Politics & Policy

Killing without Due Process: It’s Called War

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan, 2007. (Photo: Sergeant Brian Ferguson)
The upside-down moral world of the Left’s latest drone-war exposé.

In a morally sane world, the headlines accompanying the latest leak of classified information about America’s drone war would read something like this: “Leaked Documents Demonstrate American Military Takes Unprecedented Care to Avoid Civilian Casualties.” Or: “American Drone Targeting More Deliberate Than Any Targeting System in History of Warfare.” Instead, we’re given a story called “The Assassination Complex,” which relentlessly attacks American military efforts against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadists mainly because it can’t guarantee both due process and omniscience.

The story condemns the American military and the CIA for acting as judge, jury, and executioner while neglecting to mention that every military acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Most militaries, however, are less careful than ours. Further, the story (and associated additional essays) hammer home the point that we’re rarely certain that we are killing targeted terrorists and only targeted terrorists when we strike. Yet the authors can’t point to a single military campaign in human history where such certainty was possible.

Instead, we’re treated to inane, ignorant moralizing from the person who leaked classified information (referred to as “the source”). Here’s his justification for leaking highly classified information to the press:

This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them “baseball cards,” assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong.

It’s hard to believe that our nation entrusted defense secrets to a person captured by such vacuous, dorm-room morality. Yet we did. And so we’re left with having to engage in a dumbed-down argument about the most basic moral concepts in the law of war. So, here goes.

Dear Mr. Source, the process of “watchlisting,” of “assigning numbers,” and of creating targeting cards is a process that is designed to make the waging of war as precise as possible. Previous iterations of counterinsurgency could — and did — mean that when insurgents or terrorists hid in civilian populations, air forces would engage in area bombing and strafing operations to strike entire villages and towns. (See, for example, the British suppression of the Iraqi revolt of 1920.) Previous iterations of counterinsurgency called for area-wide sweeps and the establishment of camps to house the civilian population to further isolate them from insurgents and deprive insurgents of reinforcements. (See, for example, the Second Boer War.)

Rather than applaud the decisive American move away from blunt, brute force, Mr. Source, you and your hard-Left friends have labeled as “assassination” what is in reality an attempt at unprecedented precision in both aerial and ground combat. The United States does actually attempt to kill terrorists and only terrorists when it strikes — which is why (as you freely admit in your article) we will sometimes monitor individual targets for months and years.

#share#Mr. Source, without your arbitrary labels and childish morality, your story would be quite boring. You’re breaking the news that America works very hard to use signals intelligence to locate targets, tracks those targets wherever they are in the world, and then does its best to kill its enemies with minimal collateral damage. To the extent there’s meaningful controversy, it’s whether those attacks are best undertaken by drones or by special forces — whether we need more boots on the ground, not fewer, to increase the effectiveness of our human intelligence and diminish our reliance on signals intelligence. We’ve known all this for years, and it was hardly worth the massive security breach to simply reconfirm the facts.

Mr. Source, you and your hard-Left friends have labeled as ‘assassination’ what is in reality an attempt at unprecedented precision in both aerial and ground combat.

But sadly, your childish morality rules you, and you actually seem to believe that when terrorists commanders violate the laws of war by refusing to wear distinctive uniforms and by hiding in civilian areas, America bears the entire burden of proving their identity, location, and guilt. In other words, the greater the level of lawlessness by our enemy, the greater the legal responsibility on the part of America. It’s not enough to do our best. We now have to do the impossible – engage the enemy not as terrorists capable of inflicting military-scale damage on our nation and our army in the field, but rather as criminal suspects entitled to due process.

There is certainly room for a robust discussion and debate on the military effectiveness of America’s drone war, and to the extent that the story is helpful or useful, it shows that boots on the ground and human intelligence are likely more effective than primary reliance on aerial campaigns and signals intelligence. Yet applying this knowledge to policy means a greater American commitment to direct combat, greater risk to American soldiers, and greater potential civilian casualties, as ground combat can easily escalate into generalized engagements in built-up urban areas. (See, for example, the Battle of Mogadishu.)

There is less room for debate, however, on whether our unprecedented level of care and unprecedented level of precision is immoral or unlawful because it’s not precise enough – because it cannot do the impossible. The report purports to “lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.” In plain English that means that we’ve “normalized” an attempt to wage war with extreme precision.

Unlike most pundits who opine on the drone war, I’ve helped facilitate both drone operations and boots-on-the-ground raids. I’ve seen the possibilities and limits of aerial attacks, and I’ve seen the dangers of ground operations. I’ve seen operations succeed and fail. I’ve agonized over civilian casualties, and I’ve seen American soldiers do their best – including risking their own lives – to protect the innocent. Terrorists, by contrast, revel in brutality, do their best to kill women and children, and hide even among their own family members. Yet according to “the source,” those are the men who’ve been wronged by the United States. Those are the men who deserve ever greater legal protection. To the hard Left, the United States carries the burden of an impossible morality, the enemy enjoys the benefits of lawless freedom, and the one true constant is that when people die, America shoulders the blame.

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