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The Bureaucratization of War:

Moral challenges exemplified by the covert lethal drone

influence as the agents of global justice.


Speaking of bureaucratization, this paper identifies operations entrenched in the political establishment. These operations are purposeful, scheduled and highly organized; yet they are insufficiently attentive to moral ideas. Covert lethal drone operations exemplify such operations.

Covert lethal drones epitomize the evolution of State-sanctioned lethal force. Conspicuously, drone missions have changed the face of warfare. Less evidently, covert lethal drones threaten the democracy they are supposed to defend, and the ideals they are supposed to protect. Hidden from scrutiny by the mechanisms of official secrecy and dissimulated by bureaucratic routine, the drone menace is misjudged.

Concealed by technology's veneer and bureaucracy's methodical order, sub rosa drone strikes appear clinical. Together, ingenious instrument and bureaucratic mechanism cast an anodyne camouflage over deathly force. Programmed and scheduled: technology conforms to bureaucratic habit. The bureaucracy plans, forecasts, orders events and measures results. Killing becomes less intensely human and less patently moral.

The covert drone exemplifies the attenuation of moral reasoning when schemes become programmes, and programmes routine. The covert drone illuminates the moral lacuna that divides standard operating procedures from individual decision and discernment. The drone highlights the dehumanising attention, which is paid to detailed metrics such as cost or technological effectiveness. This is what happens when civilian contractors or non-commissioned and non-elected officials manage departments and the

process of killing on behalf of the State. Bureaucracies are often criticized for their complexity, their inefficiency, and their inflexibility. The present paper is most concerned with the bureaucracy's indifference and moral unconcern.

In The Trial, Kafka captures bureaucracy's insupportable moral unresponsiveness. Kafka reveals the hallmarks of bureaucracy at its worst: remote and unapproachable, cold-blooded and unstoppable. In a telling passage, Kafka criticizes the secrecy and concealment, which is "an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance".4 Unfolding the futility of human resistance, Kafka apprehends bureaucracy as an unsafe reason and a poor excuse. Dirty hands are not cleaned merely because evil conformed to bureaucratic convention.

Speaking at the National Defense University, President Obama acknowledged the lethal reach of drone technology. And, though President Obama claimed the drone program conformed to the highest standards, political practice does not dispel doubt. Observing the moral jobbery of contemporary public life, Thomas Pogge wrote:

Moral language is all around us - praising and condemning as good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust, virtuous or vicious. In all too many cases, however, such language is used only to advance personal or group interests.5

Pogge draws attention to play politics where moral language is a cover for wrongdoing, cunning and realist convenience. At the same time, he sheds light on the moral frailty of the covert lethal drone program. By its nature, such a program is bureaucratic. The program is deep-rooted within the established structures and procedures of government, judged by quantitative

metrics and invisible to public scrutiny. Nowhere does the covert drone program call upon personal rectitude, which Pogge points out is merely occasional in public life. Immersed in the establishment, the covert drone exemplifies lethal power without moral sensitivity.

The Covert Drone Program

Before Al Qaeda's attack on New York and Washington, the US denounced Israel's targeted killing of Palestinian terrorists. The United States' Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said; "The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations," which he described as "extrajudicial killing"6 This posture changed dramatically following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since this time, State-sponsored assassination, described euphemistically as targeted killing, had become an official United States policy.7

Implemented through the Predator and Reaper drone platforms, the strategy of covert targeted killing uses private contractors for various tasks, including flying the drones. This targeted bureaucratized program (identified in this paper as the covert lethal drone program) runs in parallel to drone missions flown by the United States military (identified in this paper as military drones).

But, though technically similar, the two programs are philosophically different. Military personnel fly military drones, in declared war zones against recognized military objectives. Military drones are a mechanism of conventional war, not materially different from any weapons system where lethal force is applied with precision from an extended range. As a stand-off weapons system, drones are necessary since, as Hans

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Issue 153

Morgenthau said, in some cases we deem it necessary to fight.8 But more particularly, military drones enable a certain mode of fighting. We seek precision weapons - like military drones - because we wish to fight with exactitude and thus reduce risk to non-combatants. We seek weapons of extended range - also like military drones - so as to safeguard the soldiers who defend our societies. Military drones then, are not remarkably different from any other weapons system operated by uniformed personnel in declared war zones. The bureaucratic program of remote controlled assassination is quite a separate thing. Operated covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency against suspected terrorists, and beyond the boundaries of declared war zones, the program was initiated by the Bush Administration and has since been expanded under President Obama.9 Hidden away in the corridors of political power, this program has become habit, a custom. As bureaucracy's rococo routine conceals the moral gravity of decisions; within the labyrinth, people become

insufficiently attentive to the decisions they make.

