The Ethics Of… War Drones

Alright I admit it; last week was a bit of a bait-and-switch move on my part. More than a few of you would have seen ‘The Ethics Of Drones’ and assumed, with complete justification, that of the two types of unmanned aerial vehicles out there in the world, the ones armed with Hellfire missiles would have been a slightly higher priority for me.

Not much of a competition really.

Enough of the pussyfooting about with little issues like personal privacy and pervs with flying cameras! We’ve got 27 foot, high-altitude harbingers of silent death with names like ‘the Predator’ and ‘the Reaper’ to sink our teeth into! Jeeze, it’s like they’re trying to start the robot apocalypse around here…

This is the bit where I usually go into some detail about the topic and give you some background, but to be honest there’s not all that much to cover here: they’re drones with guns and/or missiles on them. When the military wants to kill some guys, they can now send in the unmanned drone to do the dirty work and avoid risking the lives of a dozen human soldiers. Not only does this prevent casualties, drones operating at several thousand meters are better at catching the enemy by surprise, have terrifyingly detailed sensors, and avoiding the nightmarish logistics that are involved in moving fussy squishy sustenance-demanding, bullet-vulnerable meat sacks from place to place – imagine the amount of organisation that goes into a week’s holiday overseas, then imagine there were a few hundred people actively working against you at all times and you’ll have a bit of an idea of military logistics.

With benefits like these, it’s no surprise the use of war drones (or ‘unmanned combat aerial vehicles’ if we’re feeling fancy) has become more and more common over the last 15 years. They’re currently known to be used by at least 29 nations, including Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and even Palestine, though the most well-known use of drones is by the good old US of A in the endless War on Terror. It turns out that the ability to knock off a few specific targets in remote locations without them seeing you coming, is perfect for the nasty, confused and extremely complicated task of fighting terrorist organisations on their own turf. Rather than sending in a few thousand troops to expose themselves to traps, clash with the local culture, and turn up at the enemy stronghold 3 hours after everyone saw them coming and buggered off, you can simply fly one drone around until you spot the enemy, and bomb the living crap out of them from a comfy chair on the other side of the planet.

War is hell. They don’t even have real coffee in the break room.

But I don’t write about anything on this site unless there’s something terribly wrong with it, and as virtually all of you are muttering by now, the big problem with military kill-droids is pretty obvious: civilian casualties.

You can strap the most advanced cameras, sensors and GPS technology on to your drone, but at the end of the day there is only so much information you can gather when you’re several thousand meters in the air and the bomb you’re planning on dropping can flatten a building. Sure those people on your scope might be the intended targets, but maybe they’re not, and lacking any human eyes on the ground to confirm you have no way to be sure. And even if they are the enemies you’re after, are they the only ones nearby? What about anyone else in shrapnel-range? What about any buildings nearby? Who’s in them? The only way to check is with a human being you trust on the ground which would completely defeat the logistical advantages of drones in the first place, especially since your agent is going to have to leg it really bloody fast once he confirms the area is clear of civilians for bombing.

Sadly this isn’t just speculation; since military drones were put into service around 2002, the USA has used them in 607 strikes killing approximately 4,500 people mainly in Pakistan and Yemen. Naturally it’s unclear just how many of these deaths were civilians versus terrorists since they don’t exactly wear nametags (and even if they did they wouldn’t mix too well with supersonic high explosives), but the total so far is estimated between 500-1000 civilian deaths. We also have no shortage of specific incidents where civilians were definitely attacked, including several misidentified homes and in one particularly dramatic fuck-up, a wedding.

Naturally this is horrifying and quite clearly against the international rules of war or Jus in Bello. As I’ve discussed before, these rules are a set of ethical principles that determine what sort of conduct is justified during wartime and revolve around the three core ideals of necessity (don’t do it unless you need to), proportionality (don’t carpet bomb when you can manage the situation with less), and most importantly, distinction (soldiers are legit targets, civilians are not). While to the best of our knowledge drone strikes meet the first condition, they stray well outsides of #2 and 3. Using high explosives to assassinate two or three individuals is well out of proportion to the task, especially when it puts the lives of nearby civilians at risk, thus breaching the condition of distinction between them and soldiers. These such breaches have not gone unnoticed and the USA’s drone program has been challenged numerous times by the international community and its own citizens as illegal and immoral.

That might sound like a pretty solid ethical judgement against war drones, but as long time readers will be noticing, these rules of war are what is known as deontological ethics – a strict set of rules one must follow. I am not a fan of this approach because while hard and fast ethical rules are easy to promote and enforce, they are also extremely inflexible, which means they have trouble adopting to messy situations – and war is nothing if not messy. Certainly we can and must condemn civilian casualties during war, but these losses must also be weighed against the benefits of such attacks. Disasters like the Yemen wedding bombing obviously cannot be defended, but these are the exception to the rule; in most cases civilians were killed during successful strikes against confirmed terrorist leaders who have now be eliminated and can no longer plan attacks. This decreases the threat of global terrorism to the benefit of all civilians everywhere.

It’s worth remembering that the people that suffer the most from Islamic extremists are other Muslims. Drones don’t even rate.

