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Drones Are Scary, But They’re the Answer to Asymmetrical Warfare

Last updated on July 17th, 2023 at 06:05 pm

Read: The Republican Presumptive Nominee for President is A Convicted Felon

One of the great controversies of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the pervasive use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, which are used to target enemies in the so-called War on Terror either in or outside of established war zones, that is, not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan or anywhere else enemy leadership might be found. In essence, drones can make any location a war zone, even if no soldiers are present.

The drone does not target armies, but individuals, and some of those individuals are civilians, more, critics say, that the U.S. government is willing to admit. Yet Pakistan itself, where many of these drone strikes occur, tells us that only about 3 percent of casualties are civilians. According to The Huffington Post early this year – five years into the drone campaign – casualties totaled 2,400. In a more conventional-style campaign in Iraq, the ICCC offers a figure of 43,099 civilian casualties alone from from April 28, 2005 to August 22, 2008. Yet civilian casualties seem to be more in the news now than when they were dying in droves. What is is about drones that stirs up such controversy?

Challenging our Assumptions

We are conditioned to believe certain things and to understand the world in certain ways. Our interactions are determined not only by the physics that underlie our shared reality, but by our worldviews or beliefs, often conflicting, often in open defiance of the facts of that shared reality. The study of how we know what we know is called “epistemology,” but few people actually question how they know what they know, or why they think the way they do. Assumptions pervade our thinking. The old saw that “perception is reality” is more true than we know.

Most people seem to operate according to those assumptions or preconceptions, which are often challenged by the facts, and which all too often trump those facts. John Berger’s seminal book, Ways of Seeing, challenges our assumptions about art, how we see it, use it, and what it tells us. And he warns us about art’s hidden ideologies and its impact on those assumptions. One can argue that this is merely a critique of art, but Berger’s arguments can be made a critique of all the ways in which we see, interact, and understand our world.

For example, we tend to think that war is somehow less dishonorable than assassination, a legacy, we are told, of the Thirty Years War. An assassination might kill just one person. But we think it’s horrible. War can kill thousands, but people will cheer the soldiers as they march of to kill their enemies. An assassin is beneath contempt. Assassination is murder. War is patriotism. People worry that the victim of an assassination did not get due process. But what soldier gets due process? None.

Soldiers are killed indiscriminately, as though merely by their presence on the battlefield – something over which they have no control – they have been found guilty. The leaders who sent them there – often civilians – lead lives of luxury many miles away from the fighting. Soldiers await only the execution of their sentence, which can range anywhere from physical wounds to psychological, from loss of limbs to death. The soldiers who do the killing are not, for the most part, considered murderers. The soldiers who died are not considered murder victims. Why, we might ask, is someone who kills remotely – for example, a drone pilot – a murderer then, but a soldier is not? Why is a soldier a casualty, but an enemy leader in control of soldiers, a victim?

Put another way, was Caesar, when assassinated by his political enemies, a victim or a casualty?

We are conditioned to see Caesar’s death as murder – he was stabbed to death after all – but would he have been less or more of either (victim or casualty) had he died at their hands on the field of battle rather than in the Theater of Pompey? Is one outcome more or less moral than another? Is assassination of one man – a leader – more dishonorable than stabbing the same man to death on a battlefield? Or killing thousands of others in his stead? Would it have been better had tens of thousands of young Roman men died on a battlefield in proxy for Caesar and his assassins? What separates soldiers from assassins and casualties from victims?

Is it possible we so concerned about drone warfare because we are thinking in ways we are conditioned to think?

At Waterloo in 1815, 72,000 Frenchmen faced off against 68,000 Anglo-Allies. Some 28,000 of the former would be killed or wounded and 17,000 of the latter, as well as a few thousand Prussians who arrived late to the scene. At the outset of the battle, before shots had been exchanged, it is said that a gunner in the Anglo-allied army saw Napoleon and suggested to Wellington that they take him out with a cannon shot, and Wellington replied, “Good God man, generals have better things to do than to be taking potshots at each other.”

