Ethics of Drone Strikes
The increasing use of drones in combat has raised a number of different ethical issues. Drones are typically used to bomb foreign territory. The operators control the drones remotely, often from locations in the United States. Working with equipment not unlike a video game, they fly the drones into combat or ambush situations, where they then carry out their missions, often from thousands of miles away. Some of the ethics issues that arise are the impacts on the operators, the impacts on the territories where the drones are being used, and the morals of war in general, which may be altered by the use of weaponized drones.
Weaponized Drones and War
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Michael Hayden (2016) argued that drones play an important role in modern warfare. His position essentially argues that while there are flaws with the program, the program itself is necessary, and it would be better to work out those flaws than to abandon the use of drones. There are a few underlying principles worth exploring. First, the United States has always worked with a realist outlook to the world. As such, it uses its economic, political and military power to achieve its objectives. This creates tensions with other nations and groups, and sometimes those tensions escalate into open conflict. The United States has therefore maintained the world's largest military to address the constant state of conflict in which it finds itself. The doctrine of realism rejects the idea of morality in international politics (Karpowicz, 2013). This is necessary in part because there are many competing moral frameworks by which actions can be judged, but also because international politics is seen in terms of outcomes for each individual nation -- if its outcomes are superior than the action is justified.
Hayden's central argument, then, is that the objective of America's political action is either to enhance America's interests or to ensure America's safety. The latter is more important because it satisfies the condition of maintaining a standard of existence rather than enhancing it. Thus, threats to America's security will need to be dealt with. This, Hayden points out, is the role of the military. The choice of technology that the military uses, ultimately, is not that important. What is important is that the military performs its job. Keeping America safe is interpreted as launching attacks on its enemies, sometimes in a punitive manner but sometimes in a pre-emptive manner.
Under realism, the only manner in which to judge drone strikes is based on their effectiveness at performing a specific role. Hayden argues that the drones strikes are effective, as they often kill senior operatives who are actively planning threats against the United States, including attacks using weapons of mass destruction. The actual impact of such targeted killings at preventing terrorist attacks can only be speculated, but the military believes that the drone strikes have played a critical role in the prevention of such attacks, therefore they are to be considered effective.
Just War Theory
The discussion on the ethics of drone strikes makes reference to just war theory. This theory is outlined in three parts -- the justice of entering into war, justice in the conduct of war, and the justice...
These concepts, not surprisingly are open to significant interpretation. Just war theory combined with political realism categorically places a nation against its enemies. If those enemies are believed to be a direct threat, then nation has just cause to pursue action against them. There is no requirement for procedural justice -- the nation can do what it needs to in order to ensure the outcome of its security. Within the confines of realism, a lot of war can be deemed just.
This is not to say that the ethics of entering into this conflict with terrorist groups is settled. The terrorists in question are often in remote locations on foreign soil -- in Pakistan, in Yemen and other similar locations. It is hard to make the case that they pose any sort of direct, immediate threat to the United States from these places. The self-defence argument, therefore, rests on one of two propositions. The first is that terrorist attacks planned in such locations often target areas in the U.S., or the West, and therefore they are more a threat than they would appear. Further, that U.S. interests extend beyond the territorial borders of the nation, and many of the attacks were focused on defending U.S. troops in these areas, or the troops of U.S. allies. This position is more or less defensible on realist grounds.
The other proposition is that the people targeted in these strikes are rogues, terrorists whose mission by definition is to commit violent atrocities. It is not a matter that they are enemies of the United States, but that they are enemies of all decent people, anywhere. This proposition is somewhat harder to defend, but it can be noted that there are very few moral codes where killing innocents is considered acceptable, and thus for most of the world the individuals targeted in drone strikes are indeed immoral people. It is, at the very least, worthy of military engagement with such individuals.
The second component of just war theory pertains to the rules of engagement. This is where the ethics of drones are viewed as considerably muddier than the ethics of war in general. Hayden does not accept that there is any sort of noble way to wage a war, but rather that war is something to be fought with the objective of winning. To insert morality into war -- for example as in the Geneva Convention -- is absurd because war is about killing. Even if waging war with some rules to protect against civilian casualties or cruel deaths makes sense, drone strikes are typically clean, instant deaths that would not under normal circumstances contravene any ethics about killing enemy combatants.
The question of civilian casualties is often raised in the context of drone strikes There are many anecdotes about civilians being killed or injured in drone strikes. Even with the best evidence and surveillance, there is an element of uncertainty with respect to who is being hit, and who might be in the vicinity at the time. Coll (2014) outlines a few narratives of civilian casualties, for example. But there are questions about such concerns. First, a realist does not question the morality of the weapon, and if the weapon lacks precision so be it, as long as the objective is achieved. Second, all war involves civilian casualties and if anything drones are more likely to avoid them than conventional weapons and warfare. Third, the enemy specifically targets civilians, so there is no expectation in this conflict of avoiding civilian casualty. Morality is not applied in either case, but if it is, it should not only be applied to one side.
The Impact on the Operators
One of the areas of interest to observers with respect to drones is the impact that this new type of warfare has on the operators. A unique characteristic of drone warfare is that the drone operator is entirely removed from the combat. Aircraft pilots, for example, must still physically fly an aircraft and activate the weapons from the airspace in order to strike a remote target. The drone operator, on the other hand, can be located anywhere in the world. This has significant implications for the ethics of drone warfare. On one hand, the realist view is clear that the remoteness of the operator is not relevant because there is no moral question about how a war is waged. To apply any sense of morality, that there is nobility is actually sending troops into harm's way is irrational. The result is all that matters. Drone warfare under that logic is just. If the operators are bothered psychologically is also irrelevant -- war always scars its participants, and that is no more or less true with drone strikes.
But the conduct of war in this context is interesting. The drone operator can be in the United States, far from the combat zone. The drone strike is little more than a video game -- using a device to control something on a screen. There is a certain detachment in this type of killing that was never there in any other type of warfare that has been waged. Killing someone in Pakistan, and then driving home in a completely safe domestic environment begs the question, at the very least of the impact that has on the drone operator. The drone operator may theoretically fail to realize the scope of the drone action. More important, the people giving the orders to use the drones might feel that way as well. The leaders in a warfare situation are always at least somewhat removed from the conflict, but with drone warfare they may be so disconnected from the theater of war that it might…
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