On Drones, the Fog of War and Obama vs. LeMay
“How much evil must we do in order to do good?”
It’s a question posed by Robert MacNamara in Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War, and one I’ve thought a lot about in these past weeks as the debate over our drone policy has escalated–most recently, with Tuesday’s release of top-secret intelligence which outlines just how casual our overseas killing policy has become.
The summary of intelligence reports from McCLatchy Newspapers debunks many of Obama’s assertions in the past, including the idea that drone attacks minimize (or even negate) civilian casualties. Also, that they target only “specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda” who are plotting “imminent” attacks on Americans. As it turns out, al-Qaeda members are a mere minority of total drone casualties—and senior al-Qaeda leaders are killed only rarely. In fact, sometimes our drone operators aren’t really sure who they are killing.
In some ways, the McClatchy report seems to posit a whole new world, policy-wise–particularly since it follows a New York Times story that our Pakistan drone program was launched only after the C.I.A. agreed to assassination of a Pashtun tribal leader the Pakistan government wanted dead. And yet as someone who has spent much time immersed in Pacific War lore over the past couple of years, there’s a lot about this conflict that feels eerily familiar. Sure, the technology has changed, and along with it the vocabulary: surgical and signature strikes, pinpointed targets, remote pilots. The truth, however, is that we have taken comparable technological leaps in the past, and skirted the same ethical questions about civilian deaths.
On March 9th 1945, 334 bombers—each representing an investment of a half-million dollars, each a pinnacle of the time’s airpower technology—took off at dusk from the recently-captured Marianas, on a mission dubbed “Operation Meetinghouse.” By midnight the planes were swarming over sleeping Tokyo. Air raid sirens wouldn’t sound until well after the attack began, but most Japanese gave the droning engines little thought. In past months American flyovers had been both common and harmless enough that they were referred to almost affectionately, as “our regulars.”
Meetinghouse, however, proved devastatingly irregular. Not only was Tokyo constructed largely out of wood and paper, but LeMay had ordered the planes in at unprecedentedly low altitudes—between 4,500 and 8,000 feet—to accomplish what he called precision bombing. Between that, the 1165 tons of petroleum-packed explosives the planes carried (another first: napalm) and a brisk Northwesterly wind, the attack created one of the fiercest infernos ever seen in a city. “People were burning alive right in front of me,” Yoshiko Hashimoto, a survivor, told me. “Women’s hair was on fire. Men’s clothing was on fire. There were so many people rolling around on the ground.” The American pilots would recall smelling acrid smoke and burning flesh from their cockpits. Returning to base, they’d scrape soot from their plane’s bellies.
Like our ongoing overseas drone strikes, Operation Meetinghouse was orchestrated and carried out by a small handful of military brass, without congressional or even presidential oversight. Its masterminds included Major General Curtis LeMay as well as MacNamara, at the time a captain in the Office of Statistical Control. It’s ostensible goal: to decimate Tokyo’s industrial military complex. The latter was said to be inextricably intermeshed with civilian life, since some residential areas also housed “shadow factories” that produced prefabricated materials for Japan’s aircraft factories.
At least a hundred thousand Japanese died between midnight and dawn that night—over three times Dresden’s death toll, and significantly more than the initial tolls in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Sixteen square miles of city were incinerated. In the days afterwards LeMay was hailed as an airpower superstar. “I want you and your people to understand fully my admiration for your fine work,” General Hap Arnold wrote him. “Your recent incendiary missions were brilliantly planned and executed.” If he or anyone else had serious qualms about the fiery deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, they were left unsaid–though a follow up XXI’st Bomber Command report seemed slightly defensive on the topic. “The object of these attacks was not to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations,” it noted. “The object was to destroy the industrial and strategic targets concentrated in the urban areas.”
In truth—and as both LeMay and Arnold were quite likely aware—Japan’s military-industrial complex had already been badly damaged by a year-long U.S. Naval blockade. In short, they were lying about who and why they were so “precisely” striking—or at very least, misrepresenting the truth. Yet both the press and the public bought their argument; there was little media coverage and even less debate. In fact even today the Tokyo firebombing remains deeply in the shadow of the atomic bombings that followed five months later. And yet the questions it raises remain strikingly relevant seventy years later, as we consider when, how and who our drones should kill.
Take, for example, the idea that civilian casualties are a legal, acceptable, and even inevitable consequence of a “just” war—something implicit in the arguments of both George Bush’s and Barak Obama’s administrations. Initially LeMay rationalized the Tokyo attack in the same way. “The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war,” he claimed. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town. Had to be done.” I thought of this comment when reading Dexter Filkin’s New Yorker article earlier this year, in which he recalled talking to American officials about the 2009 drone strike in Al Majalah, Yemen. The attack killed fourteen Al Qaeda militants and forty-one civilians, and the officials “felt bad about it,” Filkins wrote. “But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there.” In other words, militancy in Yemen was so enmeshed with civilian life that it was impossible to hit one without hitting the other. Had to be done.
