With Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare, historian Gardner analyzes America’s obsession with fighting a perpetual high-tech, low-casualty war on terrorism.
The debate about drones is heated, but, compared to Vietnam, there is little visible public outrage against war itself. What has changed in 50 years?
The draft ended. Unlike the situation during Vietnam, a civilian who dislikes the current war can ignore it. The military has been largely separated from the rest of society. This is not a good thing.
You state that relying on drones and Special Forces gives the president too much power to wage war, but isn’t he already completely free to do so?
Yes, he is. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came after 9/11, the first attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. Both presidents have traded on that since 2001 with the Patriot Act and the Authorization to Use Military Force Act. The last time Congress declared war was 1941; there is no sign that it wants to reclaim that power.
Whatever happened to our once-lauded counterinsurgency programs?
Afghanistan was supposed to prove the value of counterinsurgency—instead, it became its greatest failure. Much of the problem was in Kabul, where President Karzai’s administration proved that counterinsurgency can’t work without an honest, efficient central government trusted by the people. Further, military experts have always pointed out that winning hearts and minds is an expensive, long-term project. Civilian enthusiasts didn’t pay attention at first. Once they learned, their enthusiasm evaporated.
Today, no one claims that the Taliban plans to attack the U.S. proper, so why are we still fighting them?
We invaded because the Taliban regime would not surrender Osama bin Laden. We quickly overturned the regime and installed Karzai, moved on to Iraq, and forgot Afghanistan. The Taliban regrouped and advanced. Since 2008, when America returned its attention to Afghanistan, the administration has conflated the threat from the Taliban with that of al-Qaeda, so that it’s impossible to tell who exactly we are fighting.
Isn’t drone warfare just the latest fantasy of winning wars by destroying enemy morale?
Yes. Besides killing selected targets, drone attacks are supposed to scare off terrorist recruits. In fact, the opposite has happened. As early as 2009, critics pointed out that for every terrorist leader killed in this manner, you create 10 enemies by killing innocent bystanders, and drones will always kill innocent bystanders.
How does the current situation in Syria fit into this analysis?
Tomahawk missiles really are a variation on drones, with even less accuracy. Obama has vowed that our goal is not to oust another dictator, and not to put boots on the ground. Apparently it will be okay for the civil war to drag on, so long as chemical weapons are not used to kill children. From the dropping of the first atomic bomb we have been on a never-ending quest for a technological answer to political questions.