The powers of God in the weapons of men.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 22 2010 8:19 AM

Someone To Watch Over Me

The powers of God in the weapons of men.

There are no atheists in a foxhole, the saying goes. Under fire, every soldier needs someone to talk to, someone to count on, a powerful protector who watches from above.

That protector exists. He watches you from the heavens. He is there but not there. He hears your prayers and answers them. He sees your enemies and keeps you safe from them. If necessary, he rains fire and death on them.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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He is a drone pilot.

In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, David Zucchino tells the stories of some of these pilots. They live and work in the United States. Through the eyes and arms of their drones, they patrol the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. They hear soldiers in need and come to their aid.

In Pakistan, drones have become fearsome hunters, tracking down and killing commanders of al-Qaida and the Taliban. But they can also be guardians. "More than 95% of their missions involve gathering intelligence or watching over troops," Zucchino reports. He describes a mission undertaken by Sam Nelson, an Air Force captain who flies a heavily armed Reaper drone over Afghanistan:

[H]e received an urgent radio call from a ground controller whose unit was under fire. "You could tell he was running, and you could hear shots being fired at the enemy," Nelson said. He tracked the insurgents and targeted them for two F-16 fighter planes that attacked and killed them, he said. "Just hearing the voice of the [controller] running, excited, tension in his voice, just asking for any air support, anywhere, hearing the gunfire, it felt good to be able to help him out," Nelson said.

The man on the ground was hardly the first soldier to plead for air support under fire. But he could count on something unknown in previous wars: a steady set of eyes hovering overhead, surveying the scene and methodically marking his enemies for death.

Zucchino tells another story:

Col. Dale Fridley, a 50-year-old former F-15 pilot, said one of his most rewarding moments as a drone pilot came without firing a shot. After a U.S. military vehicle broke down in the desert in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, the rest of the convoy returned to base. The stranded soldiers were able to sleep while Fridley's drone stood watch overhead, awaiting a repair crew's arrival in the morning. "And that," Fridley said, "was something that was never, ever possible before."

Imagine that. You sit at your computer, watching over your sleeping colleagues in a desert half a world away. Then you come home, tuck in your children, and listen to their bedtime prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
thy angels watch me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning's light.

Are you the unseen guardian who answers such prayers? Are you an angel?

No. You are a human being, sworn to the service of a country whose founders knew the difference between men and angels. Back in the days of muskets and bayonets, James Madison warned us:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

In the age of drones, Madison's warning is that much more vital. By insulating pilots from danger, drones help us hunt and kill the enemy. But they also give us more time to distinguish the innocent. From a drone, unlike a plane, you can hover for hours and zoom in for a closer inspection using just your cameras. "You can look at guys walking down a road and tell whether any of them are armed," one pilot tells Zucchino.

Along with the godlike power to destroy, drones have given us godlike powers to protect the vulnerable and spare the innocent. We must use these powers as a just and merciful deity would use them: patiently and judiciously, with respect for the life below. And because we are only men, not gods, we need what Madison recommended: a system of checks and balances to control our worst impulses.

To the best of their ability, reporters, human rights authorities, and international agencies must verify whom the drones have killed at the scene of each strike. Data must be kept and published to assess the performance of the machines and their overseers. Unmanned warfare, like other innovations in weaponry, must be judged and regulated by treaty so that it makes war more, not less, humane.

Drone pilots and the generals who command them can be our guardians in the sky. They just need someone to watch over them and make sure they do the right thing.

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