People and Violence, The Societal Ill of Mass Killing

In light of the elementary school shooting of the last week and the string of mass shootings that have unfurled this year I think it is worth stepping away from war ethics to examine violence within our society. As a preface, this post is not advocating gun control, or the lack thereof. That discussion is contentious, brutal, and I think less productive than a discussion about the root causes of violence in the US. I also recognize that the shooter in Connecticut was mentally unbalanced. I am not trying to address mental illness and violence here. I will, however, offer one comment on this topic. In China, where there is a sever lack of institutions to address mentally ill individuals, there have been instances in which severely schizophrenic individuals have attacked and killed children in rural provinces with whatever weapon is available to them. The proper diagnosis of, and care for, the severely mentally ill has the potential to reduce violence where this is the root problem.

This, however, cannot be used as the excuse for all the shootings this year. Nor can you blame firearms, though they certainly enable the violently inclined to increase their lethality. These types of shootings were not so frequent in the past, thought access to weapons of the type used in these attacks has not increased significantly. I would argue that these types of incidents should be the expected result of a society that increasingly glorifies violence and uses it as entertainment. The most popular movies, sports, and video games in America are those that exploit violence as entertainment. We are a society that is increasingly awash in blood lust. I find myself caught up in this tendency as well. I enjoy UFC, Modern Warfare, and Inglorious Bastards as much as the next American. However, I feel that as an adult, and as one who has been deployed in combat and knows what it feels like to aim a firearm at another human being with the intent to kill, my susceptibility to its desensitizing effects are tempered. Sadly, I am not the demographic that is the primary consumer of these products. Rather, an increasing number of Americans are raised in a stew of desensitizing, blood lust inducing media.

Lt. Col Grossman, Army psychologist and author of the seminal works, On Killing and On Combat, argues that desensitization is a key component of reducing an individuals innate resistance to killing. As such, it has become a key piece of military basic training and pre-combat conditioning for service members in an attempt to increase their lethality. Some of the same techniques are being used in the entertainment industry. Effectively, America is raising generations of conditioned killers.

The violence of some movies and media that have become an omnipresent part of American culture has been described by some as “violence as porn.” For some, the shoot ’em up video games and horror movies can become addicting. And like many addictions, it escalates. Shooting cyber soldiers and watching CG gore looses its attraction after a point. The natural progression is towards enacting fantasies.

Adding to the risk of the violence inured is the risk that the angst and despair of others is no longer tempered by their natural resistance to violence. After being broken down and desensitized, violence becomes a legitimate outlet for grievances. the result is angry individuals using the weapons at their disposal to ignorantly kill Sikhs mistaken for Muslims (not that it would have been better had it not been a mistake), killing innocents in a mall, executing elementary students, or killing dozens in a movie theater.

Yet we are shocked each time, horrified. We ask ourselves what could have caused it, we blame the weapons they use, as if the weapon were the cause rather than an enabler. These inexcusable, horrific acts should be a wake up call. It is time we reexamine ourselves and do some soul searching as a nation. We shouldn’t blame Hollywood, or video game producers, or Spike TV. Nor should we blame Colt, Barrett, or Kalashnikov. They are simply producers, fulfilling a demand. We are to blame, the consumers who revel in bloodshed. We are the demand, the producers simply a supply. It is up to us, America, to change our demands, to buy our sons baseball bats and bicycles instead of game consoles and shoot’em ups, to value plot over gore, to spend our evenings watching sporting events, and not gladiatorial spectacles. Gun manufacturers and Hollywood give us what we want. And what we have asked for is violence.


The Moral Right of the Soldier to Kill

The moral right of the soldier to kill is a privilege unique within the scope of human activity. The soldier has forfeited his right to not be killed, in exchange for the moral privilege and responsibility to kill an enemy soldier who has entered into the same form of contract. The rights to kill and to be killed are reciprocal. The soldier may not kill just anyone, the civilian still retains the privilege to not be killed, and the soldier maintains her right to not be killed by anyone who is not a soldier, and therefore, still retains the right to life. It is important to note that the soldier does not forfeit the right to self-defense. Entering this moral contract may be voluntary, as in the case of the US armed forces, or involuntary, in the case of a conscript force. This is the moral equality of soldiers.[1] The right to kill, and the subsequent forfeiture of the right not to be killed is sanctioned within the structure of “Legitimate Authority.”[2]

The implication here is that actions on the part of one state’s military to kill enemy soldiers is undertaken with the understanding that members of its own military will be put at risk. If the military action is not important enough to risk the lives of one’s own soldiers, but is guaranteed to end the lives of enemy soldiers, the equity of this moral contract is called into question.

