WASHINGTON -- The debate over armed drones and whether the United States should use missile-firing robots to kill people identified as terrorists is an interesting one but it misses the point, many hardened warfighters say.
The real issue is about killing.
The debate, many say, should focus not on the drone itself -- a simple but efficient tool of war -- but on the political and legal issues of killing at a time when the distinctions between combatant and civilian, between battlefield and non-battlefield, are blurring. With whom is the United States at war, and why? And within what constraints of international and U.S. constitutional law does the United States kill?
"The whole drone thing is a technology issue," said Paul D. Eaton, a retired infantry commander with 33 years of service. "People are hung up on the word 'drone.' The real issue is: Who are you killing and what is the legal justification for doing that?"
In the U.S. national security budgeting and strategy, killing is taken for granted. At huge cost, the United States has amassed the world's largest collection of military weaponry, from assault rifles to $12 billion aircraft carriers to Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can carry eight thermonuclear warheads. All of it, including perhaps 375 armed drones, is designed to kill, or to coerce under the threat to kill.
In Iraq and now Afghanistan, U.S. military operations have been dressed up as counterinsurgency, but in the end, those operations are about killing, combat commanders say privately. And like U.S. military operations everywhere, they are conducted within strict "rules of engagement" that are nested within the Geneva Convention and the international laws of war.
And yet killing -- the taking of life authorized by the government -- is an issue that seems to make most Americans uncomfortable. The word itself is almost never mentioned at the Pentagon. President Barack Obama's speeches on Afghanistan omit mention of killing; even his Nobel acceptance speech justifying war noted that some Americans might be killed in combat, but never mentioned that Americans might do the killing. At his military retirement ceremony in 2011, Gen. David Petraeus, a career soldier who had led two wars, spoke of "the essence, the core of our military." And never uttered the word "killing."
But inside the working military, where killing is the mission, things look different.
From the small town of Sar Hawza in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, where U.S. infantrymen had been sent for a year's warfighting duty, came an emergency call one day: The town's new medical center had been seized by Taliban insurgents. It was Aug. 26, 2009, a sultry day, and the troopers came at a run and surrounded the building while local officials scurried to make sure the Afghan staff had escaped. Then the Americans went in.
Three soldiers, led by Staff Sgt. Kurt R. Curtiss, crept up the hallways, clearing the rooms one by one. One room left. Curtiss motioned the others to stay back. He kicked in the door. A fusillade of bullets knocked him backwards and he fell mortally wounded -- but alive. His men tried to drag him to safety but were driven back again and again by fire from the Taliban.
Curtiss died there in the doorway, long before the building was eventually cleared and the enemy killed. He was 27 years old, on his third combat deployment. He left behind his wife, a son, 9, and a 6-year-old daughter.
That Curtiss died in this manner infuriates Robert Scales, a retired warfighter with decades of experience. An armed drone, had one been overhead, might have saved Curtiss' life by killing the insurgents in that room as Curtiss and his men watched from safety. When there is killing to be done -- directed by the president, examined and approved by commanders and military lawyers in the chain of command -- best that it be done speedily and efficiently, Scales argues.
Armed drones, says Scales, "fundamentally change the business of close killing."
"You send guys in, and once you get within the deadly zone, the insurgents have better weapons than we do, in terms of reliability and massive shock power," he said. "So here you have an inferior American force with nothing overhead, coming under fire by an insurgent force able to gain firepower dominance very quickly, and there's nothing you can do about it except scream into a radio and have somebody 50 miles away decide what to do about it?
"That's no different than 1969, when I had the same thing happen to me in Vietnam. The only difference is, now we have armed drones! Please explain to me why we don't have these things hovering over our guys 24/7?"
Scales, a retired Army major general, was in charge of a remote artillery fire base in Vietnam as a lieutenant prior to a long Army career as a commander and strategist. In the late 1990s, Scales was in charge of designing the army of the future. He and his colleagues looked at the awful casualty rate of young American infantrymen sent into close combat. Why not just use a drone with a 12-pound bomb hanging on it? they wondered. "Back then we were saying, this revolutionizes everything," he said.
The Army is still working on the idea of protecting its infantry with armed drones. But the spread of armed drone technology from the shadowy world of counter-terrorism to the conventional battlefield is inevitable because of the key advantage they offer.
"The kill chain is so short," explains John Pike, one of the world's leading experts on weapons and the founder of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based think tank. When the order comes down through the command levels, after a circling drone has helped to identify the target properly, the attack can be launched immediately. "Calling in a commando team is gonna take time," Pike said. "And I can't have commando teams circling around in the sky on the off-chance I'm gonna need 'em."
Of course, killing by armed drone -- just like killing with a Tomahawk cruise missile or long-range artillery cluster shell -- is a decision fraught with political, legal and moral issues, and especially when the targets are American citizens, as was the case with the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, who were killed in Yemen in 2011.
The goals of a drone strike or other military killing are a political decision, said Scales. "Should we be killing Americans in Somalia? I don't know." But he worries that leaving those questions unanswered "adds legal and jurisdictional and doctrinal friction to the process -- and soldiers die needlessly.
"If you want to go kill Americans, pass a law, fight it out at the Supreme Court."
But if the nation decides to go to war, in Afghanistan or against terrorists, and orders the military into action, it should use all the applicable technology, he argues.
"We can do this with our people, or we can do it with our technology. This is the fundamental take-away of the new American way of war, and it shocks me that no one is talking about it."
CORRECTION: This article has been revised to note that the town of Sar Hawza is in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.