Tuesday, March 12, 2013

David O'Hara And John Kaag in CHE on drone warfare

I am kind of getting bored with mediocre op-eds in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the evils of drone war. Yesterday's particularly so. Kaag, who wrote an op-ed that I didn't quite grasp last time wrote another one, this time with someone who dabbles in classical studies (who should should know better than to give us a simplistic and incomplete version of ancient history to mislead and make a contemporary point). Again, it is behind a paywall so I will do some summarizing.

Pardon my tone, but I really do not see why the CHE finds this topic so interesting, and if it does, it could find better pieces.

 The argument is as follows:
1) Persians had and threatened to use projectile weapons.
2) The Spartans thought projectile weapons were cowardly.
3) Some Pope banned projectile weapons for some reason.
4) Some character in a Graham Greene felt guilty about the fact that he had to drop napalm only while out of range of small arms fire.
5) The authors then lament the fact that the US is is more like the cowardly Persians and not like the Spartans because drones let us fight with minimal risk to our combatants.
6) But Spartan self-abnegation is fanaticism.
7) Ultimately the Persians lost because their perceived cowardice was taken as weakness.
8) Therefore we must make sure that our enemies don't think we are weak.

The upshot, dear reader, is that drones are bad because our enemy will think that our ability to hit him without risk to ourselves is a sign of cowardice. And the Greeks won because they were able to see the Persians as cowards.

This is a poor argument. (2)-(4) is rhetorical fluff because (2) the Spartans' great intellectual legacy was . . . um. . . well. . . some phrase about how important it was to die in combat, so who cares what they thought, (3) while he was a competent novelist, who cares what Graham Greene Greene said about ethics; and (3) who cares what some medieval pope thought about weapons, I'd bet few readers of the CHE do.

(5) is the important part, as it suggests that drone warfare will be bad for the US. Together with (6) it jointly rules out war altogether, as they insist that we should not use drones and also not use more up-close-and-personal weapons. (In an ideal world we'd all agree with this, but we don't live in such a world.)

(7) is a matter of historical interpretation, which looks like it is supposed to justify (5), but is wrong in two ways. First, there is no reason to believe that the Persians lost because their perceived cowardice was taken as weakness. It is just as plausible to say that they lost because the Greek armies were fighting on their own territory and defending their homeland against an enemy who might have been somewhat militarily superior, but was not linguistically or ethnically homogeneous, were not fighting for a cause they believed in, nor do we think they even wanted to fight. The Persians were fighting for minor tribute from an additional colony; the Greeks were avoiding what they thought would be slavery. The Persians lost because they had little reason or incentive to keep fighting. The Greeks won because they had to.

(7) is also wrong because  although the Greeks won the Persian war, the Persians won the Peloponnesian war right after.  Meaning that when the Athenians and Spartans a generation later fought a civil war, at the end the Persians were the real power in the region, brokering the truce between the warring factions. So they lost the war but ended up being the hegemon anyway.

So the lesson we can learn is that even if your enemies think you are weak and "coerce" you into giving up the fight, that doesn't mean you've lost. It just means that you'll get what you want when the people who were fighting against you get finished killing each other. And as long as the authors are drawing parallels to the Middle East, I think there are some valuable lessons they miss.

And beside, despite the fact that people love to do it (see eg my reviews here and here) who thinks that one can draw a neat analogy from ancient Greece (either Sparta or Athens, depending on which fits your agenda better) or Perisa to the US? There is no compelling evidence that any analogy will hold up.

As long as we are on the subject of ancient history, I'd ask the authors to keep in mind the following line that has long been misattributed to Thucydides: "A nation that makes a strong distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools."

The US will send soldiers into combat when the president decides it will. Only a "scholar" whose sense of war comes from armchair philosophizing or reading Thucydides, that "father of lies," could talk with a straight face about how important it is to make sure your battles come with lots of risk to your soldiers. Only a scholar who has never had to wrestle with the decision to send men and women into harm's way and never had to make a life and death decision of this sort can be so caviler about human life. And only scholars with such contempt for their fellow citizens can wonder why their government is making it harder for some of them to die. 

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