“Hieronymo’s mad againe.”

The cover of the August issue of The Atlantic Monthly, titled “Drone Warrior,” features a picture of President Obama and the question, “Has It Become Too Easy for a President to Kill?”  I should have thought “Stop me before I kill again” or, perhaps, “I’ll be back” would have been more to the point.  The U.S. military apparatus has come to rely on unmanned aircraft—the top brass do not like the sound of the word drones—as a primary weapon in what they used to call the “War on Terror,” until their Commander in Chief expressed distaste for the term.

In August, in the midst of a much-ballyhooed security alert that reminded Americans why they should not object to any of the government’s surveillance measures no matter how unconstitutional or invasive they might be, drone strikes in Yemen were said to have killed a number of Al Qaeda “terrorists,” none of whom were on the government’s most-wanted list.  If the “terrorists” had been working to overthrow a regime we had targeted for removal by Operation Arab Spring, they would be called rebels or freedom fighters.

Perhaps everything in Yemen was just as our President said it was, but Americans with any sense have learned not to trust their presidents to tell the truth about much of anything.  As a boy, I was astonished by Eisenhower’s lies about Francis Gary Powers, and even the most gullible among us should have been wised up by Jimmy Carter’s immortal proclamation, “I will never lie to you”—the biggest whopper ever told by a dishonest politician.

Drones are obviously a wonderful tool of death: They kill on the cheap at long range without exposing the killers to the slightest risk.  There is the minor problem of “collateral damage”—a pleasant-sounding term that refers to children, women, and old people who are killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—but that is a small price to pay for security.  The CIA, whose record of truth-telling is beyond dispute, claims that in the past few years no civilians are known to have been killed in strikes against Pakistani “militants.”  Left-wing peaceniks dispute the claim and estimate that hundreds of civilians have been killed, some of them in after-strikes that targeted people attempting to rescue victims of an initial strike.  Leftists are liars by their very nature, but they are amateurs compared with people for whom lying is a way of life.

If the answer is “intelligence,” then the question must be, What do you call a profession dedicated to deception and lying?

Most of the argument over drones is of the “he said, she said” variety.  “They lower the incidence of terrorist attacks,” says the CIA and the government-subsidized experts of the Rand Corporation.  (Rand proudly claims that government agencies provide the majority of the corporation’s funding.)

“No, drones do not make us safer,” cry the leftists, noting that terrorists in the United States often claim that they are responding to news reports of drone strikes.

“The U.S. is illegally violating the sovereignty of Pakistan,” insists a U.N. team.

“No,” argues the State Department and its spokesmen in the official media, “the Pakistani government really wants the drones but cannot afford to make their permission public.”

We may never know the truth about either set of allegations, and perhaps we do not need to know.  If there are no ethical objections to exterminating a group of people designated as enemies, whether real or potential, as we would a nest of fire ants, then perhaps we cannot care too much if we accidentally take out the next generation of terrorists (otherwise known as children) and the females who bear them (otherwise known as wives and mothers).  If, on the other hand, there are sound ethical reasons to object to the wholesale assassination of largely unknown rebels, militants, freedom fighters (as well as friends and relations) in foreign countries, then it is pointless to speculate on the effectiveness or legality of something that is inherently wrong.

Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan had explicitly forbidden the U.S. government and its agents to engage in assassination.  Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 could not be clearer: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”  That proscription was only ideal, and it has been a dead letter since before 2000.  What matters most is not, perhaps, the ugly fact that our democratically elected government orders the murder of people our leaders dislike, but that we no longer even pretend that we do not engage in assassination.  Taking out the enemy without risk to ourselves is now the preferred method of doing business, and hardly a peep was heard about the killing of Osama bin Laden.  If we enjoyed the rule of law, there should at least have been some sort of kangaroo court in which the man was tried, convicted, and sentenced in absentia.  What Mr. Obama ordered was, instead, an act of terrorism of exactly the sort Bin Laden practiced.  Yes, I know, he was by definition evil, and we are by definition good.

Drones represent the furthest point so far reached in a long-standing development of military technology that is forever seeking to kill the enemy at the greatest distance with the least risk to the killers.  Primitive monkey-men had to be content with sticks and stones at a distance so short that the risk of death and injury was the same for both sides.  By the Bronze Age, archery and javelins were employed, but most battles were won and lost on the field by infantrymen.  The initial exchange of spears in an Homeric battle could be deadly, but even in that case, both sides were within “the killing zone,” to use a phrase popularized by John Keegan in his fine book The Face of Battle.  Archery was used, but in Homeric epic the archer seems not quite a respectable type.  Some arrows were tipped with poison—an ungentlemanly technique, it seems—and Odysseus’ prowess with the bow may be an additional sign of his social inferiority to the ruling dynasties of the Mycenaean mainland.

