Targeted Killings and Drones: The Link Between Warfare Form and Ethos

Posted: 06/10/2013

The confirmation hearings of President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, Mr. John O. Brennan, quickly focused in on the matter of targeted killings of American citizens via drone strikes.

In the background protesters yelled about children being killed by these strikes. Mr. Brennan, while rejecting waterboarding as a reprehensible interrogation technique nonetheless strongly defended the Administration’s policy of drone strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, even if they are American citizens.

Interestingly, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, California) also defended the strikes, at least indirectly. Legally, the US government is generally barred from making war on its own citizens, but no such obstacles exist regarding using "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Related: Top Ten Companies Making the Most of Drone Technology

So here we have Brennan decrying that which is legal and both Brennan and Feinstein supporting that which is, in theory, illegal.

How does one understand the rather inverted pattern of ethical decision making that is manifested by not only this hearing, but the chain of events that led to it?

The key lies deep, in the very structure of war. This article will attempt to establish a framework for understanding the structure of war and the linkage between how a nation or group conceives of victory, the methods they use to achieve it and the organizational ethos that is both a cause and effect of the first two factors.

Drone strikes, as currently practiced by the U.S., are a manifestation of a particular form of warfare and this form exerts a shaping effect on the ethos of the nation or organization pursuing it, but the ethos needed to make the form work may not be consistent with the organization’s – or nation’s – traditional ethos.

If this structural linkage is not understood, ethics can be insidiously undermined, creating unanticipated negative side effects such as loss of legitimacy, both at home and internationally.

Ethos is the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature or guiding beliefs of an organization. For a military service, ethos is in part the glue that holds its combat units together by making soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines willing to place themselves in danger. It also links the military service to its parent nation and society.

Related: Obama Announces Changes in Drone Counter - Terrorism Policy

A legitimizing ethos is required for the service to be able to recruit its manpower and place a demand on national resources. In addition, a strong ethos produces coherency in a large organization by building unity of purpose among its members and forming the basis for mutual trust and confidence.

The result is predictable behavior on the part of service members such that leadership can make plans and expect them to be carried out. Ethics, a related term, will be defined for the purpose of this article to be the set of moral and professional values that guide individual decision making.

The following intellectual framework, the forms of warfare, consists of a set of large scale factors - "invisible hands" - that exert influence on institutional ethos. Ethos, in turn, influences ethics, which may be tacit or explicitly codified.

A principle that operates in the background is that the more tacit or invisible is a factor or element of ethos, the more powerful its influence because humans cannot consciously elect to ignore, evade or disobey it.

We frequently talk about not being able to "see the forest for the trees." What this means is that we are distracted or blinded by a focus on the specifics or details of an issue such that we cannot discern the larger patterns – "the forest" - that would reveal the operation of otherwise invisible hands.

Thus blinded, we are presumably at the mercy of these influences and our decision making is thereby defective. This seems to hold as true in the realm of warfare as it does in any other arena of life. In particular it seems that strategy, normally considered to be the upper and broadest conceptual level of warfare, is in reality just another copse of trees.

The forest, the larger pattern, is the form of warfare the nation or the military service conducts. Strategy occurs within the confines of that forest. If we can identify and categorize these larger patterns, military services will be able to more effectively align their respective ethos with the way they do business and thereby become more effective and perhaps more efficient. We will define three forms of warfare: Systematic, Heroic and Disruptive. All warfare that has and probably will be conducted by humans falls into one of these categories.

Forms of Warfare

One of the defining moments of the American Civil War was when General Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Ill-fated from the outset, it was perhaps the apotheosis of what we will call the "heroic" form of warfare.

Lee was the epitome of the "great captain;" the general of genius who, at the head of an army comprised of highly-skilled and motivated troops uses deft maneuver to defeat a more numerous enemy in battle.

Lee’s nation, the Confederate States of America, did not pursue the heroic form of warfare as an explicit choice; the invisible hand at work was a combination of history and necessity.

The Confederacy was poor in the kinds of resources that constitute the sinews of war. Lacking in industry and with its finances being constricted by the Union blockade, the South had to rely on those threads of advantage it seemed to have; excellent generals, especially Lee, and troops that appeared to be better, man for man, than their Union counterparts. The South, as had so many other nations who were weaker in resources than their opponent, embraced the heroic form of warfare.

Lee had flummoxed a series of Union generals over the preceding two years, but his victorious battles had not produced a strategic victory. Now, in Pennsylvania, he had the Army of the Potomac in his grasp. Although the dawning of the third day of the battle found his army in a tactically disadvantageous position, he was convinced that the fighting skill and spirit of his troops would carry the day in a battle that would determine the outcome of the war.

This is the essence of the heroic ethos; the faith that military genius and virtue will produce decisive results. In the case of Lee at Gettysburg, we can see the influence that warfare form has on institutional ethos and the consequent effect that ethos has on a general’s decision making.