Drones, bureaucracy and moral responsibility

Drone operations are not, of and in themselves, unethical. But drone operations are ensnared in bureaucracy, and the bureaucratization of killing is problematic. Entwined in officialdom; the lethal power of the State is ungoverned by foundational moral ideas. And, with their moral acumen tranquilized by the bureaucracy's procedural regimen, individuals exercise the State's lethal force without compassion or compunction. Bureaucrats reduce blood-shedding to a routine. When these people pass verdicts of life and death, the potential for abuse and overreach is beyond calculation.

This section considers the decisions to kill, which are made by people immersed in the political bureaucracy and isolated from the point-blank moral intensity of battle. For them, exercising the State's lethal power has become unproblematic and devoid

of moral concern. Their victims are dehumanized by a "political label" as "terrorists";10 and executed by remote control. Yet, though mechanized and impersonal - killing by drone is still killing, and it must not be immoral or without moral concern.

In Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands, the philosopher Michael Walzer acknowledges utilitarian imperatives. Arguing that "it is easy to get one's hands dirty in politics and it is often right to do so,"11 Walzer describes the political dilemma of moral people confronted by utilitarian pressure. When deeply held moral convictions are confronted by circumstances, Walzer argues that good people will typically accept the utilitarian calculation and try to measure up. Faced with extremity, Walzer argues that in order to do the right thing, good people will commit a moral wrong. The innocent will not remain innocent should they choose to abide by absolute moral principles because, says Walzer, they will fail to measure up.12

Confronted by stakes of a significant magnitude, Walzer argues it is right to get one's hands dirty.13 But it is not

A General Atomics MQ-1B Predator drone equipped with Hell fire missiles (Public domain)

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute


The Bureaucratization of War:

Moral challenges exemplified by the covert lethal drone

right, Walzer reasons, to dirty one's hands with neither qualm nor moral second thought.14 His position is pragmatic and prudential. But Walzer is not callous; he is not unrealistically realist, blind to critical human rights and dignities. The argument Walzer makes enables us to see how people who act against deeply held moral convictions might feel distress, or even guilt, whilst not actually being guilty. Walzer illuminates the moral challenge faced by those who find themselves confronted by dilemma, and forced to "weigh the wrong (they) are willing to do in order to do right".15 Spelling out the problem of dirty hands, Walzer identifies a moral awareness and insight, which is not conspicuous amidst the pressures of politically realist bureaucracy.

Walzer argues that when the consequences of not acting are "beyond calculation, immeasurably awful... (amounting to) evil objectified in the world...a threat to human values so radical that its imminence would surely constitute a supreme emergency"16 then deep moral convictions must be overridden in the pursuit of a greater good. But Walzer does not suggest that no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty. Walzer does not believe that good effects inevitably justify reprehensible action.

Walzer acknowledges moral standards, which might be overridden in only indescribably grave circumstances. Walzer advocates the sacrifice of personal goodness, only when there is no other course of action. He allows the mindful, conscious and presumably regretted sacrifice of personal ideals, and argues against the careless wanton abandonment of moral standards.17 Richly textured and nuanced, Walzer's argument advances powerful claims against the sort of moral insensitivity which is typical of

large-scale bureaucracy. In his text, Criminal Case 40/61: The trial of Adolf Bchmann, Harry Mulisch offers an influential and profound illustration of the evil which follows from morally heedless bureaucratic compliance.

Enumerating the war crimes of Adoff Eichmann, Mulisch explains how "a dull group of godforsaken civil servants doing their godforsaken duty"18 turned the bureaucracy into a weapon. Describing an insensitive, process-driven administration, Mulisch coined the term "psycho­technology".19 The term speaks to a quintessentially bureaucratic engrossment with obedience, and to the culpable moral torpor that pervades bureaucratic habit. Eichmann did not get his hands dirty in the way Walzer conceives, because Eichmann was morally oblivious. Insufficiently attentive to moral ideas, Eichmann was tranquilized by bureaucracy's regimen. Like bureaucrats everywhere, Eichmann exercised the State's lethal force without compassion or concern, and with a clear conscience.