Later Greeks and Romans—the Greek hoplites, the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman legion—fought wars on, so to speak, the line of scrimmage.  When slingers or archers were employed, they tended to be foreign auxiliaries.  There was something that was perceived to be not quite gentlemanly or even manly about these long-distance killing machines: French knights, to their cost, despised the English yeomen with their longbows.  But with the invention of firearms and artillery, gunpowder proved to be the great equalizer.  Only a Japanese ruler (Ieyasu Tokugawa) had the will to preserve Japan’s aristocratic way of life by giving up the very firepower that had brought him to power.  Guns level the playing field not only for battlefields but also for fields of honor.  In dueling, pistols easily replaced the sword, which required many years of practice and physical strength.

Still, pistol-wielding duelists, riflemen, and artillerymen were exposed to the same risks as their counterparts on the other side.  Even the crews of bombing planes, as they were raining death on the civilian populations of England, France, Germany, and Japan, were sitting ducks for the enemy’s fighters and antiaircraft guns.  My father-in-law, who distinguished himself as a fighter pilot both in World War II and in the Korean Police Action, used to say that he admired the courage of the bombing crews it was his job to protect.  The killing zone had been expanded, it is true, but the killers were still within the zone.

The Germans forever changed the rules of engagement when Wernher von Braun and his colleagues produced long-range missiles that killed and destroyed with nondiscriminating savagery.  The opportunities for risk-free mass slaughter were now endless, and much of the Cold War consisted of unfought battles between Russian and American missile systems.  American aspirations rose to undreamed-of heights in the Reagan administration’s dream—or rather nightmare—of a Strategic Defense Initiative.  If their Star Wars missile-defense system could have been made fully operational, the United States could have made war on anyone anywhere for any reason without facing the consequences of nuclear retaliation.

Ironically, SDI could not work against Third World Muslims with rudimentary pilot training or neurotic Chechens with primitive bomb-making skills.  It is scarcely ironic that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who murdered noncombatant strangers in Boston, referred to his victims as “collateral damage.”  He had learned such dirty language from newspaper accounts of U.S. attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and from the Israeli press that routinely reports Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians in these terms.  If I were to have the chance to speak to our masters of war, whether in Washington or Tel Aviv, I would tell them that their acts of war in which civilian deaths are anticipated and even planned are acts of state terrorism.

Drone pilots have been complaining to the media that they are not receiving the praise and rewards of men who actually get into planes and risk their lives.  The poor misunderstood dears.  They cannot understand why whatever normal people still exist cannot regard the men and women who fire rockets and “pilot” drones as warriors who risk death in combat.  They are cowardly assassins.  In killing at a distance, they do not even witness the effects of their actions.  They are as morally numb as the pilot of the Enola Gay, who went on a tour, sponsored by Soldier of Fortune, to boast of the women and children he scorched at Hiroshima.  The man was not a monster.  His lack of compassion for the people he killed and maimed is typical of bomber crews, who do not actually see the people they are killing.  For those who kill without joy or anger people they do not see, it is difficult to experience repentance, much less compassion.  Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger who studied this phenomenon, concluded,

Seventy thousand died at Hamburg.  Eighty thousand or so died in 1945 during a similar firebombing in Dresden.  Two hundred and twenty-five thousand died in firestorms over Tokyo as a result of only two firebomb raids.  When the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, seventy thousand died.  Throughout World War II bomber crews on both sides killed millions of women, children, and elderly people, no different from their own wives, children, and parents.  The pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners in these aircraft were able to bring themselves to kill these civilians primarily through application of the mental leverage provided to them by the distance factor. . . . From a distance, I can deny your humanity; and from a distance, I cannot hear your screams.

Men who plunge a sword into an enemy’s belly or blow his face off with a grenade know what they are doing and often suffer remorse and horror in later years, but this is simply not the case with long-distance killing.

Everything in American life—mass education, mass media, our lack of attachment to place or friends—encourages a bland indifference to other people.  Once a group has been labeled as enemies of our way of life—Japs or Krauts, Muslims or Orthodox Christians, Mexican immigrants or white Southerners—we may consign them to hell without too much thought.  If they fight back with the only weapons they have, it only shows how evil they really are.  It is terrorism when they explode a homemade bomb in a crowded place, but not when we send rockets or drones to blow up a house filled with children.

