Is drone war moral?

UPDATED: A philosopher's arguments in defense of drone strikes are both odious and wrong

Published August 6, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)



“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer ... [but] I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy. I have a duty, and I execute the duty.” By their own accounts, drone pilots spend weeks stalking their targets -- observing the intimate patterns of their daily life such as playing with their children, meeting neighbors, talking to their wives -- before finding a moment when the family is away to launch the missile that will end their target's life. Afterward they drive home like any other commuter, perhaps stopping at a fast food restaurant or convenience store before coming home to their families for the night. “I feel like I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, I just don’t deploy to do it.”

Recently, the Guardian published a piece about Bradley Strawser, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., which made the argument that drone strikes are not just moral but that the U.S. should in fact consider itself morally obliged to use them in combat. "It's all upside. There's no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there's a tremendous value … You're not risking the pilot. The pilot is safe.”

That the overwhelming majority of Strawser’s argument is based on the reduced potential of physical harm to the aircraft pilot, while precious little concern is given the people on the ground -- often completely innocent, who are being killed in huge numbers by these strikes -- is certainly abhorrent. But it must also be noted that for all the attention his work is receiving, he is of course a paid employee of an institution devoted to serving the military and his opinion is far from unbiased. His livelihood comes from the very people whom he is tasked with philosophically critiquing, a circumstance far more conducive to obsequious rationalization than moral criticism. At the end of the piece he even expresses his own gratitude for receiving gainful employment in his field of study: “I wanted to be a working philosopher and here I am. Ridiculous good fortune."

Of course it would be nearly impossible for Strawser to come to a conclusion that would morally condemn the practice of his own employer, so in that sense it is difficult to fault him for coming to the conclusion he did. But it still does not mean that his philosophical opinions on such subjects are any more credible or less troubling – the employment of philosophers by governments and militaries to legitimize odious policies has a long and ignoble history and should be looked at as what it is: propaganda.

Having said that, it is worth understanding (from a position less obviously fraught with bias) whether there is in fact a unique moral detriment involved in using remote-operated drones for combat. Drones are obviously not the first major advancement in military technology; the past century alone has brought about a plethora of different tools that have enabled human beings to kill each other with greater effectiveness and with greater detachment than ever before. The days of lining up in rows to fire muskets or charging enemy positions with swords and shields have long since passed, and the physical detachment of launching a cruise missile from great distance is arguably comparable to firing a Hellfire missile from a drone.

Indeed, humans have been killing each other without even seeing each other’s faces since French Trebuchets launched projectiles at enemies miles away, and the artillery batteries of WW1 were able to inflict death from even longer distances and at even less personal risk. However, notwithstanding Bradley Strawser’s enthusiasm for the unprecedented degree of safety offered to the pilots of remote-operated drones, there are a few factors that make drone warfare particularly insidious and undercut his claims to its inherent morality.

No Surrender

Imagine a drone following a man who suddenly becomes aware of its presence. The pilot has orders to treat his target as hostile and is ready to pull the trigger. Frightened and aware of what is imminently coming, the man waves his hands to identify himself as non-threatening and to surrender to his enemy. The man, however, is standing on an embankment in North-Western Pakistan while the pilot who had been stalking him is thousands of miles away in the deserts of Nevada. There is no way to accept his surrender, and if a mistake has been made and this man has been misidentified as a target there is no way for this to be communicated. A pilot in this case would nonetheless be forced to pull the trigger, as there is no identifiable or feasible way for someone to surrender to an unmanned drone.

Protocol I of the Geneva Convention clearly states that there is a legal requirement to accept the surrender of an individual who expresses the intent to surrender himself. Such a person is literally considered “outside of combat” and thus even if he is a combatant at the point where he surrenders he is as illegitimate a target as any other civilian. Drone warfare, of course, offers no inherent facility to deal with such individuals, save for killing them or conversely allowing them safe passage -- the latter being an extremely unlikely outcome in most cases. The oft-horrific result of such a circumstance has been noted by the people most intimately familiar with the program itself. As former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright put it, “To me, the weakness in the drone activity is that if there’s no one on the ground, and the person puts his hands out, he can’t surrender … What makes it worse with a Predator is you’re actually watching it. You know when he puts his hands up.”

In rationalizing such a scenario, one may perhaps argue that the Geneva Convention provisions that grant the right of surrender are themselves outdated and unsuitable to a new age of warfare. However, very few would be likely to waive this right for their own soldiers who one day may need to surrender, and declaring as antiquated the provisions of the international agreement that was created specifically to prevent a repeat of the mass bloodletting of World War II is a slippery slope.


"It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants, they count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are."

Roughly speaking, there are two types of drone strikes that can be carried out: ones where the identity of the target is known and ones where it is not. The latter are known as “signature strikes” – drone strikes that are carried out against targets whose names, ages, occupations and political sympathies are completely unknown but who are still killed based on the opinions of those observing from abroad as to whether they are connected to militant activity. Behavior that may arouse such suspicion includes a group of males meeting together in an area considered hostile, a car driving in an area where militants are believed to be operating and other highly speculative and unverifiable rationales. In the revelations about the Obama administration’s secret “kill lists,” it also came out what exactly the official definition of a “militant” is from the White House’s perspective: “All military-age males in a strike zone.” In other words: Every man killed by a drone is by official definition a militant according to the U.S. government and correspondingly the news organizations who release reports regularly citing “militant” deaths.

