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How Drones Fundamentally Alter The Nature Of Conflict


Drones were not a key part of the military arsenal when Mark Bowden wrote "Black Hawk Down." That was the infamous battle in Mogadishu 20 years ago, fought on the ground that left 18 elite American soldiers and hundreds of innocent Somalians dead.


Today, unmanned aerial weapons hover over virtually every battlefield in the war on terror. And in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine, Bowden reflects on how the drone fundamentally alters the nature of conflict.

MONTAGNE: When we spoke, he began with the story of a young drone pilot.

MARK BOWDEN: It was a 19-year-old on his first mission, piloting a predator over Afghanistan, who was actually called upon to deliver a lethal blow - a hellfire missile - from that predator against a target that was advancing on a patrol of U.S. Marines.

MONTAGNE: This pilot, you discovered, actually was quite conflicted - at least initially - about what he did.

BOWDEN: Yeah. And that's what was so fascinating to me. His emotional response was one of feeling guilty - not because he had killed enemy soldiers who were attacking Marines, but because he himself was not in any risk, that the soldiers on the ground, the Marines, the advancing Taliban fighters, these are men who are risking their lives in the field of battle. He's in a safe place, continents away, working a regular shift in an air conditioned office building, and here he is delivering the decisive blow in this combat.

MONTAGNE: Well, how does this translate, then, across the miles to those who are targets and, sadly, those who are not targeted, but are just collateral, how are they viewed differently by those people?

BOWDEN: Well, I think if they guy pulling the trigger in a position of safety feels the unfairness of the act, imagine that multiplied thousands times over by those who are on the receiving end of the missile. This, I think, introduces a whole new depth of outrage to those who are victims, rightly or wrongly, of these attacks.

And I think it helps to explain what I call the anti-drone narrative, which is while they're killing innocent civilians with these strikes around the world at will, so we're entitled then to strike back in any way that we can. And it gives a rationalization for the use of force against civilians, which is, of course, what we see in these terrorist attacks.

MONTAGNE: There are a lot of critics out there of the drone program, but among the changes that are pushed for is to make it not a war program, but a law enforcement action. What would be the difference?

BOWDEN: Well, under the laws of war, if the United States is at war, it has a very strong legitimate argument that it can target certain individuals with a lethal strike. That's always been the case in warfare. As soon as you move to a law enforcement model, you can't just strike and kill people because you've decided that they're a potential threat to American citizens.

MONTAGNE: Which, by the way, many people would think would be a good thing.

BOWDEN: Yes. I mean, and under the law enforcement model, which is very clearly spelled out in UN agreements that the United States has signed, you have to give the target an opportunity to surrender. That pretty much means that you have to send in ground forces. We did when we raided in Abbottabad, when we sent in the SEALs with instructions to arrest bin Laden if possible, kill him if necessary.

We did it when we sent Delta Force in to Mogadishu in 1993. If there is resistance when you introduce ground forces, you introduce the potential for catastrophically large numbers of casualties, both American military personnel and civilians.

MONTAGNE: Although, on moral grounds, though, it's a very attractive step to take.

BOWDEN: Morally and legally, that makes a great deal of sense. But I do think you are obliged to at least consider what the practical outcome of taking that step would be. In the case of Mogadishu, 500 to 1,000 Somalis were killed. That's a number roughly equal to all of the civilians killed in drone strikes over the last 10 years. I think it's a difficult question, but I do think that people ought to understand that when you step from a war model to a law enforcement model, that implies the likelihood of far greater numbers of casualties on both sides.

MONTAGNE: Mark Bowden writes about drones in this week's edition of The Atlantic magazine. He's author of "Black Hawk Down" and writer in residence at the University of Delaware. Thanks very much for joining us.

BOWDEN: Thank you, Rene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.