As Americans, of course, we are used to a double standard.  When, for example, the United States decided to assist Islamic militants in killing Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Bosnia, we cited over and over an explosion in a Sarajevo marketplace that killed a number of civilians.  Despite evidence to the contrary, we claimed it was Serb gunners who lobbed a shell into the market.  On the face of it, this would not seem to be a crime.  If we look at the devastation wrought by Union guns on the most beautiful and civilized city in the United States (Charleston) or the terror-bombings unleashed by British and American bombers against Germany and Japan, one shell in a market seems rather a paltry incident.

The savage hypocrisy of our official propaganda, however, never content to tell just one lie, then proceeded to justify our bombing of Belgrade and Novi Sad in order to support the Albanian Islamic terrorists in their campaign to eliminate not only Christians but all vestiges of Christianity from the Kosovo region of Serbia.

I well remember seeing a television interview with a frail young woman who was a fire-control operator on a U.S. naval vessel, where they pushed buttons to destroy houses they had never seen and kill people they had never met.  Some of the American rockets blew up bridges in Novi Sad during the morning rush hour.  When asked if she thought about what happened at the other end, the sweet young thing replied that it was her job to send the rockets to their targets and not to think about what happened when they hit.  Since NATO missiles targeted petroleum and chemical facilities, the effect was the same as if we had used chemical weapons.  Please recall that the people going to work that morning were not enemies of the United States.  They lived nowhere near Kosovo and by and large did not support the government of Slobodan Milosevic.  We killed them anyway.  Why?

When the United States is accused of war crimes or torture, the usual answer is a straightforward denial.  As Don Rumsfeld would say, We’re Americans.  We don’t do these things.  History, not a subject studied by most politicians, tells a different story.  Rumsfeld’s dodge, however, is one instance of what liberals and neoconservatives call American exceptionalism, the notion that we have not only escaped from the tragic rhythms of empires that rise and fall but even sloughed off the old Adam of sin.  History has no lessons for people such as us.  Non-Americans of the future, however, will not let us off so lightly.  What is sauce for the Roman or Russian goose must be sauce for the American gander.  If, for example, the Obama administration wishes to castigate Mr. Putin for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, then we shall have to send back to Russia all the terrorists and criminals we have been protecting as part of our New Cold War propaganda campaign.

If there are no moral rules that govern combat and killing, then we have no right to complain about terrorism, oppression, and dictatorship.  As so many people say today, “It is what it is.”  (This phrase could not gain currency in a society of free men.)  If we wish to preserve our right to complain, then we shall have to find some common agreement on the general rules of warfare, including long-distance killing of every type, particularly land mines, artillery, bombing planes, rockets, and drones.  Many of these rules would resemble other rules so frequently ignored by great powers.  One set of rules would establish prerequisites for deciding to kill a presumed enemy: Have they made war or committed aggression against the United States or her allies to whom the United States is bound by treaty?  Is there a concrete military objective as opposed to a desire to punish the people for their leaders’ supposed crimes?  During the Bosnian civil war, the Serbs’ objective was to gain as much territory as they could before peace talks.  The motives for the siege of Sarajevo were no different from those that impelled the Prussians to besiege Paris in 1870.  What will be our justification for bombing Syrians?

Another set of rules would prescribe and proscribe the methods to be employed.  Despite all our boasting about smart bombs and the precision of drones, our government has been remarkably insouciant about killing noncombatants.  The civilian death toll (from various causes) for the second Iraq war is over 100,000, and the civilian deaths caused by the first war and the embargo are many times higher.  One does not have to be an advocate of just-war theory to regard hundreds of thousands of dead noncombatants as a moral problem, especially when our wars have done absolutely no good.

Finally, we should begin to be honest about what we are doing.  In relying on rockets and drones, the U.S. military and its civilian commanders have been following the logic of total war to its ultimate conclusion.  There is nothing to be gained by telling pretty lies about precision bombing.  In turning over our mass killing to robots and computers, we are losing our own humanity.

In the 1984 film The Terminator, Skynet, “a computer defense system built for SAC-NORAD by Cyber Dynamics,” has decided to eliminate the human race.  Skynet’s soldiers are robotic Hunter-Killers, H-K’s that patrol on land and in the air, seeking out humans to kill at the behest of their merciless computer-masters.  The only advantage the human remnant have is their intelligence, because, although “the H-K’s use infra-red . . . they’re not too bright.”  In the James Cameron movie, Skynet and the H-K’s are the enemy of the human race that lives on a planet turned into a wasteland, but in our world, SDI and drones are the defenders of democracy and human rights.  In science fiction, the Terminator is a robotic killer without human feeling, but in the real world he is a hero who, after assassinating the enemy, radios to the Drone-Master-in-Chief, who is absorbed in playing a game of spades with his bodyguard, the patriotic message, “For God and country.  Geronimo.”