By contrast, when General Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of all Union armies, he was in a position to adopt a different form of warfare, which we will call "systematic." Grant understood two things that few others did. First, Lee and his army were the keys to annihilating the rebellion, and second, the Army of Northern Virginia could only be defeated through attrition and destruction of its support infrastructure.

Grant had the tools at his disposal to act on these insights; a virtually inexhaustible supply of men and resources and a government and populace that supported the war effort. Grant thus embarked on a campaign in Virginia in which he sought to keep constant pressure on Lee such that the South suffered continual combat losses that it could not make good.

Concurrently, he ordered General W. T. Sherman and his army to capture Atlanta and then march through the lower South destroying the resource base for Lee’s army. The kind of systematic warfare Grant conducted did not rely on decisive battles or any tactical genius on his part. Rather, steadiness of purpose, well planned logistics and competent management carried the day.

In the spring of 1865, as Lee’s position became increasingly untenable, Grant’s and Lincoln’s thoughts turned to the end game. In particular, they were worried about the armies of the Confederacy dissolving into partisan bands and carrying on the struggle using a different form of warfare.

Commonly termed insurgency, we will use a broader name to describe it: "disruptive" warfare. This form of warfare is conducted by a party that is much weaker than their opponent. Termed disruptive because the stronger opponent’s capabilities to conduct heroic or systematic warfare are regarded as a system, disruptive warfare seeks to disrupt that system over time until the

opponent is discredited, exhausted and dismayed such that he either withdraws from the fight or makes terms.

The disruptive form of warfare is about resilience. Of necessity it is drawn-out warfare that is conducted on a shoestring, relatively speaking. The ethos of disruptive warfare is therefore quite different than those of the other two forms.

At heart, it demands some form of doctrinal, including political, orthodoxy because to carry it out requires small cells or units operating independently. In order to achieve unity of effort, the leaders of cells must be true believers in the religion, political doctrine, cause or strategy.

Disruptive warfare is inherently cumulative; each raid or ambush incrementally contributes to the overall effect. In order to persist over time, tactical methods must be used that either minimize risk in individual engagements or which only incur losses that can continually be made good.

In looking at these three forms of warfare we see that the essential elements of each are contained in a "trinity" that is a bit analogous to the one established by Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz. The form of war is composed of an expected victory dynamic, an institutional ethos and a set of methods. These three elements are interdependent and when aligned, provide the power the form has to offer.

Interaction Among the Forms

There is perhaps no better example of the interaction between the systematic and disruptive forms than the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese waged disruptive war against the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces using a combination of terror tactics against villages and ambushes against opposing forces.

The U.S., for its part, entered the war trying to apply its existing systematic form. While there were tactical successes and failures on both sides, the net result was frustration and exhaustion for the U.S. which ultimately pulled out of the fight; precisely the result North Vietnam had sought.

In the years between the U.S. entry and pullout from Vietnam the unsuccessful attempt to apply the systematic form of warfare warped and weakened the ethos of each of the U.S. armed services. The services had gone into the war with an adherence to analysis-based management, an approach imposed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that was entirely compatible with the ethos of systematic warfare.

In the context of a limited war and against an enemy pursuing the disruptive form of warfare, frustration led to the adoption of measures of effectiveness that were not useful indicators of progress, body count being the most notorious, and thus over time produced cynicism within the ranks which eroded the ethos and its embedded ethics. As a result, fudging figures, drug use and insubordination became endemic.

After Vietnam, the U.S. Army and its sister services embarked on a program of rehabilitation. As chronicled in the book Prodigal Soldiers by James Kitfield, service chiefs such as Shy Meyer of the Army and Bill Creech of the Air Force wrought major changes in their respective services that reset their ethos and ultimately produced the high tech, highly professional force that out-maneuvered and dismembered the Iraqi army and air force in Desert Storm.

At the heart of the transformation lay a shift in the form of warfare the services pursued, from systematic to heroic. After Vietnam, the Army’s focus shifted to the NATO Central Front. There, facing the massive Red Army, the U.S. Army saw itself as the weaker party, thus making the use of the systematic form infeasible. Although it didn’t work for the Confederacy, or for that matter for Germany or Japan in World War II, the heroic form was seen as the antidote against the Soviets.

With nukes almost anyone could adopt the systematic form, but their sheer destructiveness would make any victory pyrrhic at best. So if the Soviets were forced into a heroic style war of maneuver in Europe to achieve their objectives in a hurry before the nukes flew, they would be themselves, by definition, vulnerable to being out-maneuvered.

