Forget What Amnesty International Says – Drone Use is Moral

A report by Amnesty International regarding the use by the US Government of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as drones. The report, bearing the title ‘Will I Be Next? US Drone Strikes in Pakistan’, was prompted by several cases of particular uses of drones to militarily strike targets where it is possible that unarmed civilians were killed. Amnesty International contend in the report that what these strikes may amount to unlawful killings under international law.

There is no doubting that innocent people dying in the carrying out of any kind of military operation is a disaster. However, the use of drones for military strikes (as opposed to traditional use of human soldiers, ‘boots on the ground’ in combat) has received a particular level of opposition. The very one-sided discussion of the use of drones is a prejudice shared by many left liberals and right libertarians alike, many of whom argue that the use of drones is either immoral, or ineffective, or both. I wish to counter this argument.

Drone attack in Somali

First, let’s look at the charge that drones are somehow much more prone to killing innocent civilians than soldiers are. All the available evidence points to the suggestion that drone strikes lead to a reduction in civilian casualties when compared with similar operations conducted by soldiers. Also, no doubting owing to the effectiveness of drones to travel at greater height and speed than humans can, there has likely been an increase in successful terminations of proper targets in comparable operations performed by human soldiers. Of course, let it be said, there are cases of what is still chillingly called ‘collateral damage’, i.e. the times when the danger of the potential killing of innocents in military exercises is actualised. But the entire argument that drone use increases this danger is redundant, as all of the evidence that using drones decreases such a risk. The Independent’s article on this yesterday paraphrases my point more succinctly than I could:

Their report comes after a UN human rights investigator last week called for America to release death toll figures. Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism said at least 330 drone strikes were on record in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas since 2004, killing over two thousand people, of which 400 were civilians.”

This figure doesn’t look pretty on paper, but what this amounts to in real terms is a huge reduction in civilian casualties. If anyone can show me a success to failure rating by military missions performed by soldiers over a 9 year period better than this one, I will stand corrected.

Pakistani anti-drone protesters

Second, as well as the decrease in risk of killing innocents (which I still feel I need to stress does sometimes happen, though not at the ratio that much of the media would like to paint it as), there is the huge decrease in risk to soldiers to take into account. The reasons for this decrease are obvious; if a remotely piloted craft with no soldiers on board is conducting a dangerous mission, there is no chance the soldiers can be hurt (at least, not directly) from the possible perils of the mission. I still haven’t heard this argument refuted, although I do sometimes get the impression that some of the sorts of people who oppose drone use are often the sort of people who don’t give a fig about risk to soldiers either way.

There is an argument which, while not a counter to my point, is related to it. I’ve heard one opinion that if you take the human nature via the human soldier out of a mission, the killing which sometimes occurs by drones (when not fulfilling other kinds of missions, such as reconnaissance work) becomes far more detached. I think this is a fair point to make, but it is important to recognise that it swings both ways. As Heinrich Heine once said in another context, the fatal flaw in a battle tank is its driver. If a soldier is feeling (perhaps wrongly) threatened by someone, and their life is genuinely at risk, their adrenaline-fuelled response is much more likely to be shoot first, ask questions later. If a soldier is sitting in a fort or on a faraway airstrip, looking through a camera, they are far more likely to integrate a more rational calculation into their own personal equation of warfare. The worst that can happen is the drone is shot down. It might cost money, but it doesn’t cost lives.

I pose it as a hypothetical that many of you can relate to; in the now infamous video of the U.S. Apache chopper opening fire on the Reuters journalists released by Wikileaks, would those soldiers, who were quick to shoot out of fear for their own lives, have been so quick to fire if they hadn’t been in any danger? Perhaps a minute or two longer to investigate could have saved the lives of those journalists. A drone could easily have saved those lives. It is often the case that taking the human element out of war is a good thing; this is one of those cases.


Third, there is the question of location to consider. Where are drones used? Well, mainly Pakistan; indeed, this is where the bulk of drone targets are carried out. With this, you would think that the Pakistani government would be vehement in their condemnation of drone strikes; actually, quote the opposite is true. Despite some official statements protesting the use of drones by the Pakistani government, drone strikes within Pakistan are largely considered to be very useful in neutralising genuine threats by terrorists from groups such as Al-Qaeda (whose leadership in Pakistan has by and large been crippled, if not quite decimated, by drone strikes) and the lesser-known anti-Shiite group Lashkar-e-Jhangvhi.

With their ‘official’ murmurs and complaints, it would be a step too far to say that drone strikes were warmly welcomed and encouraged by the Pakistani government. Off the books, however, the police and security forces of Pakistan are aided immensely by drone strikes, particularly in the F.A.T.A. regions (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) of Pakistan which are often difficult to access without putting human life in danger. It was even reported by The Times in 2009 that the CIA were using the Shamsi Airfield with the permission of the Pakistani government to conduct drone strikes.[1]

People who place emphasis on the noise made about drone use made by some Pakistani officials should note that if the Pakistani government were as efficient at getting rid of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvhi, Harkat-ul-Mujahiden and other groups as drone use is, maybe they’d have the silhouette of a good point against the use of drones. But they don’t have the silhouette of a good point, because the level of efficiency provided by drone strikes is, relative to human-conducted operations, unparalleled.

(An aside: the death of the 18 men which in part prompted Amnesty International’s report were verified by Pakistani intelligence as having links to militancy in the Waziristan region.)

To conclude, we should consider the possible causes of the misconception that drone strikes are the greatest moral evil in the world, as much of the media paints them as (without too much hyperbole on my part). The root emotion which inspires the notion that drones do far more moral good in the world than moral evil is, I really do think, the narrow belief that every problem in the world is the fault of America. There is nothing wrong with hardened criticism of any nation; indeed, the world’s biggest superpower deserves more criticism aimed at it than most. But the border between healthy scepticism and dogmatic, unthinking cynicism is a border crossed by far too many when it comes to talk of Uncle Sam.

In an ideal world, nobody would have to die. Every ‘bad guy’ in the world would see a crying child or a pretty cloud and would instantly surrender for the sake of humanity. The United Nations could then all lock these bad people away in prisons made out of marshmallow, whilst outside, in the real world, doves fly overhead and poverty is eradicated, cutting the flow of inspiration for the dreadful songs Bob Geldof churns out. But this is reality. Quite often there is violence and death and, amidst the waves of sloppy moral relativism, there is a fight going on between good people and bad people (or at the very least ‘better’ people and ‘worse’ people). With my support for the use of drones, I’d rather those fights are carried out in the most effective, rational and risk-free way we have available to us. But maybe that’s just me.

[1] I never usually put footnotes in my articles, but I haven’t managed to locate the link to the relevant article online. It was in the February 18th, 2009 copy of The Times. The authors of it were Tom Coghlan, Zahid Hussein and Jeremy Page.


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