In her compelling investigation;

Bchmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes how Eichmann, seduced by the Third Reich, was "not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III 'to prove a villain."'20 Submissive to the bureaucracy, Eichmann's evil was monstrous. But more significantly it was, in Arendts famous term, banal. Eichmann was predictable and conventional: his compliance was ordinary and commonplace. "He merely, to put the matter colloquially, merely never realized what he was doing".21 When on trial, Eichmann was described unsurprisingly by his defence as "only a 'tiny cog' in the machinery of the Final Solution' (and) in its judgement the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy".22

Acknowledging the suffusive authority of bureaucracy, the court understood what Foucault called the "subtle, calculated technology of subjugation...the separation, coordination and supervision of tasks

An MQ-9 Reaper Satcom system on display (MilTechSystems)

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Issue 153

(which) constitutes an operational schema of power."23 This was "panopticism," designed "to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates..."24 which Maclntyre understood to depend for its success upon disguise and concealment.25 Applied through an insidious ensemble of technical interventions, bureaucratic influence commodifies people and dissolves moral autonomy. In bureaucracy, people are valued when their character is inclined toward rule-following.

But Arendt recognizes that bureaucracy does not excuse individuals from moral responsibility. Arendt presumes ideas of virtue ought inform interpretation of laws and regulations. Her analysis reveals how moral thinking is much more than the licit compliance, which is valued in bureaucratic systems. Eichmann's merciless obedience makes clear the limitations of "the simple principles of the deontologist," which R. M. Hare acknowledged to be a "prime concern of churches and other 'moral authorities"'.26

Depicting Eichmann's moral failure, Arendt underlines Walzer's reasoning that political action should be informed by scruple and moral discernment.27 Her account of Eichmann's moral inanity is shocking. The implication for the contemporary program of C.I.A. murder is appalling. The CIA. has secured the background conditions, which make systematized murder by the State seem unremarkable and banal.

In an authoritative investigative text, The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti explores the C.I.A. covert drone program. Recalling Eichmann's grotesque delinquency, Mazzetti describes political murder committed without discernment or remorse. Citing Richard Blee, formerly head

of the C.I A. unit tasked with finding Osama bin Laden, Mazzetti describes how selective covert strikes came to be morally vacuous matters of routine. As bureaucratic habit overwhelmed ethical sensitivity, lethal force came to be abused and permission to launch lethal strikes in Pakistan was given, even when American spies were not certain whom they were killing.28 Reliant on notoriously inexact intelligence,29 these so-called "signature strikes" often resulted in high proportions of non-combatant causalities. Mazzetti quotes Blee: "In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger, now we're lighting these people up all over the place."30

Mazzetti reveals how, greased by bureaucratic routine, "the pistons of the killing machine operate entirely without friction".31 Immersed in the political bureaucracy, people exercise the State's lethal power without qualm, and without a mind to democratic ideals. And critically, as Mazzetti acknowledges, the frictionless bureaucratic mechanism dissolves the fabric of public democracy.32

Drones, bureaucracy and public democracy

In The New Yorker, Jane Mayer cites Mary Dudziak, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, who argues "drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on...endless war!'33 Michael Walzer is similarly disturbed that a civilian intelligence agency wields the State's lethal power in secret."34 Walzer's concern is that people are killed in the name of the United States - and in the name of nations allied to the United States - without any public justification.

Philip Alston, United Nations

Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, tacks a parallel tack. In a study on targeted killings, submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on 28 May 2010, he criticized "the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum".35 Alston explained how the legitimate struggle against terrorism has been compromised by a proliferation of wicked acts, routinely explained away by the bureaucratic gloss of legal language, and he protested the failure of governments to:

Specify the legal justification for policies, to disclose the safeguards in place to ensure that targeted killings are in fact legal and accurate, or to provide accountability mechanisms for violations.36

The bureaucratization of drone warfare involves a hefty price, particularly in the corrosion of public democracy. People are isolated by the bureaucracy, from war and from the horrors done in the their name. Equally, government agencies are protected by bureaucratic obfuscation and escape the reckoning of public accountability. As William Felice observes, within bureaucracy it is:

Often difficult to attribute moral responsibility to anyone...(and where) there is a tendency to deny the responsibility of an individual person, instead attributing blame abstractly to 'the system,' the government, or, 'the State'.37

Political bureaucracy, as Felice depicts it, is a large-scale feature of the contemporary world. Such bureaucracy structures human interaction, and presumes a moral theory in the modes of action and interaction, which it enjoins. Of foundational concern, is the presumption that citizens are rightly disarticulated from political decision;

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute


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