of being raised by wolves. My father was eloquent enough to present very good arguments. My mother was eloquent enough to stop him ever pulling rank to win such arguments. We all had our turn.

Which may be why I understand things best by watching people argue about them. Only when there is disagreement do the experts feel the need to try to persuade the humans of their own rightness and of the other experts’ wrongness, and thus to speak in clear English rather than in very unclear Expert. And only then do I have much of a chance of getting a handle on things.

Today, the indispensable Instapundit pointed me towards just the sort of drone-killing arguments I had been keeping about a quarter of any eye out for.

Robert Wright, commenting on an article by Micah Zenko, concludes thus:

If this is a strategy for eliminating terrorists, what would a strategy for creating them look like?

This story, as Zenko and Wright tell it, reminds me of the classic counter-terrorism movie The Battle of Algiers. In this movie, the French soldiers spend almost the entire movie winning, by torturing and then killing all their enemies. And then in the final seconds of the movie, they lose. More enemies, enraged by the injustices suffered by their predecessors and clever enough to avoid suffering the same fate as them, have sprung forth out of nowhere. Hearts and minds are not, said this movie, won merely by the most hostile ones being blown to pieces. You have to win the argument.

The good news is that England did achieve total domination over Afghanistan, just two days ago. But, alas, this was only at twenty overs each way cricket.

LATER: Cricket? Sorry I mentioned it.

22 comments to Arguments about drone-killing

  • Snorri Godhi

    What would be a strategy for creating terrorists?
    Why, give them an incentive to terrorize, of course.
    Unless you believe that terrorists are not human, because all humans respond to incentives.

    Apparently the Romans and the Mongols understood this: terrorists act in the perceived interest of their people, therefore collective punishment creates a disincentive to terrorism.

    As for The Battle of Algiers, it seemed to me that at the very end what wins the war for the Algerians is not terrorism but mass demonstrations. I don’t know how close that is to historical reality, though.

    Also, as I remember that movie, the French were the first to resort to terrorism, or at least to bombing with terrorist intent. In other words, terrorism failed for the French because the Algerians resorted to collective punishment.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I can’t see any real distinction between drone strikes and artillery fire, unless it’s that drone strikes are more discriminating. Whether either tactic is a good idea I leave up to the student as an exercise.

  • phwest

    I was thinking along those lines about the recent “Green on Blue” attacks. The classical response to which would have been the execution of much of the offending auxilliary’s family.

    To paraphrase Jerry Pournelle – Republic <> Empire. It takes a certain ruthlessness to rule an Empire which is generally incosistent with republican values. Attempts to have it both ways generally end up with an incompetent Empire or the end of the republic.

  • They are starting to run these drones domestically too.
    No word on how long it takes to go from surveillance to killing citizens they don’t like, but they’ve already got the arguments ready since some of the folks they killed over there were U.S. citizens.

  • Laird

    “collective punishment creates a disincentive to terrorism.”

    Well, I suppose that’s an argument, but I’m not sure how good a one. I suspect that the answer is that it is very much specific to the individual: some people will be deterred (or cowed into submission) by the fear of “collective punishment” and others will be galvanized by it. In any event, it’s an argument for escalating terror, fighting terror with even more terror. I don’t think that’s a proposition most westerners will be comfortable with (rebutting it with comments about “descending to their level”, “becoming precisely what we’re fighting against”, etc.).

    I think that phwest’s paraphrase of Jerry Pournelle has it about right. We (in the west) don’t have the stomach for the ruthlessness which maintaining an empire requires. So we engage in half-hearted measures such as predator drone attacks, assuaging our consciences with the claim that our motives are pure and that we’re doing our best to minimize harm to the innocent with our high tech precision. But however good we get with that, inevitably there will be mistakes. And when those occur all the precise, careful successes will be forgotten, and we will have created more enemies.

    It’s a losing game as we’re playing it. The only way to win is either to escalate our attacks to seriously cripple al Qaeda and damn the fallout, or stop these attacks altogether. The balancing act doesn’t work.

