Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Freud and the Drone

Robot war means more killing, less guilt

Perhaps in a whimsical mood, Sigmund Freud cited some unusual evidence for the aggressive impulse he found in mankind. In his essay “Reflections on War and Death,” he writes that French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau “asks the reader what he would do if without leaving Paris he could kill, with great profit to himself, an old mandarin in Peking by a mere act of his will. Rousseau implies that he would not give much for the life of the dignitary.” Imagine if great numbers could so exercise their will. What violence would be unleashed, how many prostrate bodies around the globe who never knew what hit them. Ecstasy!

And so it has come to pass. With the will to do it, the United States—that is, the White House—can now eliminate undesirables anywhere in the world by means of the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, with over 2,300 remote executions so far. A case in point was the assassination last September of a U.S. citizen, suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, as he was driving in Yemen. This was accomplished with less oversight than capture and extradition would have required—paperwork and negotiations avoided. Clean.

Attorney General Eric Holder says execution by drone is not assassination if the victim is threatening the state. It may not be due process as provided by the U.S. Constitution, but it’s “judicial process” as decided by the White House. Holder offers only scant details on the targets—classified, you know—but rest assured they have been painstakingly selected, and we are at war, though not, to be sure, in Yemen. That country, we’re told, at least partially approves of these attacks.

Pakistanis have complained that too many civilians are killed in American drone strikes. At a recent meeting with President Obama, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani demanded that drone attacks stop in Pakistan. No way, responded Obama. They’re needed to wipe out terror.

That’s what they all say, notes Freud, a congenital skeptic. Acts of violence are usually given some justification, deserved or not, to relieve the conscience. In this regard, he quotes Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who says that when excuses for any doubtful action are needed, reasons are “as plenty as blackberries.” Pick away. And drones can continue to pick away without impediment.

So far the United States, Israel, and the UK are the only nations to carry out drone strikes. But what’s to stop others? Drones aren’t costly and are risk free, at least for their users. A top-line drone costs about $10.5 million as compared to a fighter jet at some $70 million. It’s expected that in the coming decade, global drone sales will reach $94 billion. “Countries have an insatiable appetite for drones,” Northrup Grumman executive James Pitts told the Financial Times. Can we anticipate an arms race with a perpetual buzzing overhead from a swarm of drones?

That’s quite possible since China is getting into the game. Every Chinese military manufacturer is now reported to be involved in drones. Both China and the United States are developing sea-based carrier drones for any possible future confrontation between the two states. But is the drone the answer to modern warfare? All the strikes on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have not improved the prospects for winning that war. Anticipating U.S. withdrawal, Afghans of means are preparing to leave the country, the New York Times reports. Will this be the first drone defeat?

Nothing deterred, Israel is second only to the United States in production of drones and second also in their export. Attack drones provide the operational answer to any need, says Tommy Silberring, head of the drone division at Israel Aerospace Industries. “Automated systems are better than people. Computers don’t get sick, and they’re never in a bad mood.”

They also get around. According to the Washington Post, the United States has protested Israeli sales of sophisticated drones to Russia. Moscow, in turn, objected when it encountered Israeli drones in its 2008 war with Georgia. In January, Turkey scrambled F-16s to intercept an Israeli drone spying over the country’s southern provinces of Hatay and Adana. In 2004, the Turks themselves purchased ten Heron drones from Israel for $183 million.

Drones make wars so easy, say critics, that we’re likely to see more of them in the days ahead. Just a flick of the wrist and home for lunch. But wait—soon enough, not even the human hand will be needed. Software will deal the blow with a will of its own. All the destruction desired without having to give it a second thought, or even a first. Pity all those mandarins. Even Freud might be surprised, but war by robot proxies would hardly force him to revise his view of the aggression stubbornly lodged in mankind.

Ed Warner is a former editor-reporter for the Voice of America.