And yet the architects of Al Majalah–like those of our Pakistan program–may look back on their handiwork with less certainty then they now profess. After all, both LeMay and MacNamara did: “LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals,” MacNamara reminisces in The Fog of War. “And I think he’s right. He … and I’d say I … were behaving as war criminals.”
Something else to consider: for all of the napalm and flame we unleashed on Japan’s cities—burning hundreds of thousands of civilians to death in the process–there remains little evidence that those operations (as opposed to the surreal devastation wrought by Fat Man and Little Boy) brought our enemy closer to capitulation. Indeed, it’s possible they did the opposite—just as Japan’s bombings in China and Germany’s blitzes on London arguably strengthened the will of those besieged populations to fight on. And just as, by many accounts, our drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere are fueling recruitment by militant groups—and are almost certainly fueling anti-Americanism.
To be sure, there are some big differences between the Pacific War and our War on Terror. For one thing, there’s little question that drone strikes cause fewer casualties than city-wide firebombings. And while CIA Director John Brennan’s 2011 claim that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” by drone has proven to be offensively inaccurate, the general estimates for drone-related civilian casualties generally range between the mid- to the high-hundreds (a figure chillingly humanized in this recent online infographic, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”). Moreover, drone attacks put virtually no American lives at risk — unless, of course, you count the Americans at whom we target them.
But whether we are talking hundreds of civilian deaths or hundreds of thousands, the central narrative remains the same. Once more, we are summarily executing people whom we think might be our enemies. We are calling that “justice,” and then rationalizing untold numbers of civilian deaths in the name of that “justice.” And once more, a small group of highly-placed men–led by Barak Obama himself–are doing both the deciding and the killing. And then misleading us about it.
Which leads me to think that once the fog of this war has lifted, we’ll confront another quandary MacNamara poses in Morris’s documentary: How much evil must we do in order to do good?
If the lessons of the LeMay’s firebombings are any indication, the answer will likely be: far too much.
If my family was killed by a drone, I would find it hard to think that they were just trying to kill a bad person who lived nearby. Neither Hamburg, Dresden, or Tokyo turned the people of Germany or Japan against their leaders. In fact, it made them hate us even more. Drones, at least in theory, are killing leaders of our enemies so perhaps there is a key difference. Would a drone attack that killed German leaders have been justified if it also killed 100 German children? 1,000 German children?
I was reading that Jimmy Doolittle was against the type of carpet bombing that we were doing and stopped Churchill from ordering a gas bombing against Berlin. Perhaps there were people with a heart in our country… they were just in the wrong roles.
That’s fascinating about Doolittle–I’d never heard that. But given what I’ve learned about the man in many ways it doesn’t surprise me. His raid was so entirely different in motivation and purpose from LeMay’s…
Here is an interesting article from The Guardian 10 years ago. He calls Doolittle a “psalm-singing uniformed defeatist” but I think he is just being satirical comparing him to LeMay and Churchill.
It pains me to disagree with you so deeply, but to my mind it is morally absurd to give equivalence to the deaths of 100,000 people in one night and the deaths of < 10,000 people over 10 years. Drones have killed innocent people, without question – do you prefer the collateral damage and civilian deaths that came with Desert Storm (perhaps 100,000) or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (probably somewhere north of 200,000, but the Pentagon actually refused to keep figures)?
If your issue is with state-managed violence, then your issue is timeless. This is what nations do. And, pace Hobbes, it's better than the alternative. All war is a form of assassination; we fought World War II, with its 50 million deaths, essentially to kill one man in a bunker in Berlin. To succeed in this mission, we entered a period of "total war" to do it, razing cities in the interest of an assassination.
The media's effect on war has been going on for awhile, and it has been both beneficial and frustrating. It humanized the U.S. losses in Vietnam, and pointed out the absurdity of an unwinnable war.
But it has also led to a kind of absurdity in international relations and warmaking (dislike that term all you want, it is what great powers have always done, and likely will.) It is best seen when Bill Clinton pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia when one of his soldiers was filmed being dragged behind a truck, or when three U.S. mercenaries were hanged and burned in Falujah, and hundreds of Marine lives were lost in a gesture of little strategic value.
We are now assassinating more precisely, as befits an information-era war where the goal is not the command of geography but the elimination of a few key people who steer ideologies and terror. So far, our collateral damage is far below anything we've seen in centuries, since the advent of widespread industrial-era war.
What is interesting is that, this being the information age, we annotate and bring a biography to each death – so the losses in the drone strikes seem so horrid. We have turned on its head Stalin's crazy wisdom that "the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million is History," for we can now see each of those million with a richness that before required the most active imagination.