Adoption of the heroic form of warfare allowed the Army to shift ethos, not try and repair one that had been ruptured and discredited in Vietnam. The ethos of heroic warfare, with its emphasis on warfare virtuosity, was a healing balm for the Army. Moreover, emerging technology promised to supercharge the ethos. Technology, such as Abrams tanks, F-16 fighters and precision guided munitions, required technical virtuosity on the part of soldiers but it also made them more powerful warriors, both individually and as units. Thus the American military that was unleashed in the Iraqi desert in 1991 was heroic in all its dimensions.

After the 9/11 attacks the American military carried with it into Afghanistan and Iraq its heroic warfare form and its accompanying ethos. In the early going of both wars the techno-heroic form made quick work of the organized opposition. In the aftermath of their initial defeats, both the Taliban and Iraqis reverted to a disruptive form of warfare.

Related: Afghan Airment Gain New Airpower Capabilities

However, the interaction between the heroic form and disruptive form turned out to be a bit different than the interaction between the systematic form and disruptive form in Vietnam. It was still true that in confronting the disruptive form, the heroic form still found itself punching at smoke, but the ethos of the heroic form turned out to be more resilient under conditions of frustration than did that of the systematic form.

In the first instance, the heroic form appears to more easily accommodate tactical adaptation. Army officers such as David Petraeus were able to shift their approach from killing insurgents to courting key tribes, which, in conjunction with political errors by al Qaeda, eventually produced a form of success in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, similar shifts were made, but because the Taliban continued to enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan, and for other ethnic and tribal reasons within Afghanistan, the war continues without resolution.

Notwithstanding the resilience of the heroic ethos, the heroic form of warfare has not worked in Afghanistan. The heroic form, which is predicated on maneuver and rapid victories, is confronting the disruptive form, which seeks to avoid pitched battles and whose fundamental dynamic involves prolonging war.

Disruptive Warfare

Disruptive warfare requires three things for it to be viable. The first is some form of sanctuary. This may range from the ability of insurgents to hide among the populace to political restrictions in the form of inviolable territory across a border to the opacity of the seas. Being very weak in relation to the opponent, disruptive forces must be able to avoid contact except under the right conditions.

The second requirement is that there must be some feasible coercive or catalytic defeat mechanism available. In other words, the cumulative effect of disruptive operations must produce a sufficient level of dismay in the enemy to precipitate a withdrawal or a willingness to negotiate under adverse conditions.

Thirdly, there must be a tactical mechanism that imposes cost on the enemy while limiting the cost to oneself such that the war is sustainable over the long haul. If any of these requirements are lacking or are removed by the other side, the disruptive form will fail.

If the heroic or systematic form of warfare is frustrated by its encounter with disruptive warfare, adoption of a conflict management strategy is a common and sometimes viable response. Adoption of a conflict management strategy is a tacit acknowledgement that the heroic/systematic form must be at least temporarily abandoned, along with its inherent component of a quick or at least predictable victory schedule.

The conflict must be drawn out for some indefinite period of time. Nations and armies do not willingly admit this to the public or even to themselves. The disconnects between doctrine, ethos and reality produce the cynicism, both individual and corporate, that leads to the breakdown in discipline, institutional coherence and public support.

In theory it would be better for a service and government to acknowledge the true state of affairs and set about adjusting expectations and even corporate ethos to gain the institutional resiliency needed for the long haul. When victory becomes a fiction, the results are corrosive.

The other method for dealing with disruptive warfare is to adopt some form of it oneself. There are indications that the U.S. is doing so in Afghanistan. In this case it is manifested in the form of drone strikes on Taliban leadership across the border in Pakistan. The U.S. enjoys sanctuary

in that the drones operate from secure airfields and their operators are in Nevada; it has a reasonable defeat mechanism in the form of decapitation; and it has a sustainable tactical mechanism in that the drones are relatively cheap and hard to hit.

However, adoption of the disruptive form demands a shift in ethos. Abandonment of a quick or predictable win is just the start. Drone strikes are anything but heroic, either with regard to the technology or its operators. This may allow a form of cynicism to seep in as the "warriors" are not subject to personal risk and go home for dinner after their shift. More broadly, unmanned systems produce a moral hazard of sorts.

The low cost and risk associated with drones provides incentives to widen the area of operations to wherever Taliban and al Qaeda leaders seek sanctuary. Pakistan’s permission to conduct such strikes has no doubt been obtained, but such permission is all too easy to give in view of the relatively low profile of such operations.

"There’s an intangible notion that a drone flying over is less of an intrusion than troops on the ground," said Ashley S. Deeks, a University of Virginia law professor and a former State Department lawyer.

These operations present risk to the government over whose territory they are conducted; hardly any to the US. On the other hand, unanticipated side effects most likely will accrue, as the strikes produce one kind of political catalysis or another; unavoidable when people are killed.

In terms of the broadest field of regard, the dispute, adoption of the disruptive form against an opponent doing the same produces some difficult questions. Especially with respect to its application on land, how does one know one is winning, or for that matter has won?

