Drones: morality-free warfare?

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Tony French

drone. Frank Serritelli. flickr cc.

Are armed drone attacks legitimate acts of warfare, or lethal political assassinations, hence murder, and illegitimate?

There is no easy answer, unless your view tends to one or other extreme. But, for those of us unsure, the middle ground is a moral morass.

If you think it can’t be that hard to form an opinion, then you haven’t seen the recent movie thriller Eye in the Sky. The ‘eye’ refers to a predator drone hovering high above a targeted group of Islamic terrorists somewhere in East Africa.

What we see acted-out is indecision, buck-passing, and procrastination as the participants in the so-called ‘kill chain’ – the military, the politicians, diplomats, lawyers, and even the ‘joystick’ drone-crew operators – argue their military, political, legal, and personal views for and against an attack in a ‘friendly country not at war’. Their struggle is essentially an ethical one – whether to launch a missile, or not. In short, what is it that prompts them to overcome their – and our – primal resistance to killing?

Obama’s use of military drones

In 2001, the White House decided it was legal to kill senior al-Qaeda leaders remotely, wherever they could be located. It was a practical problem, for how do you eliminate these people who inhabit inaccessible places, live in caves, or blend into communities, don’t wear uniforms and are unlikely to fly flags? The armed drone was the technological dream-answer to this White House quandary. Moreover, it was effective and cheap, and it saved the bloody human and political cost of ground troops.

And the use of drones reflects, too, that war these days has to be reasonably ‘risk-free’, detached and technological. The populace has little stomach for mounting numbers of ‘body bags’ coming home. By targeting and holing-up terrorists in remote, inaccessible tribal areas of Pakistan, the US could also at last begin bringing home its troops from Afghanistan.

No surprise, then, that the number of drone missions literally took off to the point at which they may now be the hallmark of the Obama administration. But, rather than being wholeheartedly welcomed, there has been a rising tide of criticism of their increased use. One of the critics, the US commentator James Traub said “drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark art of the Obama administration, as torture and rendition were for George W Bush”.

Civilian casualties & morality?

The principal objection to the use of drones is that too many civilians have been killed, or, if not killed, suffer psychological damage from either witnessing or naturally fearing an attack. The accuracy of drone bombing has been questionable, as have on-ground informant or information. And then, given the power of the missiles – bombs, remember, not bullets – collateral damage is unavoidable.

Death from Above / Drones. A K Rockefeller. flickr cc.

The Obama administration continues to maintain that drones have not caused many civilian deaths, and that the program is kept on a very tight leash”.

Yet the Investigative Bureau of Journalism claims drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have caused an unacceptable 1138 civilian deaths. The US government’s response is that this number is low, compared to the number of militants said to have been killed (three to four thousand), and a lot lower than armed intervention by air or land would have caused. For example, look at the damage being done by the indiscriminate use of barbaric barrel bombs in Syria. When the Pakistan army retook the Swat Province, thousands of people were killed, and many thousands more displaced.

To leave the militants alone to their devices does not work. In the Swat Province, terrorists were able to establish training camps and foment terror elsewhere in and out of Pakistan before the Pakistan army’s costly retaking of the Province.

Inevitably, there has been ‘drone creep’ with the widening of the number of people targeted, no longer just the leaders of al-Qaeda, but also leaders of other declared terrorist organisations, along with their subordinates, including preachers, propagandists, and maybe recruiters. The kill list has been lengthened.

Further, deciding on these targets takes place in secrecy. Accountability is limited – well, limited to the occasional WikiLeak. Obama’s counter-terrorism policy is non-transparent, non-respecting of the law, and non-respecting of human rights.

This ‘war’ is being conducted by non-combatants, the CIA. It is not part of the military, and, importantly, not subject to the rules of military law. Home-grown terrorists in the West are not targeted for assassination by armed drones, but where possible apprehended by armed police.

Is the answer, then, simply to treat all suspected terrorists as combatants and not civilians? This is the answer strongly advocated by the US government.

Will increasing drone attacks result in additional Muslim people being radicalised? Perhaps, as there is a strong sense of Arabic humiliation with this lopsided unchivalrous warfare. On the other hand, however, eliminating open terror-training camps may not altogether be a bad thing. And there is evidence from Pakistan that some locals may prefer living in drone-prone lands to living in openly insurgent-infested tribal lands, drones being the lesser of twin evils. Perhaps, too, some of the people subjected to life and rule under ISIS may have welcomed the regular arrival of targeted drone deliveries.

Expanding threats of drone warfare

Since drones are becoming cheaper, we should expect them to become widely available. Already, Russia and China are making their own armed drones. Australia is set to spend $2 billon in acquiring our drone air fleet.

All this not only normalises drone warfare, but also answers the issue of moral equivalency – if they’re good for you to use, then they’re good for me to use too, if necessary on you. You kill, then you too can be killed. Why, just the other day, it was reported that a boobytrapped drone sent over the lines by ISIS in Iraq had killed and wounded a number of Peshmerga and French soldiers. The question will soon become how we can protect ourselves from drone attack. War has become cheap and easy to wage.

So is it welcome to the world of war by machine? Nations are already engaged in cyber warfare, and, reputedly, we have been targeted. Does the hacking of the Bureau of Meteorology constitute an act of war against Australia?

Technology is fast superseding existing drones, for increasinglyfast swarming drones are coming, and underwater ones too. That raises the question of why we intend to spend $50 billion on conventional but soon-to-be outdated submarines. But why leave it at that, when you can have robot soldiers, too, delightfully called ‘kill bots’. Wars have always been won by those with technical superiority – guns versus spears. Future wars will be won by unmanned superiority, still preferable ethically, don’t you think, to all-out nuclear war?

While wars in the future will seek to be relatively risk-free, at least to the military, they will be increasingly risky for civilians. Is the deliberate terror targeting of civilians we are seeing in Syria a sign of the future? If warfare is conducted by remote control, does that also mean that the rules of war are equally remote? Is today’s barbarism a despairing revival of Cicero’s famous line, “laws are silent amidst the clash of arms”, or a renewed call to rework the just war theory, dictating some overdue moral restraint?

Unlikely as it seems, a moral reworking may in fact be coming from none other than the drone operators, who, upon ceasing their work, suffer ‘moral injury’, a form of PTSD, as a consequence of their disregard for basic humanity, disregard for international human law, and their disregard for basic right and wrong in their lives. It’s becoming an aggravating ongoing worry for them when they eventually return home.

Clearly, how war is conducted continues to be very much the subject of moral debate, and ethical rules need to be more than ‘utilitarian’. The end does not justify the means. Achieving ‘good’ results does not necessarily make actions morally right.

Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer and a member of the Board of Social Policy Connections.

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