Submarines and Drones

Philadelphia Inquirer – February 28, 2013

A lesson on Woodrow Wilson´s war message to Congress led to a discussion about drone warfare in the 21st century.Reading Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 war message to Congress in our American history class reminded my students and me of the ongoing debate over the use of drones by the American government to target suspected terrorists.

In the early 20th century, submarines were useful primarily as hit-and-run weapons. They would sneak up on much bigger ships and hope to remain undetected long enough to launch a torpedo or two and get away. In his speech to Congress, the president expressed his outrage at the German government’s policy of using submarines to sink any vessels (many carried passengers and cargo) headed for British or other Allied ports, labeling it “warfare against mankind.”

Wilson rejected Germany’s claims that it had no way to cut off trade to its enemies except by using submarines, which, he said, are “impossible to employ … without throwing to the winds all scruples of humanity.” His view was that the Germans were ignoring the rules of war. There was no opportunity for the ships attacked to surrender before they were sunk, no way for the submarines to rescue survivors, and no distinction made between combatants and innocent civilians.

“I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved,” the president went on, “but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate.”

The drones at the center of the current controversy are small, unmanned aircraft. Like their World War I counterparts, they rely upon stealth and surprise. Undetectable from the ground, they seek out their objectives and strike with air-to-surface missiles. The suspected terrorists they target are simply executed. There is no opportunity for negotiation or surrender and, in many cases, noncombatants die, too.

Defenders of the program say that the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, and drones play an essential role in the fight against a stateless, terrorist organization whose operatives conceal themselves among civilians in multiple countries. Drones are effective, as were the early submarines, which explains at least some of Wilson’s righteous indignation.

If a weapon works, at least in the limited sense of destroying its target, does that necessarily justify its use? Wilson didn’t think so. He suggested that America’s conduct in war would be governed by a different set of standards than those of the German empire. The goal of U.S. entry into the Great War, the president said, was to “make the world safe for democracy,” and by means that were consistent with our principles.

To my students, the practice of “targeted killing” seemed to conflict with the constitutional separation of powers. The executive branch identifies suspects, determines guilt, imposes a sentence, and uses drones to carry it out. The lack of due process also attracted their notice. Even those held at Guantanamo as enemy combatants have been accorded protection under the Geneva Convention, and some have been brought before military tribunals.

Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed (not by a drone) for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. My class and I had some difficulty determining whether those on the drone lists are targeted only for what they have done or for what they might do. And that distinction seemed important.

Some of my students will be eighteen in November, and the rest by 2014. They have already spent more time than most of their fellow citizens discussing our government’s use of drones, but remain divided about how to proceed. As voters they will often be reminded that securing our own safety and making the world safe for democracy can never be entirely compatible goals.

13 thoughts on “Submarines and Drones

  1. Hail to Friends Central for such critical thinking debates. We had those too at the boarding school I attended. Such a privilege to be exploring the ethics of such subjects in school at young ages; actually in boarding school those debates continued well into the nights and weekends outside of class.
    — GAC

  2. I agree in your ethical stance, but disagree with your logic.
    There is a war, declared by a group of Mullahs with world-wide following.
    In those areas most concentrated with zealots supporting, fomenting, and financing war against our culture, every adult is either a combatant, training to be one, or giving succor to one. Few are truly fearful ; having pledged to accept them in their communities.
    In war, there is death and destruction. With no cause for morality. Have you been present for the gutting of your friend by a 30mm round fired indiscriminately into a school?
    That is the kind of war that has been declared against us.
    We do reserve the right to defend ourselves, even if it means complete annihilation of those who would end our lives.
    In this war declared by mullajhs, they have centuries to fight and win. They have killed non-combatants, here and in their own countries. And this war will take innocents. Just let us make sure the innocents are not our own children. And just make sure we keep the war and destruction on their towns, not in ours. And just make sure we do it a way we do not have to put boots on the ground to be in harm’s way.
    It is not ethical at all.
    It is the reality of war.
    Again, who declared this war??

    • My problem with putting morality aside in war, or in any conflict, is that even if we win, if we’ve given up our principles and beliefs about how human beings should be treated in order to achieve the victory, then what have we defended?

      • Great question.I have pondered since my first of 4 tours in combat to Viet Nam. We were wrong-minded aggressors there.
        In combat, the traditional field of war, the combatants fight for an ideal , fostered and planned by their politicians.

        In this cultural war beginning only this century, there has to be determination to preserve one’s own culture.
        But lies cannot be tolerated. It is a lie that the vast majority of Muslims want peace and have tolerance. The first principal of the vast majority of Muslims is that there is peace and tolerance only if the infidels convert, or at least accept total domination by the sect of Mullahs in power at the time. [What happens to a non-Muslim in Malaysia who prays in public? Look at the problems brought to European countries, which by and large were accepting.]

        Good luck with those young minds. Do not make them cynical, or sardonic. But do help them recognize that the world outside the nest is still a vexing source of hate and violence. Peaceful gestures are needed, but need support and backing, that can be vigorously protective.
        They must develop fortitude as well as peacefulness.

