Foreign Policy Blogs

How Americans Are Making Sense of Remote Warfare

A drone. Telegraph/AFP/Getty

A drone. Telegraph/AFP/Getty

Currently, remote warfare — namely, drone warfare and issues around cyber attacks — is occupying a large part of the national security debate in the United States. Developments like the Mandiant report, which implicated China’s military in cyber attacks on U.S. business and government, and Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster of now-CIA chief John Brennan’s nomination, which drew national attention to drones, are bringing these issues to the fore. Some of the interest stems from Americans’ concerns about the implications of these technologies for daily life in the United States, for example, the security of online bank accounts or the potential use of drones for law enforcement domestically. Others believe that drone warfare, in particular, sets dangerous international norms. Additionally, Americans are confronting a rapidly evolving paradigm of what war means: while weapons, national security threats, and the military have evolved with every decade, wars fought from far-off control rooms represent a whole new level of difference.

The Pentagon’s decision to expand its cyber command “more than fivefold” and also issue a (currently-suspended) Distinguished Warfare Medal for excellence in military operations from afar is a sign of the times that also asks Americans to revisit their conceptions of what the military does and what war is. A recent NPR interview with Brookings military expert Peter Singer highlighted some of the issues around this development:

[Singer:] …what we’re hitting at is, one, you have this growing portion of the military that’s engaged in these kind of operations. It’s important to the future of the military. But at the same time, the system wasn’t set up to recognize some of their accomplishments. But the other thing that’s playing out here – and it’s what I went into in the piece – is that we have to recognize that technology has always changed what we think of as heroism.

….when the first guns came out in the 1400s, there was a nobleman back there who…essentially said: Anyone who uses a gun is a coward. We’ve changed our notion of that. Or there’s a great saying from…World War I where this French general was complaining that three men with a machine gun can defeat a battalion of heroes. I mean, we’ve seen this play out. We’ve seen the story play out before. It doesn’t make it something, you know, that we should celebrate or be happy about. It’s just the cold, hard reality of war, is that technology continually reshapes our notions of the values that we look for in it.

Indeed, as the interview also suggests, one element missing from remote war is the potential for physical harm to the drone operator or cyber warrior, and some argue that this distance — particularly in drone warfare — may detrimentally separate military personnel from the human costs of their actions. On the other hand, people involved in carrying out drone attacks or even cyber defense/attacks may themselves experience negative psychological effects (such as PTSD) as a result of their involvement, something that seems likely to be ignored or underdiagnosed in military personnel who are technically sitting behind computer terminals located in the United States. (A recent New York Times headline declared, “Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do.”)

Moreover, while the physical safety of drone/cyber operators will surely bring relief to thousands of military families over time, it is still crucial to ask whether operations that do not immediately risk American lives distort military thinking on the human and strategic costs of lethal operations. In a recent New York Review of Books article on John Brennan, Georgetown Law professor David Cole wrote:

Attorney General Eric Holder said, in a March 2012 speech at Northwestern University, that targeted killings outside of Afghanistan and Iraq take place only when capture is not “feasible,” a threat of attack is “imminent,” and the killing would result in a significant disruption of the plans and capabilities of al-Qaeda and its associated forces. But how do you determine when capture is not feasible? What if we might be able to capture a suspect but the operation would risk American lives, while killing the suspect with an unmanned drone will risk no loss of American life? Is that sufficient ground for concluding that capture is not feasible? If so, has the ease with which drones can kill others without risk to American life effectively changed the determination of feasibility?

As remote warfare increasingly becomes the focus of popular and media attention, I am curious to see how the discussion about a) drones and b) the cyber threat the United States confronts (as well as U.S. offensive capabilities) evolves. What Brookings’ Singer notes is true: new technologies have long challenged our conceptions of warfare. However, Americans are now dealing with technological change that moves at a breathtaking pace; we were not having these kinds of conversations about drones and cyberspace even five years ago.  Moreover, although there are various similarities between drone warfare and cyber offense/defense — both are conducted from afar, and are forging new international norms and controversies, for instance — the differences between these areas necessitate separate conversations. Most clearly, drone attacks are lethal and visible in a way that cyber attacks are not, at least currently. There is also ongoing discussion about the relationship of cyber attacks to warfare (see, for instance, the New York Times “Room for Debate” feature on “What is an act of cyberwar?”)

Recently, the Pentagon has paused plans for the remote warfare medal in order to evaluate veterans’ and policymakers’ concerns. A remark in the Washington Post suggests that while various veterans’ groups aren’t against the medal per se, they do oppose the decision for it to rank above the Bronze Star, a combat medal; others think it should not rank above the Purple Heart, which recognizes service members who are wounded or killed in action by the enemy (Singer also recognizes these concerns). Though this discussion of medals may seem like an in-the-weeds focus on the military’s internal dynamics, the issue brings to the fore veterans’ thoughts on what remote warfare means. No matter how the specifics of this particular medal evolve, it is wise and essential to listen to the voices of those who have fought in and seen the damages of war.



Julia Knight
Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.

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