But as great an advance in our humanitarian feelings is, it also risks becoming a kind of failure of the imagination as regards the past. Attach the same level of biographic compassion to those killed in Desert Storm, Vietnam's Christmas bombings, the 5 million killed in Congo since 1998, or the residents of Tokyo, Dresden, or the 40,000 dead in the London Blitz in World War II, as ou do to the inadvertent victims of our distant, passionless drones, and you will see what I mean.
My point is, we are in general (though Congo and other parts of Africa give this idea the lie) vastly more respectful and compassionate over human life than ever in the 20th C. For that matter, total U.S. deaths in the Iraq and Afghan wars since 2001 are about 6500. That is somewhat more than half the number killed in three days at the battle of Cold Harbor during the Civil War.
As I said, the Iraqi casualties alone are much higher, but that is due to high-altitude weapons, not drones. And the Pentagon's refusal to even count them shows a generally positive trend in the way we think about deaths in wartime. That is one of the reason we are now so reliant on drones – they kill fewer people.
Were those deaths, now far in the past, felt less acutely by their contemporary loved ones? I think not. What is different is that we all feel them more now, we have them reported immediately, often with detailed personal histories, and thus are more outraged by each death we see, thanks to the more complete reporting our technology allows.
Yay that; Absent nuclear conflict, slaughter wars are less likely in the future.
But it must also be seen that our compassion for the present exposes our callousness about the past.
Yes, drone strikes are not as clean as our overlords would like us to think. But they are not the moral abomination you make them out to be in this post, given History's alternatives.
Certainly no pain should be caused by disagreement! I’m always up for a good argument—especially when it’s on issues about which I feel strongly (and with people whom I respect as much as I do you).
Interestingly, the points you bring up are all ones that I’ve just discussed (most recently, actually, with the NYT op-ed editors, for whom I originally wrote and then revised this piece, though in the end they didn’t use it). As I note above, drones are obviously less deadly than full-scale invasions or firebombings, and there is no doubt that given an choice between 100,000 collateral deaths and 1,000 the lower number is better. Moreover, I’m not making a blanket argument against state-managed violence. There are unquestionably times when we are morally obligated to go to war. Germany invades Poland; we should stop them. Japan invades pretty much all of East and Southeast Asia—ditto. Both are solid, ethical reasons to take up arms as a last resort. And when we do, one tragic but unavoidable consequence is that innocent people will die along with the guilty.
But what we are doing with the drone program (and by “we” I of course mean George Bush, Barak Obama and a few men in the CIA and the Defense Department) is a different thing altogether. It isn’t last resort. In fact, it can’t even be defined properly as “war” since we haven’t officially declared one on anyone. Instead, we have a secretive and unexplained list of supposed “enemies” (or in your words a “few key people who steer ideologies and terror”) whom are accused, tried and sentenced without any accountable review system and often without any demonstrable criteria. Indeed, as William Daley–Obama’s own chief of staff in 2011–has observed: “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?…At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?” Sorry. This isn’t war. This is exactly what you yourself call it: assassination—and to my mind there is little (if anything) honorable or moral about it.
But perhaps a more important argument relates to the value of life itself. There is a tractate in the Talmud stating that whomever saves a life it is as if they are preserving the whole world, and he who destroys a single soul it is as if they are guilty of destroying a whole world. I believe that that’s an important moral line we often miss in the fever of war (or whatever it is that we now find ourselves in); when we begin to pat ourselves on the back and define the blowing up of fewer women and children as “compassion.” Here’s the thing: a single life matters. And when we excuse the loss of any civilian life as a “necessary” casualty of war we start on a very dangerous path. This, I think, is the central peril of the so-called “War on Terror:” a slow and steady moral degradation that now finds people like you—good, deeply moral people—essentially excusing the bombing of children.
Finally: I believe that the growing undercurrent of outrage over the legal vagaries of these attacks and the callous and incidental carnage that accompanies them is not solely the product of journalistic technology, though the latter does indeed allow us to put a more human face on the tragedies (a poignant example of this appears at https://www.commondreams.org/view/201…, the same piece from which the Daley quote is drawn, which also shows the lifeless faces of ten Afghan children “we” killed on April 7th). It has more to do with the fact that more people are coming to realize that a lower civilian death count alone doesn’t absolve us of moral responsibility. To argue that it does is to argue that the ethics of civilian killing boil down to simple scale: kill too many innocents, and it’s a bad thing. But if we keep the numbers “reasonable”—well, then we’re off the hook. Frankly, I have a hard time seeing how anyone can justify that position and still face themselves in the mirror in the morning. But as the rising number of civilian casualties sadly gives proof to, apparently some people can.
So the US participates in the overthrow of a democratically elected government and establishes a cruel dictatorship because of “national security reasons”. Later, certain citizens of that country (perhaps people whose parents had been killed by the dictator we put in place) hate us and speak out against us, perhaps even calling for violently throwing us out of their region. Does that justify us in killing them and a few innocent civilians in the bargain? If that democratically elected government that we helped to overthrow had drones, would they have been justified in using them against the president and the congress, perhaps killing a few dozen tourists at the same time?