Imagine sentencing someone to the death penalty without even knowing who they are and then after the fact branding them as a criminal and you will have an analogous situation to the drone war being fought in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. By any reasonable standard the tactics entailed in the drone campaign must fit into an accounting of its morality, yet this chilling and apparently integral aspect of drone warfare somehow manages to escape the scrutiny of Strawser. While he claims in his argument that drones are so accurate that they, by necessity, reduce civilian casualties, what he fails to realize in his Panglossian analysis is that in many cases the pilots are not even required to ascertain the identities of their intended targets. As many have noted, this policy of “kill first, ask questions later” is tantamount to extra-judicial murder and the supposed moral benefit of firing accurate missiles is greatly reduced when you don’t even know who is on the other end of them.

No Cost

In stark contrast to traditional means of fighting wars, drones are both inexpensive and safe for the military to operate, even on a large scale. The risk of friendly casualties alienating domestic support for the war is almost nil, and the relative unobtrusiveness (at home) of operating these aircraft means that the military can fight wars in multiple countries with the public barely noticing the impact. After all, by the traditional standard of what one would define as a “war,” the United States is indeed at war in Yemen, Somalia and parts of Pakistan; yet few Americans recognize it as being the case and, indeed, neither officially does the United States. That violence can be carried out on such a massive scale with so little scrutiny is one of the most important aspects of the drone war and perhaps its most insidious. In the past governments have often found their ability to wage wars abroad constrained by the citizenry who have borne the brunt of the social pressures these wars inevitably create. As such, the prospect of perpetual war fought on an expanding scale would have been impossible until very recently. Casualties would occur, enormous sums of money would be spent, and upon reaching a breaking point in stress the people would come out into the streets to demand an end to such policies.

What the low-cost, zero casualties nature of the drone campaign does is compartmentalize the war away from public consciousness by taking away the externalities that would force people to take notice in the first place. That you can fight a drone war in Pakistan that kills thousands of people and terrorizes entire villages into PTSD while barely noticing it at home is something unique in history. Viewed in this light it is no wonder that Americans are so perplexed at Pakistani attitudes toward their country; because even though Pakistanis are intimately acquainted with the magnitude of suffering caused by U.S. policies in their country, most Americans scarcely feel the effects.

Thus to a degree unprecedented in history the advent of drone warfare has given the government a free hand to wage wars without public constraint and with minimal oversight. What this makes possible is a future in which there are far more wars, which for all their relative unobtrusiveness at home will continue to ravage the lives of people abroad. While such wars may be safer for soldiers, they will engender resentment and retribution as all wars do, and as a whole will make the world a more dangerous place for Americans in the long term.

President Obama’s “kill list,” which has been cleared so many times that it now includes among its high-value targets Yemeni teenage girls, is a manifestation of this policy of zero-consequence killing. With less public awareness there is necessarily less scrutiny and the war can continue while targeting people under an even wider definition of who constitutes “a threat.” While the people in these countries may be killed out of sight of the U.S. public, those on the receiving end certainly do remember who it was who ended the lives of their family members and are unlikely to be as laid-back toward civilian deaths as philosophers such as Strawser. As the Yemeni lawyer Haykal Banafa put it in a message directed at the president, “Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”

When viewed in complete isolation from other factors, the arguments that Strawser and other apologists for the drone war use about reducing military casualties can certainly be viewed as compelling and valid. As long as they have been fighting wars humans have sought out new technologies that would enhance their ability to kill without putting themselves in harm's way. That fewer soldiers on one's own side die in war is certainly a positive moral outcome when viewed in abstraction.

However, the drone war as a whole can only be viewed as a “moral obligation” if one ignores the massive destruction it continues to wreak upon the lives of those who are being killed by these weapons. Strawser’s analysis neatly brushes aside this group, as his argument can only stand on its own if the victims of drones are classed as immaterial non-humans. Far from being a uniquely moral weapon as Strawser claims, drones by their nature help facilitate more and longer wars, and do not even afford those targeted the ability to surrender or to identify themselves as non-combatants, a right enshrined in the Geneva Convention. While he understandably would like to brush aside these moral qualms about an establishment that has generously employed him as an in-house philosopher, they are nonetheless real and no amount of propaganda can plausibly turn the drone warfare into a “moral obligation” as he attempts.

Drones are thus not just a new weapon with which to fight conventional wars; they represent a sea change in the way conflicts in general are approached. Low-cost, low-risk killing will mean fewer questions and less scrutiny and ever higher body counts as the number of drones in the air continues to increase exponentially. The real ethical obligation is to remain vigilant against morally cretinous arguments such as the one put forth by Strawser and to fight against the normalization of a new, dangerous and in many respects fundamentally immoral form of warfare. That there is “no downside,” as Strawser claims, is only from the perspective of the military establishment he is a mouthpiece for; for the rest of us the downside is very real.

UPDATE: Professor Strawser has written a follow-up to his original Guardian article in which he says some of his views in the original article were misattributed or misconstrued. While the piece does not address the issues brought up here about the inherently immoral aspects of the drone war, his piece is still worth reading to give a more complete picture of his own position and the context in which it came about.

By Murtaza Hussain

Murtaza Hussain is a journalist with The Intercept.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Bradley Strawser Drones Pakistan Philosophy Somalia Yemen