In last week’s Economist, an article delved into the increased use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – also known more colloquially as drones – in present-day warfare. As The Global Post noted in their related series, “The Drone Wars are the new black.”
What was once a super sleuth secret weapons program by the U.S. government is now openly referenced by the likes of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who recently said, “Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had in the CIA, although the Predators weren’t bad.”
Good one Leon. Not so “secret” anymore!
During his tenure as the former director of the CIA, Panetta “oversaw a dramatic increase” of drone strikes. Since becoming president, Barack Obama has intensified the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, from one every 40 days under the Bush administration to one strike every four days. The Economist reported,
John Brennan, Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism chief, has made it clear that as America draws down its forces in Afghanistan over the next three years, there will be no let up in drone strikes, which, he claims, are partly responsible for al-Qaeda being “on the ropes”. The grim Reaper’s ability to loiter for up to 24 hours, minutely observe human activity from five miles above while transmitting “full motion video” to its controllers and strike with pinpoint accuracy has made it the essential weapon in America’s “long war”.
According to U.S. officials, the rationale for an increased usage of UAVs is obvious – the drones allow reach into places where U.S. boots cannot. They also can hit very specific targets – or at least they’re supposed to, the numbers are hotly disputed. While the U.S. government claims that the drone program [which, besides Pakistan, operate in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq] is a success, “claiming that out of the more than 2,000 people thought to be killed so far, all but 50 were militants,” the number of civilian casualties has been contested. According to analysis conducted by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann from the New America Foundation, the true civilian fatality rate since 2004 is about 32 percent, versus the 25 percent cited by government calculations.
The recent death of Al Qaeda militant [and U.S. citizen] Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in a September 30th drone strike as well as the number of civilian casualties lends itself to an interesting and pertinent discussion. From a legal perspective, drones sit in an uncomfortably gray area. U.S. officials, not surprisingly, will tell you that drone strikes are perfectly within the parameters of international law. U.S. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Koh has stated (via the Global Post),
It is the considered view of this Administration … that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war … the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law. As a matter of domestic law, Congress authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). These domestic and international legal authorities continue to this day.
But just who operates drones raises an issue as well. According to the Global Post, drones used by the military are considered an extension of armed conflict, and are therefore more likely to be deemed acceptable by international law standards. But what if the same system is deployed by the CIA to target a specific individual or group? What about the death of innocent civilians? Or U.S.-born citizens-turned-militants like Awlaki [btw, no love lost for Awlaki, but just raising the argument here]?
For me, the issue of drones goes beyond the issue of legality. It touches on the progression of warfare as a whole. Or whether morality, arguably the foundation of international law, is really being compromised in favor of the arbitrarily defined “greater good.” In an article by Barbara Ehrenreich for Guernica Magazine this past summer, she discussed how the emergence of a new kind of enemy – “non-state actors” – has partly contributed to a shift in how we combat war, namely with “robot”-like machines (including but not limited to drones). She wrote,
Video cameras, borne by drones, substitute for human scouts or information gathered by pilots. Robots disarm roadside bombs…today, the U.S. military has an inventory of more than 7,000 [UAVs], ranging from the familiar Predator to tiny Ravens and Wasps used to transmit video images of events on the ground. Far stranger fighting machines are in the works, like swarms of lethal “cyborg insects” that could potentially replace human infantry. These developments are by no means limited to the U.S.
This is not to say that human beings do not play a significant role in today’s conflicts. But is the “automation” of warfare something that should concern us? A guy sitting in Nevada operating a drone by a joystick may not feel the same gravity of war as a soldier fighting in the trenches. As we become more detached and more removed, are we losing touch with the humanity of warfare [and yes, that was an ironic statement, since many feel warfare is inhumane by nature]? Civilian casualties become dots on a computer screen, the collateral damage of the “best worst option.” Computer viruses affecting drones become a significant tool in cyber warfare. And we in turn become increasingly distanced from the reasons why we engage in conflict in the first place.
An interesting debate, nevertheless. Who does watch the watchmen?