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May 3rd, 2012

A New Chapter in Modern Warfare


Living in Washington, D.C., the loud buzz of helicopters is a standard piece of the city’s soundscape, blending in with the traffic and sirens that stop silence dead. Earlier this year, when I read about various governments in the Arab world that had deployed armed security forces to ride around in helicopters and kill protestors and dissidents, that noise became a bit jarring. The image wouldn’t leave my mind. When I ran around the national mall, whenever I heard that loud hum I couldn’t help but think of those who were killed by thugs in the sky. I imagined what it would be like to experience something similar, and my eyes would dart around looking where I might hide. There was really nowhere to go.

Earlier this year, The Onion bitingly asked: Could the use of flying death robots be hurting America’s reputation worldwide? The video was of course referring to the use of drones by the U.S. Air Force and CIA in remote regions of the world.

Until now, the U.S. government has consistently denied using drones, remotely controlled aircraft used for surveillance and missile strikes even though it remains a known fact that they have been used since 1994. On Tuesday, John Brennan, President Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, gave a speech in Washington in which he outlined the extensive drone program and offered a legal, ethical, and military defense of the program:

the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.

He insisted that the U.S. Justice Department has blessed the program as legal, even when used against American citizens abroad, and offered some thoughts on the ethics of deploying deadly force “from hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Brennan said that every effort is made to identify the target accurately and fully, but conceded that:

As the President and others have acknowledged, there have indeed been instances when — despite the extraordinary precautions we take — civilians have been accidently injured, or worse, killed in these strikes.

Collateral damage

Critics of the drone program and the U.S. government disagree about the numbers of innocents killed by drone strikes, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is not as rare or innocuous as Brennan’s speech suggests. From America magazine:

In December 2010, a reporter for the McClatchy Company interviewed some Pakistanis about mistaken attacks by U.S. drones. A boy of 13 carried a picture of his 10-month-old niece, who had been killed by a drone attack on her home. “The drones patrol day and night,” the boy said, adding that at times “we see six in the air all at once.” Another boy, 15-year-old Saddullah, was having tea with his family when they were struck by a drone. Three family members died, and Saddullah lost his legs and one eye. More fortunate than many drone attack victims, he eventually was able to walk with prosthetic legs.

Depending what you read, the technology that allows “pilots” to wage air wars from afar either increases or reduces the number of killed civilians, grouped under the grotesquely casual category “collateral damage.” But the use of drones, even setting aside issues of civilian death, remains morally unclear. The Obama administration points out that drones are cheaper to operate than manned planes; that they last far longer on missions than a human pilot; and that American lives are never in danger even as those on the ground face destruction.

Killing becomes cleaner, easier, and hidden from the American people. Armies, American and otherwise, will be able to wage war in more places at a reduced human and financial cost, perhaps leading to increased suffering at home and abroad. While the United States is the leader in drone use, nearly 50 countries are committed to adopting drone technology. A global, drone induced hell is not hard to envision.

Weighing the costs

As Brennan said in his speech, war is hell. Human beings kill one another, and civilians will always suffer at some level. The Catholic Church, urging the avoidance of war, nonetheless offers ethical norms by which to wage and execute wars. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, is a new chapter in modern warfare, and the ethics of using such weapons remain murky.

The United States has at least 7,000 drones in use today across the world, striking targets in countries that allow their use and those, such as Pakistan, who would rather not subject their citizens to Hellfire missiles. Drones just three feet wide can shoot missiles that will kill terrorists and civilians alike. Next year, the Pentagon requested a staggering $5 billion for drones alone. The New York Times reports that huge research facilities are developing spy drones that will literally be as small as insects. Drones are here to stay. They are too cheap and powerful to go away. Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told the Times in another article that debating the use of drones is akin to questioning the morality of computers in the 1979, and that the boom is just beginning.

Is the use of drones ethically sound? Do airstrikes that kill enemies and civilians alike, without putting the aggressor in danger, pass the smell test? Will drones allow for endless global warfare without the human and financial sacrifice associated with traditional war? Who is held accountable for errant strikes? Do putting American troops in danger balance some sort of moral equation, or simply increase the suffering and death?

