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.


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