We are conditioned to find this a noble sentiment, and British officers in the revolution certainly thought it was ignoble that Americans targeted them with particular attention as opposed to the lowly rank and file (At Saratoga, for example, Benedict Arnold told his men to target officers). But would it not have been more moral to kill Napoleon in this way – or Washington or Cornwallis – that let tens of thousands of men be torn apart and maimed or die horrible deaths? Does it make sense that assassins – even military teams – are executed when caught but soldiers are interned in camps? Assume Wellington had a drone, or Napoleon. Wouldn’t it make more sense for one of these men to die than tens of thousands?

Drone warfare – targeted killing – was born out of the needs of modern asymmetrical warfare, where your enemy does not helpfully identify himself on the battlefield, and indeed, where battlefields often don’t exist. The advantages of drones are obvious. As Thomas Hauschildt writes at Conflict & Security, “Drones do not only reduce the risk for soldiers, but also provide a unique endurance and observation capability.” Friendly casualties are minimized, as are enemy. Potentially, the enemy leadership can be targeted without recourse to large numbers of battlefield casualties that would result if that leadership were allowed to continue functioning.

Drone warfare has been called illegal. According to critics, drone warfare is seen as execution without a trial, or variably, as a form of terrorism used to combat terrorism, and that it is not only illegal under American law – being inconsistent with “due process” – but international law as well.

Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal advisor, said while he as with the State Department (he has since returned to Yale as a law professor, where he served as Dean of the law school during the Bush presidency),

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.

Nevertheless, a UN conference on drone strikes in 2013 saw Brazil, China, and Venezuela, criticize drone strikes as illegal. As The Guardian reported at the time,

Venezuela called drones “flagrantly illegal” and said that by its accounting, 1,800 people had been casualties – only about 10% of whom were “targeted individuals”. “This is like a collective punishment,” Venezuela’s representative said.

China said, at the same conference,

We should respect the principles of UN charters, the sovereignty of states and the legitimate rights of the citizens of all countries.

Of course, this only applies if it is something China is not interested in. In her own sphere, China is more than willing to disrespect the sovereignty of states.

The Obama administration responded that these strikes are “necessary, legal and just.”

Some argue otherwise. Erick Posner wrote at Slate a year before,

The U.N. Charter permits countries to use military force abroad only with the approval of the U.N. Security Council, in self-defense, or with the permission of the country in which military force is to be used. The U.N. Security Council never authorized the drone war in Pakistan. Self-defense, traditionally defined to mean the use of force against an “imminent” armed attack by a nation-state, does not apply either, because no one thinks that Pakistan plans to invade the United States. That leaves consent as the only possible legal theory.

President Obama doubled down in his commencement speech at West Point, here he made the point that war is not always necessary, that,

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

Paul Woodward writes in an op-ed,

Along with the few victims that Washington acknowledges, there are thousands more. Facing the risk of missile strikes, these are people afraid to go to market or to leave their own homes. And when the sky is blue, the danger rises, as high above, unseen but constantly heard, drones circle like vultures in search of their prey.
Powerless and with nowhere to flee, for the living victims of drone warfare, America has become an invisible and blind executioner.

Likewise, Conner Friedersdorft writes in The Atlantic,

Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment.

At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy.

Woodward criticizes Obama:

Having made drone warfare one of the signatures of his presidency, Barack Obama’s level of comfort in utilizing this form of technology can be seen both through his willingness to joke about it, and his insistence on its judicious use. In his mind, the drone has somehow been turned into a symbol of restraint. Shock and awe has been replaced by carefully calibrated violence — even while it employs the far too infrequently cited brand: Hellfire.

Do Criticisms of Drone Warfare Properly Account for Reality?

Let’s put aside for the moment any arguments about whether or not any killing is moral. Some of these criticisms noted above are interesting. If drone strikes represent collective punishment, what is war? Isn’t war by its very nature collective punishment on a grand scale? War is sloppy. In the entire history of warfare, war has not targeted only the opposing military. Even if only soldiers appeared on the battlefield, the sequelae of victory was looting, murder, and rape of the defeated side’s civilian population. That does not sound very targeted, does it? And that leaves aside all those who become refugees and die later of disease and starvation. Let our most recent wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, stand as Exhibits A and B.

Adalia Woodbury has addressed the question of whether or not drones should be employed even if their use is legal. I wish to offer a few thoughts of my own as well.

