The Obama Administration deliberately uses the word “surgical” to describe its drone strikes. Official White House spokesman Jay Carney marshaled the medical metaphorhere, saying that “a hallmark of our counterterrorism efforts has been our ability to be exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted.” White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan attributed “surgical precision” and “laser-like focus” to the drone program. He also spoke of “delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.” And a “senior administration official” told The Washington Post that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”
They’ve successfully transplanted the term into public discourse about drones.
I’ve been told American drone strikes are “surgical” while attending Aspen Ideas Festival panels, interviewing delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and perusing reader emails after every time I write about the innocents killed and maimed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
It is a triumph of propaganda.
The inaccuracy of the claim fully occurred to me as I played back a recent interview I conducted with Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution. (His book Wired for War is a fascinating read.) “You used to measure a surgeon by how still could he hold his hand,” Singer told me. “How precise could he make the cut? Well, robotic systems, it isn’t a matter of shaking at minute levels. It doesn’t shake. You are amazed by a surgeon doing a cut that is millimeters in precision. With robotics it is in nanometers.” He was explaining why unmanned systems make sense in a variety of fields, not commenting on the Obama Administration’s rhetoric in its ongoing, multi-country drone war.