Peter's Blog

Defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Don’t Fear the Reaper, or Predator

with 6 comments

Let’s say you know that a member of Al Qaeda’s leadership is in a particular house. What is safer — dropping a bomb from a drone aircraft, or sending a squad of Marines into the house?

I think this is actually a three-part question:

  1. What is physically safer?
  2. What is psychologically safer?
  3. What is morally safer?

My friend Leah writes that:

War today strives to remove soldiers from the battlefield, for the sake of their safety and, perhaps, the sake of their souls.  It is easier for a man to kill by pressing a button to launch a drone strike rather than killing with a gun, or, worse, a bayonet.  Culpability shouldn’t be expected to diminish, but soldiers do feel more disconnected from the consequences of their actions.

I doubt that war strives to do anything. The current drone campaign along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was chosen in response to the political impossibility of placing US combat forces on the ground in Pakistan, along with the extreme inaccessibility of the terrain.

In my hypothetical, it is clearly physically safer for US combat forces to attack the Al Qaeda leader by dropping a bomb on his house. At worst, the opponent shoots down the drone. I think the questions of psychological and moral safety are more interesting.

When a nation goes to war, heavy psychological and moral demands are placed on the combatants. As Leah describes, part of the training that soldiers and Marines receive is designed to psychologically prepare them for the experience of killing another human being. This training has been found to be effective; contra Leah, the firing rate of US soldiers in the Vietnam War was around 95%. An excellent book on the psychological effects of killing is On Killing, by LtCol Dave Grossman. The author, a professor at West Point who has interviewed thousands of police officers and military veterans, identifies a number of variables that shape the psychological impact of killing, including: physical distance, emotional distance, group absolution, level of exhaustion, and feelings of helplessness. These variables interact in ways that make simple comparisons difficult; two soldiers in the same Humvee might have dramatically different psychological reactions to the same event. However, in nearly every case the drone pilot releasing a bomb from an Air Force base in the southwest United States will enjoy greater psychological safety than an infantry Marine tasked with clearing a house room-by-room.

The best book I’ve read on the moral danger in war is Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay. A psychiatrist with decades of experience assisting Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD, Shay draws insightful comparisons between the actions of Achilles and other soldiers in the Iliad with the experiences of Vietnam veterans. Shay’s key message is that a “betrayal of what’s right” haunts a soldier long after he leaves the battlefield. While both our drone pilot and our infantryman face moral danger, the bluntness of his tool places the drone pilot in greater danger of killing noncombatants as collateral damage. This danger is not “hidden” from the drone pilot, but obvious to anyone with common sense: if you’re dropping a bomb on a house, there’s a good chance that not everyone inside is a terrorist.

Leah’s account of the training soldiers receive is quite different from the combat training I received. Training soldiers to fire at human-shaped targets is intended to lower the psychological resistance to target acquisition, not to erode the natural sympathy a soldier has for other humans. While I think training can build, or destroy, moral habits, time spent on the firing range is coupled with countless hours of instruction on the law of war and code of conduct, training designed to make soldiers more sensitive to moral issues on the battlefield. While I’m not sure why Leah links to Times articles that breathlessly describes a supposed rise in suicide rates among combat veterans, the fact that these rates are comparable to or actually lower than the suicide rates among 18-22-year-old men in the general population makes them unhelpful data points.

Given that Leah’s post falls under a series on the topic of sinfulness, I was surprised that she never identifies any sinfulness in her post. Does she believe that a soldier killing an opponent is sinful? Is a soldier killing a noncombatant sinful? Are voters and politicians sinful for insulating themselves from the true costs of war? If this last is true, then these civilians are in a situation entirely of their own making. There are millions of veterans they could become acquainted with or serve if they so choose. I’m curious to hear what Leah’s position on this topic is.


Written by Peter

October 9, 2010 at 10:01

6 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brandt Anderson, Peter Somerville. Peter Somerville said: My new post on sinfulness in war: #afghanistan #usmc […]

  2. Finally wrote my (absurdly late) reply to your post.


    November 16, 2010 at 17:32

    • Awesome… will read and comment/reply as appropriate.

      And no worries, I’ve hardly been a model of blog productivity myself.


      November 16, 2010 at 17:42

  3. […] November 16, 2010 by leahlibrescoThis post is a LONG overdue response to Peter Somerville, who had some questions about a post I wrote way back in October on the morality of drone strikes.Here’s a quick […]

  4. […] still in the middle of a series of posts on sin and immorality (and planning to respond to Peter Somerville’s questions about my post on drone strikes) but, unfortunately, I have a paper and a song to finish before […]

  5. […] this week, so I pledge to make it up by posting this weekend (especially the promised response to Peter Somerville’s criticism of my post on the (im)morality of drone strikes).For today, I shall fill out the remainder of my […]

    7 Quick Takes (10/21/10)

    August 30, 2012 at 15:38

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