On November 26, 2011, an American drone flew over the hilly Pakistani border after successfully hitting its target. The result: 24 Pakistani soldiers lay dead, and 13 civilians were injured. This dramatic incident was no anomaly. The United States has engaged in drone warfare in Pakistan for almost a decade, killing over 2300 militants and at least 500 civilians according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are used to fly in conditions deemed unsuitable or unsafe for humans.
However, is this impersonal method of killing immoral? While drone warfare is no more damaging than conventional warfare, the psychological effects it could have on drone pilots and the virtually unchecked power the President has to conduct military strikes without Congressional approval are extremely worrying.
Among the most significant criticisms of drone warfare is the claim that the unmanned aircrafts minimize the full emotional impact of death, turning killing into something akin to a video game. During missile-fire, soldiers take their cues from computers, shooting at targets that might be hundreds of miles away. While military generals have frequently made orders outside of warzones throughout history, the lack of an actual human being directly executing attacks contributes to a new level of impersonality in war.
However, the very dispassion that drones are criticized for also provides one of the strongest arguments in their favor. Drone strikes allow for cooler calculations, mitigating the effect of human emotions that can compromise decision-making capabilities. Drones permit precise, calculated strikes, theoretically minimizing the toll on civilian lives and shielding soldiers from direct combat.
There is some disagreement as to the actual benefits of impersonal warfare. As Harvard preceptor Paul Sludds explained to the HPR, “Many philosophers think that emotion is a key factor in our moral compass.” While dispassion might yield the most effective course of action, emotion can allow individuals to experience, “more acutely what is going on and to make the most moral decision possible.” Impersonality in drone warfare, therefore, could be a double-edged sword.
The Men Behind the Machines
While drones represent a sizeable improvement over conventional methods in precision and minimizing casualties, the effects on pilots are unclear. Sludds notes that in all other forms of battle, the soldier is imperiled. It is precisely this risk that conveys the full impact of war onto a soldier and affects the decisions he makes on the battlefield.
But, a less obvious distinction with traditional combat is the lack of clear separation between military and civilian life. Soldiers on the ground do not immediately return home after missions, but instead stay on base close to the battlefield. This separation allows soldiers a chance to reflect and decompress before their return home.
This lack of separation for drone pilots is potentially troublesome, given that they can remotely complete a mission, often involving the death of numerous individuals, and return home immediately after. As Sludds explained, “The danger with these people, is that we would have some guy in Nevada going to work in the morning, killing a few people, then coming back home to hug his wife and watch the Super Bowl.” The effects are largely unstudied, but the blurring line between the warfront and home front underscores the potential problems of a highly impersonal form of warfare.
Silent Killers of American Democracy
The greatest questions surrounding drone warfare, however, are more legal than ethical, and drone usage may undermine the democratic process. When the United States invaded Iraq, it was heavily criticized for not putting the decision up to a true democratic vote. However, the issue was at least debated and contested by Congress because it involved risking the lives of the American soldiers.
Drones in contrast remove the human element, making the decision of going to war much less contentious. American drone strikes in Pakistan, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere are on a scale that would have received more political scrutiny from the public had they been manned missions. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute explained in a recent article that lack of men on the ground significantly reduces the financial and mental cost of war. Singer asserted that without military casualties to influence voters, politicians “no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way.”
There is some question, however, as to the legitimacy of these concerns. The war decision-making process has long excluded average Americans, and since the Civil War, the United States has not fought a major battle on American soil, shielding civilians from the true costs of war.
But drone use may further reduce the citizenry’s ability to control when the United States wages war. Harvard Professor Shawn Ramirez tells the HPR that drone warfare allows the President, “to bypass Congress and essentially conduct strikes that nobody else knows about.” Because the drone program is controlled by the CIA and not the military, the President has exclusive authority to reveal statistics about the engagements conducted and resulting casualties. Congress has limited capacity to investigate these matters, and even groups like the American Civil Liberties Union cannot discuss the matter meaningfully because drone programs are not officially recognized. The lack of oversight from groups outside of the executive branch marks a significant shift in power.
Nevertheless, Professor Patrick Lin of the California Polytechnic State Institute disagrees with this notion that new military technology is a threat to democracy. He explained to the HPR that although this may appear to create an imbalance of power between the branches, the “balance of powers is already off kilter since the War Powers Resolution has been routinely ignored by our presidents for decades.” Instead, the power of shared information through the Internet and the media has replaced the importance of shared power among the three branches. Demonstrations of public disapproval are immediate and effective, leading Lin to contend that power focused on the executive allows citizens to “focus [their] disapproval on a single person” rather than creating general discontent with “hundreds of elected officials.” While the initial decision to carry out strikes may rest with one individual, the choice to continue falls upon the many.
A more subtle concern with drone strikes shifts the focus from domestic effects to their global impact. Ramirez argues that the United States’ main hesitation when it comes to drone warfare should be the political instability it often breeds. Ironically, the very tool intended to fight terrorists may actually undercut American efforts.
Initially, drone warfare offered a diplomatic loophole whereby the United States could conduct anti-terror strikes without Pakistan and other countries perceiving a violation of sovereignty. Instead, drone strikes are now widely regarded on par with any manned craft in terms of intrusiveness. Policymakers fear that citizens of targeted countries will no longer support their governments if the United States is allowed to conduct drone strikes. This uncertainty may fuel more instability in the already shaky Arab world, and in the turmoil terrorist groups could gain a greater foothold.
Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy, told the HPR that he sees no end to drone warfare in the near future. Barry said, “The U.S. public, the U.S. Congress and most of the media support these clandestine operations for two main reasons: support for counterterrorism wars and intervention, and the relative lack of risk to U.S. lives.”
Indeed, there may even be a time when, “drone operations at home become more common, whether for homeland security, military training, or law enforcement and public safety.” Only then perhaps will the public begin raising real questions about their use. Until that time though, as the United States continues to modernize its military, drones have become an integral part of the military’s repertoire.