  3. I became very impressed with you and with your students when reading the “Commentary” in this morning’s Inquirer. You – and they – are addressing an issue that is replete with moral ambiguity.
    As your students begin to vote for our political leaders and later become our political leaders, I hope they examine the smaller picture as well as the larger picture involving drone attacks:
    1. Drone attacks began during the Bush Administration, and their use has been greatly increased during the Obama Administration.
    2. Drone attacks kill evil people and those associated with evil people – but also kill those whom we incorrectly believe to be evil, and also kill innocent bystanders.
    3. Lack of due process? Certainly, but that principle is limited to American governmental entities in criminal matters involving American citizens anywhere, or occurring within our borders regardless of citizenship (well, generally) – not military matters occurring overseas.
    4. If an attack directed at innocent and unarmed civilians generates a response of a careful surgical strike designed to – and which indeed does – minimize the impact on innocent civilians nearby, but which cannot eliminate that impact, are the two actions morally equivalent?
    5. If our sworn enemies do not play by the accepted “rules of warfare,” and indeed apply no limits to the type of warfare in which they engage, to what extent should we limit our military response? For example, if known terrorists stay within the confines of a crowded apartment building, all the while coordinating attacks on our soldiers or our civilians, how should we respond? What if the civilians know they are there and are actively protecting him? What if he is using them as human shields?
    I commend you for discussing with your students the amorphous issue of the interplay between our right to be safe, the rights of others to be safe, and the morality and ethics of the manner in which we oppose and confront those whose goal in life is to kill us and destroy our way of life.

    • Thanks for the response.
      Your third point about due process makes sense. I’m afraid I used the term too loosely, but there is a type of due process built in to the Geneva Convention which was extended even to the prisoners in Guantanamo. And those prisoners have some characteristics in common with the “kill list” targets.
      We have talked a little about your moral equivalence point. Our question was whether in our case moral equivalence matters most or whether, as a society claiming to uphold certain values, our policies must, at least to some degree, reflect our moral/philosophical standards.

  4. Your article on subs & drones was very good. I can see that you are a good history teacher. However, there is a difference between a state & terrorists. Wilson could complain & send letters to the Kaiser. Obama has no one to send letters to. I had a very good high school history teacher, and i always remember something he would say from time to time; “any time you fight something that is evil, you are always doing the right thing” Doing the right thing is not always perfect,( Bombing Germany & Japan during WW2 killed innocents too ), but the EVIL had to be stopped. Besides, the tipping point in WW1 was the Zimmermann note to Mexico.

    • You’re right. There is a difference between a state and a terrorist organization. I’m just not sure that having no one to send letters to justifies using drones and “kill lists.”
      You’re right too that the Zimmerman telegram aroused all sorts of indignation, but it’s interesting that Wilson only gives it passing mention in his address to Congress and focuses almost entirely on submarine warfare.

  5. I read your commentary. I completely disagree. Unless our “ally” Pakistan allows “boots on the ground” there is no other way. Yes there is “collateral” damage but they seem to “get it right”a high percentage of the time. What sort of “due process” did those in the twin towers have?

    • You say that there is “no other way” but we always have choices to make about how far we’re willing to go.
      If a group of terrorists managed to use a chemical or biological weapon against us, would that justify our responding in kind?

  6. I read with interest your commentary and how your class is approaching the issue of how the military is used. I think there is some real confusion in how one can bring a courtroom to a battlefield and we have to realize that non-uniformed combatants (a/k/a terrorists) vs. uniformed troops add a whole different dimension to war. I assume you told your students that in prior wars, soldiers without their uniforms were shot on the spot by both sides without even thinking about a trial. I personally knew men who volunteered to parachute behind the lines, wear civilian clothes and radioed back info, gambling they would not be discovered. Generally they had no identity cover, only that they spoke the language and hoped to “fake it” if caught.

    In the larger scheme of things I think you should outline for your students how a major decision had to be made when war became mechanized, and the decision was that it was time we had to kill the civilians in order to win. The First World War was the last major war fought soldier to soldier, and it was brutal and wiped out more than half a European generation in death and permanent maiming. Made worse by the beginning of mechanization and technical devices like tanks, aircraft and chemicals, it still was men with guns, bayonets and hands trying to kill each other for their country. Wilson of course was the most disreputable president in history, as he won the election promising not to enter the European war, and then did a 180 and took the whole country down the path of making it a war machine.

    • Interesting point about Wilson. I have always had difficulty with him. Our students also read Eugene Debs speech at Canton Ohio given several months after Wilson delivered his war message. Debs argued that the workers should not have to fight and die in the trenches in France to protect the risky investments made by Wall Street banks in the form of loans to Britain and France. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for that speech and Wilson consistently refused to pardon him after the war, even though (or perhaps because) Debs was right.

      • Wilson made some very questionable friends while president and many were war profiteers. At the end of the war, Wilson came to LeHarve [for the treaty negotiations] on the USS Pennsylvania, the largest battleship class at the time. All he had to do was tell the British and French that reparations of the nature they were about to implement were off the table. If they pushed back, he simply points to the Pennsylvania and says: “See that – – we have lots of them. You either do it my way or we will strangle your ports until you do – – by the way, we came here and altered the direction of this war in your favor. We are not going to let you set the stage for the next one.” But he had no courage. He was a weird mix of utopian idealist and wimp in my view, and he did not have his entourage of “advisors” who took him through the war at home; often for their own financial gain, but he could have used a support group then. Instead, he turned and went home and left them to set up some of the worst reparations ever forced on a major nation and you know what that brought us.

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