Security and war are complex issues and it would be Pollyannaish of me to say flat out that using drones is immoral. But there is something unsettling about remote controlled bombers, especially when the number of innocents who are killed remains so unclear. And the image of global wars being fought from a safe bunker near Washington, where the only people in danger are the enemy and the civilians surrounding them, is chilling. The amount of money the United States spends on defense, $5 billion on drones alone, while Congress seeks to slash and burn social welfare programs is scandalous.

Next time you’re walking around the city and hear a helicopter or see a plane, you won’t fear that your life is in danger. But consider for a couple moments the individuals in far-flung places who don’t enjoy that same peace of mind.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • Eric

    Some good questions here. I don’t think that the use of remotely piloted vehicles (RPV) really changes the balance ethically. There’s still a crew that must operate the system, whether or not they’re riding in it. A human still pushes the button, and therefore human error is still present, as it is for a human-piloted aircraft. For better or worse, the increases in technology are hopefully able to keep the horror of collateral damage to a minimum. I can’t see this being worse than human-piloted carpet-bombers in WWII. There was plenty of collateral damage then, but the media wasn’t everywhere, and we didn’t have the internet to enable the instant broadcast each victim to make them more real.

  • A Different Doug

    While I understand the question behind the question in this post, I believe that the question should be whether the incidence of collateral damage is significantly higher for unmanned aircraft v. manned aircraft. If so – then why? Poor intelligence? Poor judgement on the operators’ part? Other factors? I believe that this is where we should be asking the questions of morality in thixs case.

  • john grady

    It’s. A tough question. As a veteran of two tours in Iraq I will say that having drones in the air felt comforting. The plain truth is war flat out sucks no matter if it’s drones doing the killing or us. I pray for the day when there will be no war and when the world will get along and live by God’s plan. I also pray for the support of those defending us and as they are my brothers and sisters fighting so I can live free anything that helps to protect them I am for. Like I first said war sucks so lets all pray people as a whole and our leaders do everything possible to avoid it. If it can’t be avoided that they do everything possible to quicken the end.

  • Doug

    Interesting article. While quoting the Onion was initially suspect, I looked up the video and the Onion’s satire was spot on.

    I can only imagine the Obama administration’s justification for escalating a war of drones is:
    1. U.S. soldiers, and U.S. citizens, are being threatened and attacked from Pakistan and other countries where the U.S. is not allowed to land troops (and where those countries do not have control over this segment of their own territory.)
    2. Those attacking are using non-conventional and guerrilla warfare tactics from those countries, forcing the U.S. to respond with non-conventional tactics.

    I guess the alternative would be to invade Pakistan and Yemen, as the Obama administration did when the U.S. responded to Osama a year ago.

    I am saddened that the Taliban have broken off talks, prompting the Obama administration to extend our committed presence in Afganistan for another 10 years. I have no doubt that this administration would walk away from Afganistan in a second, and the drone attacks would stop just as suddenly, if those attacking Americans would say: we want to live in peace and will not condon those among us attacking Americans.

    Until then, what is the Obama administration to do?

  • Oscar

    Good article. Not sure how the ethicicy changes once the drone operators are put into an equally proportionate amount of danger. If an American citizen is engaged in war with the United States, does the military have an obligation to use necessary force to defend innocent citizens from a potential attack?
    The fact that innocent people, including babies, are being killed by errant attacks is extremely saddening.
    For an end to war, we pray to the Lord.

  • joseph p bell

    DEAR MICHAEL ,that is the best response from the Catholic side that i have ever heard or read . You are a brave man . Watch your back from here on in . That is not the message being sent out from ROME , or the Cardinals and Bishops (publicly )anyway . I am 77 ,navy vet ,and when i walk into church ,my gag reflex comes into play . The last 11+ years researching 911 ,i have found enough dirt deep down .I cannot come out has verbally as you have , because of circumstances . thank you . brought up Catholic . I will get back to you .

  • Christine Venzon

    By the military’s own admission (http://www.stripes.com/stress-of-combat-reaches-drone-crews-1.171999), the safety enjoyed by drone operators doesn’t protect them from depression and stress. Isolated from the hand-to-hand combat, drone crews can feel helpless and guilty at seeing the results of their “handiwork” while avoiding the danger.

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