  • Snorri Godhi

    “Well, I suppose that’s an argument, but I’m not sure how good a one.”

    No, what you are referring to was not meant as an argument, just a statement of fact.

    “I suspect that the answer is that it is very much specific to the individual: some people will be deterred (or cowed into submission) by the fear of “collective punishment” and others will be galvanized by it.”

    This supports my contention that most libertarians do not really believe that people respond to incentives.
    Specifically, if you believe that people respond to incentives, then you cannot possibly believe that some people are “galvanized” by collective punishment: rather, they are galvanized by the notion that terrorism can STOP collective punishment, rather than CAUSE it.

    The rest of your comment contains some good points, including an implicit admission that collective punishment does work.

  • Laird

    Snorri, I think you’re misunderstanding my point. If certain individuals, purporting to act in furtherance of doctrine X, commit acts of terrorism against another group, and that group responds by “collective punishment” against the entire society of which those terrorist individuals are a part, I maintain that it is entirely possible that the non-terrorist members of that society could rationally respond by lashing out against that other group, even if they don’t themselves support doctrine X. In other words, the collective punishment could very well cause them to take up arms against that other group, even to the point of adopting the use of terrorist tactics themselves, simply in an attempt to deter that “collective punishment” (or to mete it out in kind). Frankly, that’s probably what I would do. If that’s not “responding to incentives” I don’t know what is.

    As to your last comment, I don’t concede that collective punishment does work, merely that it can work in the right circumstances. It’s certainly the tactic necessary for a successful empire (which we in the west don’t have the stomach for). But one has to be prepared to use it repeatedly, and to be constantly engaged in harsh reprisals against the subjugated peoples. Sooner or later you will falter, or you will lose your appetite for repression, and that will be the end of the empire.

  • Paul Marks

    On Algeria I am surprised that Antoine Clarke has not stepped in here.

    What won Algeria for the FLN was neither successful terrorism or mass demonstrations – it was the treachery of Charles De Gaulle

    De Gaulle had his motives – Algeria cost a lot of money, and he also feared that (with the high Muslim birth rate) more and more Algerians would come to France.

    However, his methods were vile – he got into power by the support of the army and then betrayed the very people who had put him power.

    Worse – he betrayed the Arabs who had faught for France (and for civilisation) against the vile FLN (a basically socialist organisation with some Arab Third Worldism added into the mix – and a hint of Islam, although the later successors of the FLN have killed vast number of Muslims in ALgeria).

    The loyal Arabs were disarmed (on De Gaulle orders) being told they were going to be given more modern weapons – then they were handed over to the FLN.

    They were castrated, or walked into mine fields, or had their families tortured to death in front of their eyes.

    I wonder if the “Battle for ….” bothers to show all this.

    The irony is of course that later politicians let vast numbers of Muslims into France anyway.

    De Gaulle’s treachery achieved nothing.

    Anway the main point of the post.

    We have to “win the argument”.

    But neither Bush the Methodist or Obama the Marxist even accept there is an argument Brian.

    To Bush Islam was a nice religion (that God by a differnent route than him – but still got to God) and to Obama Islam is just another absurd piece of sillyness – no better or worse than any other religion.

    Neither understand Islam.

    They can not argue with it – because they do not even accept there is anything to argue with.

    They loose the debate – because they do not even understand there is a debate.

    No more than the French really engage in debate (with the intention to CONVERT) with the Muslims in France.

    So, as De Gaulle feared, each new Musliim who comes to France or is born in France – is another nail in the coffin of France.

    Rising civilisations are not threatened by free migration – because they are SELF CONFIDENT – they seek to CONVERT new commers to their belief systems.

    Belief systems – not “sex, drugs and rock and roll” that is not a belief system (that is a void – which Islam rushes in to fill).

    It is interesting that neither the Methodist Bush or the Marxist Obama ever seem to have even considered CONVERTING Muslims (even Muslims living in the United States) to their belief systems.

    That shows a civilisation in decline.

    Obama is so proud of his Marxism – that he spends his time desperatly trying to hide it.

