American presidents and military high-ups love cruise missiles. They are so popular that "Tomahawk" is among a handful of pieces of military equipment that the man on the street knows by name in this country.

Like so many things, the cruise missile was born in World War II. Both Germany and Japan – in extraordinarily different ways – fielded them as a weapon of last resort. WWII enthusiasts could rack up points on your average pub quiz by noting that the Nazi V-1 "buzz bomb" was the world's first cruise missile, although it was primitive to the point that it had to be aimed at something city-sized (London did just fine) in order to be reasonably assured of hitting a target. It was essentially a terror weapon, not a practical one. Its effects were psychological; it flew in low and fast, made an ominous sound, and unlike a German airplane, was for all practical purposes unstoppable.

The Japanese came up with a far more accurate and effective cruise missile, although with less advanced technology. They solved the problem of accuracy by putting human pilots in theirs. They taught pilots to fly just feet off the surface of the ocean and, to the mortal peril of American sailors, crash them into big Navy ships while laden with explosives. It was far cruder than Germany's cruise missile, but it worked far better.

That's all a cruise missile is today – a small, fast jet aircraft without a pilot. It comes in too low and fast to be shot down by air defenses, and often too low even to be effectively spotted on radar. By the time you realize it's coming, it's already too late to do much about it.

The things military planners love about the cruise missile are their speed, high level of accuracy (although the military always finds a way to downplay the risks of "collateral damage"), and stand-off capability. The people who launch a cruise missile are very far away from where it will blow up. Launching cruise missiles comes as close to eliminating the potential for American casualties as is possible. It's like sending waves of kamikazes at the Bad Guys without the inconvenience of having to put pilots in them.

The problem is not that cruise missiles kill people, as all military forces have tons of ways to do that. Cruise missiles kill people will essentially zero risk – political or military – to the launching nation. Presidents starting with Reagan were quick to learn that there are no real political consequences to lobbing these things around like candy at a parade. If no Americans are killed, some Bad Hombres are killed, and there is a nice fireworks show to boot, the American public barely noticed when they're fired off by the dozen. Committing ground forces or using manned air strikes have enormous costs in terms of political capital, American casualties, and of course economic cost.

So, the cruise missile has in recent decades fully uncoupled the moral and political risks of warfare from the anticipated benefits. The easier it is to use them, the more likely they will be used. And so they've become a kind of American military reflex, our knee jerk response to problems that a president wants to "do something" about but is unwilling to bear the political costs of putting American lives at risk. They get to look Tough, they don't have to deal with the blowback of flag-covered coffins returning home, and the media and public show no real interest in what is on the receiving end as long as it is Bad and gets blown up. As long as the targets are restricted to countries that aren't anywhere close to able to retaliate militarily, this is a slam dunk from the White House and Pentagon perspective.

The prospect that the current President is going to figure this out is cause for real concern. It's low commitment, low investment (since there is always an unlimited amount of money at hand for the Pentagon's desires), and panders to the kind of voter who is likely to respond very favorably to the idea of Shit Gettin' Blowed Up. The technology has taken so much risk out of the equation that the question of whether cruise missile strikes are a good idea rarely gets asked. As long as we can, what's the point of asking if we should?