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Civilian Casualties and the Ethics of Drones

February 8, 2010

BBC4 recently broadcast Robo Wars, an interesting series on the use of drones in war. (Drones are planes without pilots.)

It turns out the US alone has 7,000 drones– a number I initially found quite surprising. The companies making drones cannot keep up with the demand for them.

Once you stop and think about it, it makes complete sense. Given the US ‘s interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the reluctance of the public to accept the casualties that come with war, it’s no wonder that the Pentagon decided that drones would be the future of warfare. It seems after all, like a no-brainer: precise, high-tech protection for the boots on the ground without the need to risk another soldier’s life.  That looks like a pretty good deal if your only goal is to protect your own troops.

Now consider this:

Mark Jenkins is an experienced RAF pilot, flying combat missions over Afghanistan.  But he works from an airbase in Nevada, 8,000 miles away. “I’ve got a 45-minute drive home. And then by the time I’m home, I’m kind of straight into family life.”

Mark is completely detached from the people that he is killing. And this is the point of the program– the implication is that a person who has to put his or her own life at risk will be more careful before pulling the trigger. She can assess the situation better if she is there herself. She may think twice if there are civilians at risk. Former CIA lawyer Vicki Divoll said it best:

“When the controls are manned by someone in a suburb of Washington rather than by someone in the field you become so detached that there’s no cost, there’s no limitation on you.”

The whole thing starts looking like a video game. And it turns out that this assessment is not too far from reality:

The US is already recruiting drone pilots from among young men skilled at computer games. Instead of flying into danger they may never need to leave the security of a cabin full of computer screens on home soil.

What does it mean for warfare when killing people takes on the form of the virtual and the soldier never has to face the consequences of her actions? She will never see the family members’ suffering. She will not go to their house and pay compensation and apologize for causing “collateral damage”. She will never realize that she has sown the seeds of hatred for America and for the West in that one fleeting instant when she pressed a button and obliterated a real live human being. And because it is such a new phenomenon and there is no law in place as yet, if she chooses to kill an extra civilian or two, she will not necessarily be held to account.

Such is the secrecy surrounding CIA operations that there are no clear rules of engagement. There is “no accountability after the fact” says Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions.

From a research perspective, there are some really interesting questions that we need to be thinking about.

1. Do pilots behave differently when flying drones than when they are flying their jets in the war theatre? Are they more detached from the “enemy”? What about the civilians?

2. Are they less reluctant to kill?

3. Does training matter? Do computer game recruits who have never had to put their lives in danger fire more indiscriminately than those who have fought in battle?

The answers to these questions have some very important implications. If, as people like Vicki Divoll suspect, it is easier to kill because the pilots are more detached from the situation, then  it is likely that we are seeing many more civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq than would otherwise have been the case if they had not used drones, but traditional fighter jets.

By trying to protect their soldiers from harm, is the US inadvertently harming its own long term interests by sowing the seeds of anger and opposition by killing many more Afghan and Iraqi civilians than would otherwise have been the case?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    February 13, 2010 1:37 pm

    I wonder whether there is a potentially counter-balancing effect to the one you suggest. Might pilots at a distance from the warzone, operating without the rush of adrenaline or the fear of death, and with greater potential for supervision, not be in a better position to fully consider the likely consequences of pulling the trigger?

    Of course, only research can reveal the answer to your questions. But I think there may well be effects in both directions.

  2. February 13, 2010 4:06 pm

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your thoughts! This is certainly plausible– I can see that those who order airstrikes targeting a specific individual would carefully weigh up how badly they want that person dead vs. all of the additional civilians that might be killed as part of the strike. I’m sure you’re right and that there is a cost-benefit calculation that is consciously performed here.

    The problem, I think, is that the equation looks something like this: 1 American soldier’s life= 200 Iraqi/Afghan civilians; additionally, 1 high value target may be worth killing the 20-30 civilians that happen to be in that person’s proximity. Maybe this is what I’m really objecting to, the inherent unfairness in how my life would be valued in comparison to theirs.

    Also, I think the larger problem may be with the greater use of airstrikes, and not just drones. Drones are only lowering the thresholds for doing something that was already fairly easy to do. The crux of it is that there isn’t much subtlety to airstrikes. You can’t separate individual civilians from the target so they all get killed.


  3. October 31, 2010 6:46 pm

    i like computer games that are first person shooting and strategy games .

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