Up close and personal -- that describes targeting individuals in wartime, even when impersonal unmanned drone aircraft are employed. The lethal, remotely guided aircraft have become popular with the United States military and intelligence agencies.
The dramatic killing on Jan. 3 by a U.S. drone of General Qassem Soleimani, a highly influential senior Iran military officer, has punctuated an already escalating confrontation with Iran. Soleimani, a member of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards, was the commander of the Quds Islamic militia.
The targeted killing took place in Iraq, not Iran, near Baghdad airport. Nine other passengers in a two-car convoy leaving the airport were also killed. On Jan. 5, the parliament of Iraq voted to expel U.S. forces from their country, a revealing if largely symbolic gesture.
The U.S. government has declared that Soleimani represented an imminent serious military threat. He was involved in directing attacks on U.S. personnel.
On Dec. 27, an American contractor was killed during a militia attack against the K-1 Air Base in Iraq. In reply, the U.S. launched air strikes across Iraq and Syria.
The government of Iran has vowed “revenge” against the U.S. for killing Soleimani. President Donald Trump in turn threatens further attacks on Iran. Periodically, U.S. drone attacks have generated controversy. In April 2015, President Barack Obama announced – and took responsibility for – a U.S. drone strike that killed two innocent hostages. In 2011, the killing in Yemen of al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, his young son Abdulrahman and associate Samir Khan by U.S. drones sparked controversy. They were American citizens.
Targeting individuals in war is defensible. Early in World War II, a special U.S. intelligence force was given the mission of locating and killing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, brilliant architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. In early 1943, he was confirmed flying near New Guinea, and a special squadron of fighter planes was dispatched and his aircraft shot down.
During the initial part of that war, the British began a sophisticated intelligence program to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Later, the effort was abandoned, not for reasons of morality but because Hitler’s mental deterioration led planners to conclude he was more useful to the Allied efforts alive than dead.
The Vietnam War included the Phoenix program, focused on neutralizing individuals on the other side through various means, including – but by no means limited to -- killing. Publicity about this program fueled anti-war sentiment.
After that war, careful realistic analysis confirmed CIA estimates that thousands of Viet Cong revolutionaries had been neutralized. Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh of the National Liberation Front testified the program was extremely effective and “very dangerous.”
Americans prefer technological means, yet drones reinforce radical Islamic arguments that invaders from the West are truly alien. When possible, terrorists should be captured rather than killed. Capture of terrorists both eases moral ambiguities and provides important opportunity for interrogation. Additionally, drones cannot duplicate the flexible, subtle information gathering skills of talented human operatives.
The U.S. government has dramatically expanded use of drones for killing as well as information gathering. The Obama and Trump administrations have both greatly increased their use. There has been no serious, sustained public debate regarding drones.
Americans also deserve a clear presentation of a disciplined strategy.
So far, there has been none.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.