WIUM Tristates Public Radio

The Moral & Political Implications of Military Drones

Mar 21, 2012

The term “collateral damage” seems insidious, somehow making less meaningful the notion of “innocent bystanders.” However, some say that Americans may prefer the impersonal reference, which also could be why remote-controlled planes provide a level of comfort to a nation at war.

 If so, it’s time for us all to shake ourselves awake, and perhaps the recent tragedy of an Army sergeant apparently killing 16 unarmed Afghan civilians is a horrific alarm to stir us to consciousness.

 Has 21st century war depending on remote-controlled aircraft (drones, which began during the Bush administration and increased since Obama took office) lulled us? That’s startling since one in four killed by U.S. drones since 2004 was an innocent civilian, according to the New America Foundation think tank. The Brookings Institute says the number is higher. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan are disputed, but they range from hundreds to thousands.

 Advocates clarify that drones have pilots, of a sort. Wing Commander Chris Thirtle, the Royal Air Force’s in-house expert, talking to the Guardian’s Nick Hopkins last summer, said "The system is not unmanned. Someone needs to command and control it."

 (The U.S. Navy however, is testing model X-47B, which is guided only by an onboard computer.)

 Other drone defenders argue that the drones aren’t that much different than high-altitude bombers or other long-distance operations, such as intercontinental missiles. But ethical issues persist.

Thirtle asked, "Is it right that you can hold your opponent at risk without any physical risk directly to yourself? That is a valid point.”

 Supposedly, drones fly under same rules of engagement as other aircraft. But the way they’re used and the geographic distance from combat zones unsettle people. Inside control-center “cabins” resembling cockpits, left-hand seats have throttles and sticks like fighter jets, letting operators fly and fire missiles or laser-guided bombs. The decisions two-member crews make travel by fiber-optic cable to be uploaded to a satellite to then return to Earth, in Afghanistan, Pakistan or wherever. The delay is about two seconds. Controllers watch more than a dozen TV screens showing high-quality, almost real-time surveillance from drone cameras.

 Author James Bamford, who’s written about U.S. intelligence in books such as “The Shadow Factory,” believes drones are being used indiscriminately and that they’ve killed many innocent people.

 Bamford says, "Death warrants for targets are signed by mid-level bureaucrats, and soccer moms and dads double as joystick killers. They operate in comfort and safety, half the Earth away from their targets and close enough for many to run home for lunch between kills. Today there are more than 5,000 robotic vehicles and drones deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

 Using drones is not only unethical, he argues; it’s counterproductive, adding, "Most of the recent acts and attempted acts of domestic terrorism [in the United State] are generated by America's wars in the Middle East, and especially the high civilian death toll caused by the drone attacks,”.

 Still, increasing reliance on drones changes war to smaller, cheaper covert actions from large-scale invasions and occupations. Plus, the use of drones gives the U.S. president (any president) the power to kill without risking citizens’ sons and daughters – with Congress either supporting or remaining silent.

 In his book “The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars,” author John Tirman does not criticize the United States or U.S. troops as much as ask questions of morality, such as how can there be “just wars” when noncombatants are sacrificed so routinely, and do citizens support military ventures more easily by denying the true human cost of war – which he calls the “poison of indifference”?

Tirman called attention to civilian deaths before. Director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, Tirman and researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 2006 determined the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion as 655,000 “excess deaths.”

 When confronted with civilian deaths brought about by the U.S. military, Tirman writes, Americans usually have one of five responses: denial/avoidance; redefining the deaths to reinterpret the significance (i.e., no weapons were found, but the country will someday be able to rebuild); blaming the victim (i.e., why hadn’t those killed previously solved the problem that brought us there?); criticism of a whole people; and imagining some “ultimate justice” that the death and destruction resulting from the U.S. war will somehow be made right – without the United States assuming any responsibility for tragedies.

 The issue is moral and political, not just technological or financial.  David Bell in The New Republic wrote, “It’s not the drones you should fear, but the politicians who order them into battle.”

 Or, it must be added, the voters who let them.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.