The inherent opacity of the disruptive form makes progress assessments problematic. Body counts have proven to be worse than worthless, and even more focused measures such as the tally of captured and killed leaders may be deceiving. The number of terrorist attacks or ambushes may be an indicator, but these could also be deceiving if the enemy is simply regrouping or biding his time.

This state of affairs leads us to an element of disruptive ethos that is almost a fourth strategic requirement: faith in the defeat mechanism, along with massive patience and persistence. It is certainly possible that for extended periods of time no progress is discernible and then, abruptly, the opponent collapses.

A moral difficulty associated with disruptive warfare is the involvement of innocent parties. It is certainly true that civilians have been killed in heroic and systematic wars. In some cases, such as the German pogroms against the Jews and Poles, such killing is an evil accessory to these forms.

Most often, civilian death, injury or displacement is an inadvertent side effect of heroic warfare. Not so with disruptive warfare. Innocents or at least third parties are frequently inherent elements of disruptive warfare due to its frequent adoption of intimidation.

Terror against civilians is as much an integral element of insurgencies on land as is the death of merchant mariners in unrestricted submarine warfare. Innocent third parties are pawns, as are, to some extent, one’s own forces. One has only to observe the role of suicide bombers in Middle Eastern insurgencies to understand that the life of a disruptive operative has a very different value than a heroic or systematic warrior.

Disruptive warfare is fundamentally cumulative and attrition based. A disruptive strategist certainly wants to minimize risk to his forces, but this is for an objective reason. Minimizing tactical risk is an imperative of a cumulative campaign; it has nothing to do with the worth of the individual warrior; whereas, in the heroic form the individual is valued because he or she is critical to victory. This devaluing of individuals is an inherent part of the logic of disruptive warfare can corrode the ethos of any organization conducting it.

The faith in one’s cause and methods generate another form of institutional moral danger associated with most kinds of disruptive warfare. Its drawn out nature provides ample opportunity for anger and frustration to build and create new pathways for conflict. The war can create disputes borne out of augmented hostility where none existed before. Such animosity, along with the need in disruptive warfare for a robust and persistent belief in the righteousness of the end state, can create an "end justifies the means" mindset.

This can be corrosive to institutional ethos. "That's something that you have to struggle with," the president said, speaking of drone strikes, in a CNN interview at the White House conducted for the documentary "Obama Revealed: The man, The President." He continued, "if you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country."

Nonetheless, in the absence of a form of national altruism that dispenses with proactive measures coupled with the ineffectiveness of either of the other two forms of warfare, the government has considerable incentive to pursue its own form of disruptive warfare.


Using drone aircraft for targeted killing of terrorist leaders represents a foray by the U.S. into a form of warfare it has not used since the Revolutionary War. Disruptive warfare is a very strong form, but one that has not been adopted by an armed force with a history and culture of victory using the "conventional" systematic and heroic forms.

Now, engaged in an amorphous struggle against jihadists that has no foreseeable end point, the US has finally made at least a tentative move into the disruptive form itself. Thus far, drone

strikes have been highly effective, but there are dangers, not only from political fallout of various kinds but to the very ethical fabric of the Armed Forces and the nation. Moreover, there are strategic pitfalls such as the uncontrolled widening of the conflict.

This article does not argue against using drone strikes; rather, it advocates going in with our eyes truly open, and this necessitates understanding the forms of warfare and their respective characteristics.

Being able to see a larger forest, the forms of warfare, provides us not only with new and useful insights on the dynamics of warfare, but also illuminates the intimate connection between strategy and ethos.

In a very real sense, every strategic plan and decision is a moral statement. Our strategy cannot be contemplated in isolation from the moral agent - the military - that executes it. If this happens, the moral fabric of the military may deteriorate and with it, its fighting value. To the extent that this happens invisibly, the greater the overall risk.

The heroic form of warfare has shown it can produce a robust ethos that can withstand the corrosive effects of a shift to conflict management. However, if the nation elects to pursue its own form of disruptive warfare, the drone-empowered decapitation of Taliban and other troublesome non-state actor leadership, a change of ethos would be required if this mission fell to the military (instead of the CIA) and constituted the main thrust of a future extension of the war on terror.

It might be possible that such an effort could be roped off to a particular section of the Air Force or Army, thus limiting the effects of ethos shift, but with the current joint command and control arrangements established by Goldwater-Nichols, there is little chance disruptive operations can be carried out without the broad involvement of all the services.

The challenge therefore for strategists and military leadership is to somehow maintain the heroic ethos intact while it adopts a different form of warfare. This cannot be done if we do not acknowledge the existence of these warfare forms as the overarching patterns of conflict and their profound influence on the ethos of the military services.

The use of drones will discussed at IDGA's Homeland Security 2013 event in October. For full details, go to

Posted: 06/10/2013