If a reporter learns anything from covering conflict it is that distant assumptions are routinely wrong.
Fresh assessments in the United States say drone missiles are a good idea. That is not how it looks at the receiving end.
Soon after 9/11, I found a father in Kabul staring in despair at a crater where, moments earlier, his daughter had been playing. An American drone had swooped in and missed its target, the nearby airport.
He saw what had happened, a tragic mistake, and he could work out his response to fate. I think of him when drones take such unintended victims a decade and some later. Rather than resigned closure, there is lasting hatred.
Vietnam made it clear that ideological wars are not won from the air. With their body counts, generals in Washington assured they were winning by attrition. In fact, they stiffened resolve among civilians along with combatants.
At ground level, the rolling crump of those B-52 arc-light assaults sounded like hands-down Armageddon. In hindsight, the effect was like boots stomping on anthills. Eventually, infuriated ants swarmed up the boot-wearers’ legs.
Vietnamese moved on quickly after the war, mostly, not forgetting but at least forgiving. That seems far less likely with drone strikes in South Asia and the Middle East.
Drones are different than bombing raids, the argument goes, scalpel thrusts aimed at specific malignancies with less “collateral damage.” Even if that were true, or even possible, the problem goes far deeper.
Holy warriors tend to take mortal combat personally. You fight face to face, or at least within weaponry range. Unmanned attacks directed from an ocean away are seen as cowardly, leaving adversaries no fighting chance.
U.S. strategists may dismiss this as medieval nonsense. But people think what they think. Long-range summary execution eliminates leaders. And new ones are fired with hatred at what they see as callous godless injustice.
When innocents are killed, word spreads fast, not only within local communities but also across the world.
The former U.S. congressman Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat used to taking unpopular stands, argues that drone strikes flout the basis of international law, eroding America’s moral authority. I hear this point made everywhere I go. In June, a Pew Research Center poll came up with numbers.
One survey reported that 74 percent of Pakistanis see the United States as an enemy, and drones are a major reason. A separate poll focused on attitudes toward unmanned missiles among America’s allies.
While Americans approved of drone strikes, 62 percent to 28 percent, the French tally was nearly the opposite: 37 percent approved of the strikes and 63 disapproved. Turkey, NATO’s eastern-flank member, is Muslim; the numbers, 9 to 81, were not surprising. But Greece, with which Turkey is often at odds, polled 5 percent to 90 percent against drones.
And those numbers, convincing as they are, would likely be far worse if respondents could see the aftermath of a ghostly missile, plotted from a comfortable room in Nevada, that turns a family compound into blazing debris. Tactics are one thing; strategy is another.