A majority in the U.S. affirm the use of drone strikes in conflict.
According to a Pew Research Center survey published in late May, 58 percent approved drone usage while 35 percent expressed disapproval.
At the same time, 48 percent of respondents also were concerned that drone strikes endanger civilian lives.
The majority approval is troubling given the number of respondents who also expressed anxiety about noncombatants being injured or killed.
One wonders if participants engaged in any serious moral reflection prior to responding. Do they understand what a drone strike is?
The use of drones has troubled me for some time. I wrote previously that drone technology too closely resembled a video game.
Granted, a drone strike uses more complicated controllers than an Xbox or Playstation, but haunting parallels remain between a war-themed video game resulting in virtual destruction, and drone strikes causing physical death.
The problem of intelligence gathering has long plagued military leaders. Increased casualties, including civilians, can occur if a tactical decision is made based on inaccurate information.
When conflict involves “boots on the ground,” troops can better discern between civilian and combatant, even under duress.
If warranted, they can change a battle plan based on faulty intelligence when noncombatants are present.
When attacks are carried out via drones, the pilot is sitting hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from the battlefield, and the target is based solely on “good intelligence.”
Drones, unlike people, have no way of discerning when the information about a target is faulty and adjusting orders accordingly.
This problem was most visible following a U.S. drone strike on an al Qaeda outpost that killed not only terrorist leaders but also a U.S. citizen and an Italian citizen being held hostage at that location.
President Obama expressed deep regret over their deaths in a press conference, explaining that the strike had been “based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance.”
“We believed this was an al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present, and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” he added. “What we did not know, tragically, is that al Qaeda was hiding the presence of [these civilians] in this compound.”
While the significant efforts to ensure there are no civilian deaths is laudable, the fact remains that an intense scrutiny of this compound, involving hundreds of hours of surveillance, still led to civilian deaths.
Perhaps the civilians would have died in an operation conducted by troops, but a drone strike made this reality inevitable.
This incident, among others, reveals an unavoidable problem with drone warfare – accurate intelligence is essential to avoiding unintended deaths.
Once a strike is ordered, there is no going back; whoever is present at the site of the attack will die or be seriously injured, as the drone cannot discern between friend and foe.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has a webpage dedicated to drone strike data, noting the total number of strikes and persons killed.
Drone strikes in Pakistan have taken place since 2004. In 417 attacks, upward of 3,962 people have been killed, including as many 962 civilians and 207 children.
There have been around 117 confirmed drone strikes in Yemen since 2002, with as many as 673 killed, including up to 97 civilians and nine children.
In a 2013 editorial on drone warfare, EthicsDaily.com’s executive editor Robert Parham cited a report that said, “The number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2 percent.”
Parham responded by asking, “Two percent? Two percent of 4,700 kills? Drones are a ‘surgically precise’ weapon?”
That drone attacks are not precise, “surgical strikes,” as is so often claimed, is further revealed by more recent data.
Twenty-four is the percentage of civilian deaths (962) out of the total killed (3,962) in Pakistan, based on BIJ data. The rate is 14.4 percent in Yemen and 4.76 in Somalia.
“Why the U.S. Doesn’t Always Know Who It’s Killing in Drone Strikes” was the startling, disturbing headline of an April 2015 PBS Frontline report.
The story cited the BIJ data, while also noting the Obama administration’s continued lack of clarity on rules and procedures governing drone strikes – despite on multiple occasions making promises for more transparency and the establishment of clear rules of engagement.
A news story in The Guardian published in late 2014 raised further questions about the “surgical precision” of the U.S. drone program.
“Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people,” the report said, later adding, “Each of [the 41 targets] was reported killed multiple times. Seven of them are believed to still be alive.”
Is such “collateral damage” acceptable?
If troops were involved, the strategy and implementation of these operations likely would be seriously critiqued and closely investigated.
Too often the ineffectiveness of drone strikes is ignored by leadership and the general public, or dismissed by its defenders with the vague, and often unsupported, assertion that “more lives would be lost” without drone usage.
Debates will continue about the immediate and long-term impact of drone strikes, to say nothing about the morality and ethics of their usage.
That they have resulted in the deaths of terrorists is a reality, but so too is the significant cost in civilian lives.
It is shameful that a majority of the U.S. populous continues to support drones even as nearly half the nation also expresses serious misgivings about their negative impact on civilians caught in the crossfire.
Of all the problems facing the U.S., perhaps a lack of serious moral reflection on substantive issues, such as drone usage, should be at the top of the list.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.