In theory, drone warfare embodies what is best about the United States of America. Pilots in air-conditioned control modules on Nevada airbases operate stealthy aircraft half a world away in Afghanistan and other rugged locales via satellite uplink. Sophisticated camera arrays equipped with advanced thermal imaging provide unparalleled aerial surveillance and allow drones to deploy precision-guided Hellfire missiles and other ordnance. Drones can loiter in one location for days at a time or put a bomb in the bed of a pickup truck. No American personnel are directly exposed to combat. And all of this is possible at far lower expense than a traditional fourth–generation air force of F-16s, F-18s, and F-15s. This has made drones very, very popular.
An article GlobalSecurity.org published last September defends the technology:
[D]rones are considered one of the most sophisticated of modern-day weapons — more precise than regular missiles — and have the ability to verify targets without risking the lives of pilots. A recent study conducted by the New America Foundation shows that … the civilian casualty rate [from drone strikes] since 2004 … is approximately 20 percent.
The piece condemns Pakistani authorities and other parties for misrepresenting the toll drone strikes exact upon civilians. According to the NAF study, insurgents often claim their slain comrades were civilians after burying them. These assertions appear credible, yet they speak to a critical limitation of this technology and, more specifically, the manner in which presidents of both parties have chosen to use it.
Consider the aforementioned civilian casualty rate. Twenty percent. One in five. I would argue that this is unacceptable and beneath the aspirations of the great American experiment. However, as a practical matter, it is difficult to see how this butcher’s bill can be reconciled with our strategic objectives. After all, killing innocent civilians is bad policy.
The perpetrators of the heinous 9/11 attacks which sparked the War on Terror stated three motives. One was the deployment of American troops on Saudi Arabian soil, at the Kingdom’s request, during the Persian Gulf War. A second was American support of Israel. A third was the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, which were widely attributed to United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Of course, nothing can justify what happened on September 11, 2001, and I do not pretend otherwise. With that understood, I humbly submit that policy can have unintended consequences, whether it be economic or international. By being cavalier about civilian casualties, our leaders risk creating the perception that the United States is callous — or worse, at war with ordinary, innocent people. That is not the United States my father immigrated to, nor is it the one I grew up in. As a nation built by men and women who wished to safeguard individual liberty and honor human dignity, we should reconsider the effect of our leaders’ decisions on people with whom we have no quarrel in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. As a nation still scarred a decade after the 9/11 attacks, we should learn as much as we can from history, lest we be condemned to repeat it.
Our enemies’ greatest weapon is fear. They readily play off of the fear of ordinary people to convince them that the United States really is controlled by diabolical infidels bent on killing all Muslims and annihilating Islam. Their narrative includes many wild, contradictory claims. We should do everything in our power to prove them wrong. The only people who deserve a reputation for killing civilians are those who do so deliberately, with the intention of striking terror into the hearts of men.
Luca Gattoni-Celli is spending the summer in Washington, D.C., interning at a public policy think tank where he works with the editorial, operations, and IT departments. He was recently accepted into the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism fall class, and is seeking an internship so he can participate.