    And Bush was so knowlegable about Christianity that he thought (perhaps still thinks) it was compatible with Islam.

    “Win the argument” – with the present leadership of the West (not just in the United States but in all Western nations).

    Not a chance.

  • Paul Marks

    “Paul you are demanding a religious leadership”

    Not at all.

    There are a secular belief systems – for example Randian Objectivism.

    Or even old British Whig ism.

    “Where ever someone comes from after a short while in this land he becomes a Whig of some sort” was a common view in late 18th century Britain (remember even those people that history called Tory, such as Pitt, called themsleves Whig).

    However, show me a Western country with a strong secular belief system.

    Certainly not France – with their milksop “Republicanism”, left over stuff from the French Revolution (a set of doctrines that never made sense in the first place).


    No better.

    No better at all.

  • The difference between artillery and drone attacks? Easy: you can overrun an artillery emplacement. Not so easy to do when drone operators are a continent away.

    I have been uneasy about advancing drone tech for some years now. I dont think we can stop the Skynet-ification of the battlefield, and I see wars coming down to who has the most silicon, iron, steel, water, land mass, bandwidth, and friends.

  • ErisGuy

    If murdering and torturing one’s enemies creates more of them, leading to one’s enemies eventual victory, when can we except the victory by the followers of capitalism and liberty created by the 100 million murdered by socialism?

  • Donavon Pfeiffer

    My problem with drones is a moral one: by eliminating the human cost of war for those using drones how much easier is it for the US to commit to aggressive foreign policy? How much lower is the threshold for war if the public doesn’t see flag draped coffins arriving home?

  • Donavon Pfeiffer: but you are *not* making a moral argument, you are making a purely utilitarian one.

    And indeed the *utilitarian* logic of your argument would be to arm US soldiers with spears rather than rifles, tanks and artillery and to abolish the US Air Force entirely.

  • I do not think that battlefield drones are a special class of weapon needing anything other than utilitarian analysis. Indeed I would say it does not matter a damn if it is drones, artillery or goats with sticks of dynamite strapped to them.

    Is a given war justified? If no, then the weapons and tactics are irrelevant. If yes, then what are the optimum weapons and tactics need to win the war to achieve said justified war aims?

    I have the quaint old fashioned notion that wars need to be fought to destroy the enemy’s ability to effectively fight back and if you are not prepared to be ruthless enough to do whatever it takes to achieve that, you have no business going to war in the first place and should stick to using politics.

  • Laird

    That is a quaint notion, Perry, and I’m not sure it’s correct. It isn’t always necessary to destroy the enemy’s ability to effectively fight back if you can destroy its will to do so. There are a lot more ways to accomplish the latter than the former. After all, that’s how the North Vietnamese defeated the United States, and the Afghans drove out the Soviets (to give just two examples). War is, after all, just politics carried out by other means (as von Clausewitz famously observed).

  • Alisa

    Will is prerequisite to ability.

  • Exactly as Alisa said. If you break their will to fight, they do not have the ability to fight, to state the obvious.

  • Laird

    “Will” and “ability” are quite different. The US has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons but won’t use them. We clearly have the ability, but not the will. One must possess both to be a combatant.

    Anyway, if one accepts the proposition that “will is prerequisite to ability”, then your original statement is a tautology. You don’t get off quite that easily!

  • Sorry laird, not going to waste my time

  • Snorri Godhi

    Laird: sorry I kept away from this thread for a few days.
    You wrote:
    “Snorri, I think you’re misunderstanding my point. […] I maintain that it is entirely possible that the non-terrorist members of that society could rationally respond by lashing out against that other group, even if they don’t themselves support doctrine X.”
    (My emphasis.)

    Please explain exactly what is rational about “lashing out”, except for the case in which the lashers-out rationally expect the lashing out to have an effect desirable to them, i.e. unless the lashers-out expect the sort of appeasement that statements like yours would induce them to expect.

    “Frankly, that’s probably what I would do.”

    What this says about your own rationality, depends on what your expectation are about the results of your lashing out.