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The Morality of Drones


Are weaponized drone aircraft more moral than the more traditional killing machines used in warfare?  In an opinion published in Sunday’s New York Times, the paper’s national security reporter, Scott Shane, argues outrageously that they are.

But his argument is as incredibly flawed and overly narrow as his job title (more on that a little further down).

Briefly put, Shane argues that based on what he claims is a range of data suggesting that civilian deaths from US drone strikes in Pakistan fall somewhere between 4% and 20% of those killed, drones are less lethal to civilians than ground attacks, rocket attacks, artillery attacks or air strikes by piloted aircraft.  He notes that the Pakistani military’s attacks on militants in the western tribal areas have had a civilian kill ratio of 46%, similar to the 41% civilian death rate for Israeli Defense Force attacks on militants in Gaza and the West Bank. He also says that civilian death rates in wars over the last two decades have ranged from 33% to 80%.

Shane doesn’t say where he got his figures for civilian deaths from US drone strikes, but they are ridiculously low. A study by the Brookings Institution, a very mainstream Washington think tank that is hardly a left-wing or peacenik organization, and that is often quoted by the Times as a reliable source, suggests that the kill ratio of civilians to legitimate targets in US drone strikes is probably 10:1, a horrific figure Shane clearly chose to ignore. He also ignored a more conservative estimate by the New America Foundation in February that put the civilian kill ratio from the drone strikes at 30%. Even that lower figure would be 50% higher than Shane’s high-end figure of 20%.

Meanwhile, nowhere in his article does Shane decry those shockingly high figures for overall civilian kill ratios by the Israeli IDF or in the wars fought, primarily by the US, over the last few decades. Indeed, I would have to say I have never before read in the New York Times that more than four in 10 of those killed by Israel’s IDF in its attacks in the occupied territories of Palestine have been innocent civilians.  I dare say furthermore that the truly shocking toll of 80% civilian deaths from military actions is likely a reference to America’s invasion of Iraq, though again this is the first time I’ve read of such high innocent civilian casualties in this country’s leading newspaper (which has a sorry record of having supported pretty much all of America’s aggressive wars). A Google search of Shane’s writings turns up no such mentions.

Just to cite one example of America’s brutal slaughter of innocents in the Iraq invasion, consider the US Marines’ assault on Fallujah in November 2004. In that revenge-driven leveling of a major city, 1000 militants were said to have been killed. Meanwhile, at least 6000 civilians were killed, which represents a civilian kill rate of 600%!

Of course, even if Shane is correct, and the kill ratio of civilians to “legitimate” militant targets is lower for drones than it is for other means of warfare and weaponry, that is hardly a basis for calling drones more “moral.”  Just to give one example of the problem, one would have to determine whether the civilians killed were children. Countries engaged in warfare are obligated under the laws of warfare to take special precautions to protect children. When drones are used to attack militants in their homes, or in wedding celebrations, or to follow up initial attacks by attacking funeral processions, the odds of killing children rise dramatically.  The numbers cited by Shane in his article make no attempt to establish how many babies and young children are being killed in drone strikes.

Shane also makes some arguments that are wholly unsupported in arguing in favor of drone attacks. He writes, “Since drone operators can view a target for hours or days in advance of a strike, they can identify terrorists more accurately than ground troops or conventional pilots. They are able to time a strike when innocents are not nearby, and can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.”

I suppose that theoretically the above statement is true, but I have never seen one example of such humane cautionary actions being taken by a drone pilot, and clearly if anything like a diversion to protect an unanticipated child in a target area had ever happened in the history of the drone program, it would long ago have been trotted out to the compliant corporate news media by the Pentagon’s propagandists to warm the hearts of America’s blind patriots.

To his credit, Shane does mention one reason drones cannot ever be moral weapons of war, and that is that they “threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence.”  He quotes political science professor Daniel R. Brunstetter of the University of California at Irvine as warning that drones, because they pose no risk to American military personnel, are becoming “a default strategy to be used almost
anywhere,” while “In the just-war tradition, there’s a notion that you only wage war as a last resort.”

That is certainly what is happening under President Obama, who has okayed the use of drones in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and almost surely, since they are operated by both the Pentagon and the CIA, in places that we haven’t even heard about yet–none of which, with the exception of Afghanistan, the US is officially at war with.

Looking at this flawed discussion of the supposed moral superiority of attack drones, it is clear that the author views his own title far too narrowly.  A true “national security” beat would not just encompass the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. It would include covering the environment, it would include education, it would include the economy. Since the militarists, Republican and Democrat alike, turned the whole world, including the domestic US, into a permanent war zone following the 9-11 attacks and the creation of the so-called “War on Terror,” the US has become not more but less secure year after year as military spending has increased, international antipathy towards the US has grown, foreign wars have grown in number, and funds available for such critical programs as schools and efforts to combat climate disaster have dwindled.

Instead of reporting on whether drones are a more moral way of killing, Shane should be discussing whether it is moral for the US to be spending as much on its military as the rest of the world combined.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.

This article originally appeared today on PressTV

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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