Sure there’s no certainty that, even with the best efforts of the pilots, that drones won’t injure or kill civilians nearby the target, but simply pointing out these costs is not enough – we must compare them against the alternatives we have available. To kill or capture the terrorists by more conventional means you could use airstrikes (just as bad, if not worse than drones), cruise missiles (significantly worse than drones), or fly in a team of soldiers to attack the location (big chance of failure, high chance of friendly casualties and no guarantee that civilians won’t get caught in the crossfire anyway). Assuming we are committed to the mission, then comparing the costs and benefits of each option we have to complete it, it becomes clear that drones are actually the superior option – preventing friendly casualties, if not preventing then at least controlling civilian casualties, and getting the job done with a high chance of success.


I’ve come across a few people who, while they agree that drones are an effective method of waging war, feel that it’s the impersonal nature of drones that make them wrong – that by fighting war from the safety of a bunker we have robbed it of its horrors, which in turn make it easier for us to kill without remorse or reflection. Surely if we believe in a cause enough to fight and kill other people then we should be willing to put ourselves at risk in the process? Isn’t it the height of brutality to kill others remotely while never giving them a chance to defend themselves?

This is an interesting point; certainly a world where war has become mundane is not a place I want to live and we should be on guard for that ever happening. But while the idea is compelling, take a step back and ask yourself; do we really think war would be improved by putting more people at risk than we have to? Are we really suggesting that more human lives should be exposed to the horrors of war than have to be? What would be the point of that? To make more sporting? Well if inflicting suffering on both sides is what we’re after then you’ll be pleased to find out that drone pilots are not as immune from the scars of war as we’d expect – in fact nearly 25% of them come down with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their work. Apparently watching yourself calmly kill people ain’t great for the human psyche.


So… hooray for drones then?


Yeah, no.

Ironically the same line of reasoning that I used to defend military drones just now, is the same line of reasoning that ultimately kills it as an option. By pulling back in perspective a bit we were able to realize that, while civilian casualties are indeed a bad thing and drone may break the international laws of war, they are superior to the other alternatives we have for the job at hand – conventional tactics simply won’t work as well in killing terrorist leaders. But pull back the perspective another step and suddenly we have another question to ask here: what exactly are we trying to achieve here?

Killing terrorists is all well and good, but the whole point of war is that it serves a larger purpose. We don’t fight battles and send citizens to kill and die for shits and giggles; we do it to achieve something, something we consider valuable enough to justify the death, suffering and destruction war delivers in the process. Islamic terrorists are doing it to impose what they consider to be god’s values on the world (or for personal power with God as a convenient excuse, if we’re being justifiably cynical). The USA and its western partners on the other hand, are aiming to eliminate the threat of global terrorism, to protect civilians, guard against extreme ideologies, and while they’re at it, tighten their political grip over the region and pinch a bit of oil in the process (we’re being justifiably cynical here, remember).

The aim of eliminating terrorism is a noble one, but sadly it isn’t the sort of thing that you can shoot – even with a predator drone. The ideas driving terrorism are just that: ideas. The people who hold them can be killed, their actions can be prevented, but the ideas that drive them cannot. And just like any other set of ideas, they will spread if people see any merit to them based on their personal beliefs and the evidence available to them.

So when you have terrorists promoting their ideas on the basis that the west is corrupt, evil and not to be trusted, evidence that confirms this in people’s eyes will help spread those ideas. Evidence like sudden terrible death raining down on them from the sky above, annihilating the same people that were just warning them about American devils, and killing or maiming a few dozen of their friends and family in the process, well… that’s not going to help matters, is it?

‘Acceptable collateral damage’ isn’t a terribly compelling rebuttal here, is it?

Now obviously it would be foolish to argue that terrorism shouldn’t be met with any force in case we alienate people against us – the sad reality is that force can only be countered by force and trying to win hearts and minds alone ain’t going to get you far when the other side has guns. But when the ultimate objective of the War on Terror is not to kill the enemy but rather to kill an idea, then everything we do in the war must be designed to fulfil that objective – and invisible machines raining death from the sky and occasionally killing civilians does not fit that bill.

Earlier on I argued that, despite civilian casualties, drones could be justified as a weapon of war because all the alternatives available would likely make an even bigger mess of things. And this is still true when the aim of the war is simply to kill the enemy – but when the aim is instead to kill an idea, this calculation changes dramatically. Airstrikes, cruise missiles and artillery would indeed still be far worse than a tightly focussed drone strike, but where inserting human soldiers was clearly the worse choice before, now it makes a lot more sense. Yes, deploying soldiers puts human lives at risk, and this is indeed a bad thing. But whereas drones run a huge risk of killing civilians, humans can take the extra effort to protect them. Where drones strike anonymously, human soldiers add a face that other people can recognise, question and understand. And if it all goes tits-up and a civilian does get killed? A human being can explain, apologies, and hold themselves accountable. A drone just flies away.

Like it or not, killing is a very real and very necessary part of modern life. There are those that would do millions of people grave harm for radical and bizarre ideals, and that harm can only be prevented by force of our own. Military drones are a powerful option with many benefits compared to the other alternatives available, despite the terrible costs they reap. But when the use of drones or any other effective weapon undermines the core purpose of fighting in the first place, driving more and more people to embrace the very ideals we aim to eliminate, then using them is a grave mistake.

One thought on “The Ethics Of… War Drones

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Heroes | The Ethics Of

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