This week Secretary of State John Kerry, a drone war enthusiast, was rightly mocked for telling Edward Snowden to “man up” and return to the US. But it was easy criticism when the implications of death-by-drone deserve a deeper dive. And few are better qualified to discuss the impact of drone warfare not just on our policies but on our psyche than Robert Jay Lifton.
Since the 1950s, the famed psychiatrist—and often, activist—has produced one landmark study after another on vital issues of our day, from nuclear weapons to Nazi doctors, from soldiers at war to policymakers who send them into battle. As it happens, I have written two books with Lifton, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? (on capital punishment).
Lifton last year wrote what I consider the most far-reaching and important essay on the many dangers, and ethical challenges, of drone warfare (in two parts, here and here). Nothing reveals more about this subject than the famous phrase he introduced to our language decades ago: ”psychic numbing.” I’ve interviewed him about that and another aspect: the media failure to cover this extremely important issue in any kind of deep, sustained way.
Lifton called his lengthy piece for The Huffington Post “Ten Reflections on Drones.” He introduced it this way: “Drones have entered our consciousness. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere. The following reflections—they could as easily be called meditations—do not address legal, political, or military issues, though these have great importance. Rather I seek to begin a conversation about our relationship as human beings to these robotic objects as weapons.”
To give you some of the flavor, here are a few of his ten reflections:
The lure of an intelligent, nonhuman killing machine. We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing.
The illusion that we can fight wars without our own people, our soldiers, dying. As a military man (quoted by P. W. Singer) put it: “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”
Another illusion is that of the drones’ capacity for what is called “targeted” or surgical killing, meaning the dispatching of a particular person and no one else.
Another illusory stance, also associated with a static view of history, is that of ignoring highly negative responses or blowback. Yet 97 percent of Pakistanis oppose our drones policy, as do high percentages of people in other Middle Eastern countries.
The illusion of a “rescue technology” that can turn around a failed policy. Drones have become a cure for the disarray and defeat associated with our doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare.
The ultimate issue of human and nonhuman agency. We are in a sense sharing human agency with a robot. There are accounts of varying degrees of loss of human control over the drones. And there are envisioned more and more occurrences in which action would be so rapid as to allow no time for human intervention and the drones would have to make “decisions” on their own.