Drones: Time to Listen to Larry the Fat Guy

About a dozen years ago, when Larry Summers was appointed President of Harvard, I asked an undergraduate what she thought of the selection. She replied, “I don’t know, some fat guy.”

Thus, did Lawrence Henry Summers, 27th President of Harvard and former Secretary of the Treasury, become “Larry the fat guy.”

Despite a rocky tenure resulting largely from his prickly personality, Larry the fat guy is definitely no dummy, but for all his achievements, the idea of his that stands out most in my mind was probably a throwaway line.

“If you have a difficult problem, try asking someone in another field.” Sometimes, a different perspective can be illuminating.

Could the use of drones be difficult enough to warrant using the Larry-the-fat-guy technique?

The premise of Homeland, a popular TV series, is the impact of a drone strike gone awry and, at least in Pakistan, there are an increasing number of strikes, whether or not well-targeted. http://drones.pitchinteractive.com/

In a recent poll, U.S. adults were asked several questions about drones and here are their answers.

“Do you think the U.S. government should or should not use drones to…

“Launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists?” — should 65%; should not 28%

“Launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists?” — should 41%; should not 52% (for some reason, American victims reduce support by 24%)

“Launch airstrikes in the U.S. against suspected terrorists living here?” — should 25%; should not 66% (geography alone reduces support for drone use by 40%)

“Launch airstrikes in the U.S. against U.S. citizens living here who are suspected terrorists?” — should 13%; should not 79% (again, geography reduces support for drone use by 28%)

Interesting but not dispositive because polls tell us what people think not what should be done, since people don’t always know what should be done.

The pro-drone case seems relatively straightforward.

Collateral damage (the killing of civilians) is significantly decreased — although not eliminated — as compared with other methods of dealing with combatants. Think Dresden, where an entire city was flattened. Or Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo, the last by fire bombs rather than atom bombs.

Drones are far safer than piloted aircraft because the driver is located in Nevada or Florida rather than in the sky above Waziristan. No coffins to Dover.

Drones are cheaper.

Drones are really good at getting the job done, at least as determined by those charged with doing so. “It’s for your safety,” as we are often admonished by anyone in authority.

Curiously, it is apparently okay to use drones – actually the Hellfire missiles fired by drones – against the leaders of groups though not the leaders of countries, but that is another story.

The anti-drone case seems to depend on the person making it. If one is a hammer every problem is a nail.

“Any collateral damage is too much,” argue those who care for the well being of civilians.

Those on the ground point to slaughtering wedding parties and other family events.

Government officials decry violations of sovereign air space.

There are other cases both pro and con but all are worth considering because drones are headed our way – perhaps more for snooping than killing. If the manufacturers have their way, law enforcement officials will soon have them.

For two reasons, I have always given more weight to the views of those at the pointy end of the missile than at the flaming end.

First, drones are not that hard. The larger the target the dumber the drone can be. If aiming at a building, a model airplane might well be sufficient.

Second, the public relations are both “far more important” and “terrible.”

“Far more important” is easy: World War I would have ended much sooner if the carnage had appeared on Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Facebook, let alone cable news.

“Terrible” is where we listen to Larry the fat guy and ask an athlete. With drones, there is no contest because the offense is so far ahead of the defense. Nobody has any interest in the Super Bowl winner versus the Sixth Graders. It is simply not fair.

Meanwhile, drones have their own Washington trade association — the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International — and the Senate and House have drone caucuses.

6 Responses to “Drones: Time to Listen to Larry the Fat Guy”

James Walton, April 10, 2013 at 7:13 am said:

Appreciate you had to skip over the bit about who was and who wasn’t a legitimate target, but boy could Zimbabwe and Iran benefit from a drone or two ASAP….likewise France

There will of course come a time when drones are also in the wrong hands…


Haven Pell, April 10, 2013 at 7:21 am said:

James, I wonder if this is the sentence relevant to your point?

“Curiously, it is apparently okay to use drones – actually the Hellfire missiles fired by drones – against the leaders of groups though not the leaders of countries, but that is another story.”

I have long believed that there was a tacit understanding about not killing heads of state or government for the same reason we have diplomatic immunity — to protect one’s own.

Inevitably, most will have drones. They are surely easier than nukes, and those who want nukes seem generally able to obtain them.


David Fox, April 10, 2013 at 12:21 pm said:

I think you got the drone question right.
I thought Larry Sommers most notable quote was: “In the history of the world, no renter has ever washed a rental car.” Obviously he has never driven the Palmetto Highway when the bugs are in season.


Tim Warburton, April 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm said:

Tim Warburton Well – you really seem to make the case of the efficiency and effectiveness of drones. But I have to say – that the days of flying over some poor country and blasting their fathers and brothers out of the sky will not end well. We should not be doing it except and unless we have declared war. We really have no business knocking individuals off in territories where we are not at war.

The idea that one could justify it based on the efficiency model you so eloquently describe is like saying the ovens were more effective in Germany. It just does not hold up. I am sorry. Efficiency does not equate to principle.

These are industrial weapons makers moving their public relations machines well out to the front of the argument. I have no doubt some of these people deserve their rightful deaths. Clearly CIA activities through out the world have lent a certain credence to this behavior. Now it is just more direct and overt. It is well known that states have to occasionally take matters into their own hands in order to make a strong point. But the use of drones is public, humiliating, an embarrassment of riches and certainly not sporting. This will come back to haunt our people in ways we cannot yet fathom. Judicious use of force is best used very sparingly.

It is entirely possible that I have missed the real gist of your argument – but polls are not something I am interested in. I am interested in principled people take appropriate stands and leading the polls (the people) to the right conclusions. In this case the obvious dumbness of the results should be indication enough of something being grossly amiss.


Haven Pell, April 10, 2013 at 1:30 pm said:

Tim, you have not missed the point; you have remade it. A better way to make a useful decision is to imagine the question from the ground looking up. Something that one sided meets no test of fairness as anyone who has ever competed would quickly say. I was reporting the cases pro and con not endorsing them. Since we are first out of the box with the technology, we will inadvertently set the standard. Then we will get to see the pointy ends.


Lorelei Kelly, April 10, 2013 at 2:14 pm said:

Our profligate and inadequately explained use of drones is a major strategic failure. If you look at the world we are entering–it is a social capital, reputation based, tech enabled world–hard power is increasingly ineffective, if not counter productive (see Iraq and Afghanistan). Perhaps drones are useful given a solid public explanation (lacking) and a legally described imminent threat–even mistakes like Iraq would be more acceptable if there was a process in place to explain risk and benefit–but the social capital loss and blowback will not be positive. the meta-data for targeting is absurd. Right now, men between 15-70 won’t meet in small groups–just think what that is doing to rural and village level conflict resolution processes. We cannot call ourselves the rule of law nation and continue down this path.


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