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General Stanley McChrystal Discusses the Downsides of Drones

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, General Stanley McChrystal, the retired commander of forces in Afghanistan, stated his general view that the use of drones will and should increase. However, General McChrystal also had a lot to say about the downsides of drones. We have transcribed that part of the interview below. A full recording of the entire interview is also after the jump.

BBC: I remember talking to you before you left for Afghanistan in 2009 and you were very keen to reduce the numbers of civilian casualties. When you look at America’s reliance on drones, not just in Afghanistan actually, but in other parts of the world as well, criticized by some and supported by others who say that actually it is quite a precise weapon and it doesn’t kill as many civilians as would be killed in other operations. What’s your view of the future of drone strikes?

McChrystal: I think that the use of drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, will continue to increase and I think it should. I think they’re very, very effective tools. That said, they are clearly a two-edged sword. And what we need to understand is there’s a danger that something feels easy to do and without the risk to yourself, almost antiseptic to the person shooting, doesn’t feel that way at the point of impact. And so if it lowers the threshold for taking operations because it feels easy, there’s danger in that.

And then the other part is there’s a perception of arrogance. There is a perception of helpless people in an area being shot at like thunderbolts from the sky by an entity that is acting as though they have omniscience and omnipotence, and you can create a tremendous amount of resentment inside populations, even not the people who are themselves being targeted, but around, because of the way it appears and feels.

So I think that we need to be very, very cautious. What seems like a panacea to the messiness of war is not that at all.

BBC: It’s interesting that you say that. As a soldier, you might expect someone more concerned with the political side of things to say, look this is the potential downside of drones, but you can see — and you did see, did you — the damage that they could do.

McChrystal: They can do damage in terms of physical, but as I was talking in terms of the minds of people. And wars are ultimately determined in the minds of populations and so you have to understand that you are — “A war is an extension of politics by other means,” as Clausewitz said. And you have to remember, politics is in people. And so whenever we try to reduce war to bullets or bombs or something like that, we forget that it’s between and about people.

Here is the audio of the section of the interview on drones:

And here is the full interview:

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.