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Op-Ed

Drones won't solve this problem

Technology has improved since Vietnam and Cambodia. But we still can't bomb our way to victory.

June 17, 2012|By Terry McDermott
  • American technology -- B-52s in the past, drones now -- makes it far too easy to unleash holy hell on our enemies.
American technology -- B-52s in the past, drones now -- makes it far too easy… (Los Angeles Times )

I turned 20 years old sitting at a light table in a bright white building at a sprawling U.S. Air Forcebase in Saigon, South Vietnam. I was assigned to a reconnaissance unit, where my job was to select bombing targets in Cambodia. Then, as now, Cambodia did not have much in the way of traditional targets, and as an inexperienced targeteer, even when sober, I really had little idea what I was doing. That didn't slow things down much.

Given the means to attack — B-52s flying miles high above the landscape — and the desire, there was nothing that would stop the air assault. The fact that this was happening in secret, half a world away from Washington and with little or no risk to American lives, made it that much easier to execute. A high-altitude air assault on rural areas with few conventional targets is a very crude form of warfare. There was often extreme collateral damage. The operation was designed to be, according to the order from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves."

Day after day our bombers, flying so high they were all but invisible, rained death on the unsuspecting landscape below.

In the decades since, our aim has improved, but some of the fundamental problems with fighting technological war at a safe and comfortable remove have not. Simply put: American technology — B-52s then, drones now — makes it far too easy to unleash holy hell on our enemies.

We live in an age when American might can overwhelm the defenses of entire countries with barely a drop of American blood spent. It is, in a way, too easy. Because there is so little risk, there is no political cost to be paid for the drone wars. Presidents Bush and Obama could deploy drones by the dozens with the certain knowledge it would do nothing but enhance their political causes.

In Cambodia, a huge percentage of the ordnance was later determined to have been directed at unauthorized targets. For every supply convoy that was hit, a village was likely to have paid a heavy price. We obviously have gotten much better at identifying and killing specific targets. Last week, more than a dozen drone strikes killed a reported 27 Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, which has risen to Pakistan's equal as a favored target. The CIA has asked for and been given permission to further expand its Yemeni targets to include what are called "signature" attacks against not individual targets but patterns of activity. That is creeping eerily close to the types of targets we tried to hit in Cambodia.

Even being able to actually see the targets now, we still sometimes hit the wrong ones with the drones — a wedding here, a Bedouin camp there. Expanding the target list to "patterns" seems like a horrible idea. And not just because we might misidentify. With the expansion of the drone war, Obama enhances his warrior bona fides and possibly his reelection chances, but he also makes the problem of radical Islam more intractable than ever. We've been trying to attack Al Qaeda with missiles, bombs and drones for 25 years now. Shouldn't we at some time stop and ask ourselves: What's the point? As good as we've become at killing people, the larger problem persists.

Al Qaeda is finite, and we have doubtlessly degraded its abilities and decimated its ranks. It's possible, I suppose, we might eventually be able to eliminate it completely. But even if this happy event comes to pass, it misses a central point. Al Qaeda did not invent radical Islam; it simply took advantage of its existence.

That larger problem is that we cannot kill our way to victory in the war on terror. I'm not even sure we have a place in the fight.

Radical Islam is a cult within the larger body of the religion. It is not going to be defeated with bombs or bullets. It must be attacked and rooted out from within Islam, at the village and mosque level. Our main role in this fight is to embolden the Muslim majority to rally against the radicals. Right now, we're harming that goal more than helping.

Terry McDermott is the author, with Josh Meyer, of "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."

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