A third perspective: In defense of drones

By Ethan Gauvin
On February 28, 2014

As the seemingly interminable war on al-Qaida continues, the United States has come to rely on unmanned aerial vehicles - commonly referred to as drones - as its weapon of choice.

For a supposedly clandestine CIA program drones have received an overwhelming amount of publicity over the past several years, the majority of which has been severely critical of this lethal technology. Devastating reports out of Pakistan and Yemen indicate that drone strikes, while successful in killing enemy combatants, are also responsible for the deaths of innocent men, women and children.

In 2012, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU Law School collaborated to produce an extensive report on the "death, injury, and trauma to civilians from U.S. drone practices in Pakistan." Through dozens of interviews with drone strike victims and witnesses, the report personalizes collateral damage and makes it painstakingly clear that drones are culpable for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians in Pakistan. Moreover, the report highlights the terrible psychological impact that drones have had on these civilian communities, many of which are cognizant of the fact that drones fly overhead and live in perpetual fear of the next attack.

The idea of a U.S.-sponsored killer-robot terrorizing innocent civilians doesn't sit well with most people (nor should it), but that narrative is disingenuous. The Stanford-NYU report is well researched but limited in scope; it portrays a heartbreaking, one-sided story without acknowledging the broader picture.

It behooves the report's authors to consider the history of civilian death rates in war. As a percentage of total fatalities, the civilian death rate in World War II was estimated at 50 to 70 percent. Vietnam and Korea were markedly worse. According to Iraqbodycount.org, approximately 120,000 civilians died during the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, more than five times the amount of enemy insurgents killed in action.

Now let's examine recent drone fatalities. The highest estimation of Pakistani civilian deaths from drone strikes, 473 to 893 civilians against 2,600 to 3,500 total killings, was published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and cited by the censorious Stanford NYU-report. Even when using these numbers, the most damning statistics available, the civilian death rate stands at 35 percent. When using other civilian death estimates the proportion is significantly lower: anywhere between 4 and 20 percent.

This means that despite unremitting criticism, polemic reports, congressional hearings and public protests, drones have actually reduced collateral damage. It's not hard to determine why. Unmanned aerial vehicles can fly longer than fighter jets and lower than manned aircraft, and because of this the CIA can more accurately evaluate the risk to nearby civilians, often studying a target for days, weeks, or even months before striking. In addition, drones carry accurate missiles capable of hitting smaller targets-unlike less discriminate weapons such as conventional bombs and mortars.

In this sense, the public opprobrium is ill-deserved. When compared to a fighter pilot (or a soldier on the ground) that is faced with enormous pressure, little time and the sole discretion to make the right decision, the choice is obvious: drones present a more sensible, precise and judicious alternative.

Those unconvinced may still point to the crippling psychological trauma that drones have imposed on innocent civilians. There is no use in denying these awful effects, but an argument against psychological terror is no different than an argument against war itself. Consider the psychological terror that V2 rockets had on Londoners in World War II, that nuclear weapons had on the Japanese, that napalm had on the Vietnamese, that cyanide had on the Kurds (and Syrians) and that suicide bombs now have on Western citizens. Consider the fear experienced by Americans during 9/11 and the unshakable solicitude experienced at public events, in train stations, and on airplanes more than a decade later. Where, then, does the psychological argument against drones consider itself unique?

Although not a war in the conventional sense, America's conflict with al-Qaida and affiliated groups demands the same respect. The question is now: how does the U.S. combat a stateless enemy? Drones have provided at least part of the answer and their continued use will be necessary to destroy al-Qaida's ability to stage future acts of terrorism. Nations that object to drone strikes on their territory, such as Pakistan and Yemen, will have to recognize that their sovereignty will be disregarded so long as they are unwilling or unable to prevent these malicious organizations from training, planning and attacking the U.S. from within their borders

Lastly, it's prudent to recognize that drones are not inerrant and operators can make mistakes. Every decision to utilize drone technology should be scrutinized, casualty estimates should be made public, and the entire program should be made a prerogative of the US Air Force rather than a surreptitious tool for the CIA. The Obama Administration has heretofore exacerbated the drone issue by insisting that it doesn't exist and refusing to produce casualty lists, policies that must be re-evaluated. 

With that said, however, drones cannot be labeled diabolical. At least no more so than a fighter jet, tank, grenade or gun. These weapons share the same nature and are built for the same purpose: to kill. To quote William Saletan, who brilliantly captured this point, "drones are the worst form of warfare, except for all the others."

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