Milton Bass: Knotty morality of drones



Everyone knows that a drone honeybee is a stingless, non-working male that produces no honey. But not everyone knows that what we popularly call a drone today has a zillion different descriptive initials.

The most common initials are (UAV), which stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. These were first developed in 1916 during World War I when they became (RPV) Remote Piloted Vehicles. Germany had many different types of such vehicles during World War II and in 1951 they became jet propelled. The Germans also developed the U1 and U2 missiles to bomb Great Britain mercilessly. However, for us the UAV itself remained basically remote-controlled airplanes until our war in Vietnam when they became a little more deadly.

In 1959, the Air Force, in an attempt to conserve pilots, got serious about unmanned flight. And when Francis Gary Powers in his unbelievable U-2 plane was shot down in the Soviet Union, the military services became frantic about developing the UAVs. Israel became serious about improving the UAV in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War because Syrian missile batteries were shooting down an extraordinary number of planes. By 1983 the Israelis had developed the UAVs for surveillance and decoys and lost no pilots in further operations.

In the 1990s, the U.S. in cooperation with the Israelis developed the miniaturization of equipment and planes to the point where some of them are still being used. The armed UAV is called a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle). These vehicles are now used as either targets or decoys, good for training operators, reconnaissance, logistics and most important of all, combat. But just as the GPS has moved from the military to civilian use, so has the UAV.

It can be used to monitor pipelines, forest fires and rescue missions. The miniaturization has continued and now the UAVs vary from one to 40,000 pounds. The proportionate cost is from a few thousand dollars to millions.

The UAV missions were running during the tenure of President George W. Bush, but they increased tremendously during Barack Obama's first term and now his second. He has personally become our killingest president, OK'ing the takeout of Osama bin Laden and reportedly having a death list of our targeted enemies. This has created a small public furor because it is alleged that when we have pinpointed a particular enemy for the missiles, we have also sentenced to death several innocent bystanders. Some of this is because al-Qaida leaders quite often travel with their wives and children plus a retinue of aides.

Sometimes our intelligence is faulty and we have killed innocent families in their houses, in funeral processions and marriage celebrations or sometimes tribe elders just having a conference. Most of our information comes from people we have bribed to be spies, who may be making things up, settling personal scores, engaging in vendettas, or just trying to make a few extra dinars.

Many people are disturbed by this kind of warfare. There have been letters to the editor protesting the practice of blowing people up from thousands of miles away. Foreign correspondents have written about the nervousness of ordinary people in Pakistan who never know when a missile might hurtle out of nowhere and blow countryside, homes and innocent people into bits.

Since we are fighting a war against an enemy that has no physical home base, it is difficult to lay down procedural lines of combat. The people who would do us harm are scattered all over. They say that the war will continue until we surrender and they claim that one day they will attack Israel and drive its inhabitants into the sea. The rules of historical warfare cannot be applied.

I shudder when I read about one of our drones wiping out innocent families by mistake. How does the drone operator feel at the end of his day's work? There was the same problem with our use of the nuclear bombs against Japan in World War II. From 90,000 to 166,000 lives were wiped out in Hiroshima and an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki.

My division had come home from Europe after 10 straight months of combat. We were given 30 days leave and then reported to California where we began training for the invasion of Japan. We heard that it was estimated a million Americans would be killed because the Japanese would all fight to the death.

Then the United States dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima followed by Fat Man on Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, Gen. Douglas McArthur said he didn't need any more infantry than he had, we were demobilized and went home.

There have been times when I felt sad about all those Japanese lives being snuffed out, but mostly I have been glad to have had the opportunity to almost complete my life cycle. And that's also my-hang up about drone bombing. The loss of a human being in a war is inestimable. The loss of a machine is at most expensive. We must be careful how we think that through.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.


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