As an alternative to rampaging armies, drone warfare not only sounds more precise, it is. A few can be killed instead of many, and hopefully the few you are looking for, with collateral damage – and casualties – limited. Yet problems remain: PBS referred to the “The recent killing in Yemen of the U.S.-born al-Qaida militant Anwar al-Awlaki, with several others,” as “just the latest example of a high-profile missile attack by CIA drones. And Cage (formerly CagePrisoners) released a report, Unnecessary and disproportional: the killings of Anwar and Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, which,

[C]hallenges the narrative developed by various governments and media outlets to justify the assassination of the Muslim cleric, presenting him as a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the mastermind behind several attacks against the USA. The report also highlights how dangerous such a narrative can be as it extends to include the targeting and killing of Awlaki’s 16 year old son, also an American citizen, a few days later.

Awlaki, the so-called “bin Laden of the Internet,” was targeted for death by the Obama administration. His son was an accidental victim of a drone strike. The difference between Awlaki and Osama bin Laden is that bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia while Awlaki was an American citizen and many protested that he had been executed without due process.

The Obama administration disagrees. The administration position is that,

The Attorney General’s statement last month that the use of remotely piloted aircraft and the targeting of Anwar Al-Aulaqi were subject to ‘exceptionally rigorous interagency legal review’ and determined to be lawful — along with the President’s statement that those actions were legal — only support the conclusion that those actions were lawful, and certainly were not clearly established to be unconstitutional in 2011.

Was Awlaki an enemy combatant, uniform or not? Assymetrical warfare does not require uniforms. For the record, Awlaki was tried and found guilty in absentia in Yemen for being a member of al Qaeda, and Yemen wanted him dead or alive. Perhaps more critically, Awlaki had apparently called for jihad against the United States. Or was he an American citizen, only allegedly guilty, and killed without due process? Or can a citizen also be an enemy combatant? Was Awlaki’s death a reasonable outcome and consequence of decisions he had made?


People die in war, and not every war is declared. Not only 9/11 but the advent asymmetrical warfare from Vietnam onward has – as much for us today as for the British in 1775 – changed how we understand and react to the world around us. We have enemies and a need to get to those enemies. An organized invasion often makes no sense if the enemy is hiding – as has happened with Pakistan – on the soil of an ostensible friend. Must an enemy be presumed to be free of retaliation in such cases? Or does a country, as Obama and others have insisted, have a right still to defend itself?

If putting boots on the ground is impractical, what does that leave? Bombing campaigns in particular kill innocents. An advantage of a guided missile is that it is supposed to be more precise than randomly dropped bombs from high above. A drone, controlled by a driver far removed from the theater of war, is supposed to be a means of killing only those whose deaths advance your cause, say in a particular automobile, without all the collateral damage that ould ensure if a building were destroyed, or an entire neighborhood, as when the British proposed bombing the French town of Perpignan in 1944 to kill Hitler, how as supposed to be hiding there.

Inevitably, in war, in any kind of war, innocents die, and far more often than the guilty.

And even when the guilty die, it is protested that they were killed, as when Amnesty International said it was “opposed the death penalty in all circumstances but it was especially egregious when this ultimate punishment is imposed after an unfair trial.”

Was killing Hussein more egregious than all the deaths, rapes, and brutality caused by Hussein?

People have a negative view of assassination and assassins, even if they target only a single individual. But they will wave flags and cheer for wars which will lead to the deaths of thousands, the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions, as in our world wars. You can rest assured that cheering will accompany World War Three as well.

Does it make more sense to target the enemy leadership, which is actually driving the war, than to kill millions of low-ranking soldiers and innocent civilians? What makes killing a few targeted enemies more immoral – and more illegal – than killing tens of thousands?

Without getting into a debate over the justification for the use of force, or oversight or transparency, a case could be made that fewer deaths are preferable to many, that this…

The Destruction of Dresden

…is infinitely worse than this:

House in Eastern Yemen

And an argument could also be made that perhaps drone warfare is less a problem, or at least no more a problem, than our thinking on the subject of war and violence, that our perceptions are shaped less by reality than by our assumptions and preconceptions, by a worldview that hallows war that kills millions but condemns assassination that kills a few.

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