This contract is made more complex by non-state actors and asymmetrical warfare. The individuals participating in a combatant function in the various theaters in which drone warfare is being conducted are civilians. They do not generally meet the Geneva Conventions’ litmus tests to qualify as combatants. However, they do engage in combatant like activities. These individuals are criminals. They have not forfeited the right to not be killed in return for the right to kill, nor do they operate within the framework of legitimate authority. Therefore, for the duration of the time they actively participate in hostilities, they are legitimate targets, and have forfeited their right to not be killed, but have not gained the right to kill.[3] In this situation, the right of soldiers to kill those engaged in hostilities is threat based. They act in a similar manner to police who face a criminal threatening police or civilian lives. While the criminal engages in threatening behavior, they are liable to be killed, when they cease to engage in threatening behavior, they may be interdicted by other means, but their right to not be killed is regained.[4]

This calls into question the legitimacy of any use of force that would kill individuals that fit the afore mentioned description, when no member of their force, or of the civilian population they protect is directly threatened. This judgment is challenged by the recent conception of the classification, “continuous combat function.” The ICRC provided this term as interpretive guidance to describe those “whose continuous function involves the preparation, execution, or command of acts or operations amounting to direct participation in hostilities.”[5] This was designed to deal with those who would take advantage of the Protocols. Those who engage in continuous combat function do not gain any rights. Rather, they fail to regain the right not to be killed by temporarily ceasing to engage in hostilities.[6]

Some of the moral discomfiture that follows the conception of killing these individuals is alleviated with the derivation of continuous combat function. However, it requires some benchmark to determine those who actually qualify. It also carries with it the risk of creating a perpetual battlefield. Already, the Obama administration has indicated that a “Kill List” will be maintained for the foreseeable future. Even after combat operations in support of anti-terrorism, contingency operations cease.[7]

In short, the right to kill is a two part framework that involves the soldiers’ individual “contract,” AND authorization from a legitimate authority.

[1] (Walzer 2006) pp. 36-41

[2] (Aquinas n.d.), (Bouchet-Saulnier 2007) p. 43

[3] (Bouchet-Saulnier 2007) pp.43-46; (Lewis 2012) pp. 310-312

[4] (Bouchet-Saulnier 2007)

[5] Ibid p. 311 The interpretive guidance is not part of any ratified convention, and does not have the force of international law.

[6] Ibid

[7] (Miller, The Permanent War 2012)

Drone Warfare and Jus ad Bellum: Mala Prohibita under Right Intention

Since the beginning of the American War on Terror, military strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known more popularly as drones, increased from 42 under the Bush administration to over 292 since 2009.[1] Despite the relative success of the program in decapitation strikes, and the tremendous tactical advantage such a weapons system provides, armed drones have created massive controversy. In 2011, after successive, significant civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes, and exacerbated by the Bin Laden raid and other US military interdictions within Pakistani borders, Pakistan’s parliament condemned the drone strikes, calling them a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and demanding they stop.[2] In September of 2011, Awlaki, the head of Al Qaeda Arab Peninsula, was killed in a drone strike, followed a few days later by a subsequent strike which killed his son, and his nephew, both US citizens in their mid teens.[3] Their deaths and that of Awlaki, also an American citizen, created significant controversy over how drone strikes are utilized.

Drone strikes provide an interesting challenge for just war, though what exactly that challenge is can be hard to articulate. At first glance it is a gut feeling. Something just does not feel right about the concept of an airman controlling a remote control aircraft over the desert of Yemen from the comfort of an office in Nevada. On his screen he controls the aircraft like a video game, but when he launches a missile, people die for real.

As the drones get smarter, humans will play less and less of a role in their launching, flying, targeting, and execution of target packages. According to the Air Force UAS long term planning document, the goal is to have automated target engagement capabilities on drones by 2025.[4] This idea gives rise to Terminator style predictions of doom. Farfetched as the rise of the machines may be, the underlying point may be legitimate; we are projecting force with impunity, we have no worries about the vulnerability of our own personnel, it is relatively inexpensive, and has a long range, combined with enough linger time to be very effective against High Value Targets (HVT). These operations are being conducted outside of recognized war zones, and within the borders of sovereign states. This, coupled with the civilian casualties incurred, has made this technology, though remarkable from a military perspective, questionable within just war doctrine.

Despite being touted by the current administration and certain military officials as extremely effective and legitimate under international law, there is reason to believe that drone warfare risks right intention under jus ad bellum, due to its unique capacity to dehumanize the enemy and erode the inhibition to the use of force.  Most critics of drone warfare have focused largely on proportionality, arguing that it is too wide spread, ineffective, and has been indiscriminate. I will argue that these issues are secondary, and due to the nature of drone warfare itself.

In full disclosure, I am a “ground pounder” who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a part of a contingent of infantry Marines, largely in an intelligence role. Given my background I am susceptible to a service based bias, and a certain affinity for the idealized romance of the warrior. I lament with David Starr Jordan that:

“There was once a time when the struggles of the fittest, when the race was indeed to the swift and the battle to the strong. The invention of ‘villainous gunpowder’ has changed all this. Except the kind of warfare called, guerilla, the quality of the individual has ceased to be much of a factor. The clown can shoot down the hero, and, in the words of Charles F. Lummis, he ‘doesn’t have to look the hero in the face when he shoots.’ The shell destroys the clown and the hero alike, and the machine gun mows down whole ranks impartially.”[5]

However, I am not arguing that drone warfare is unjustified because it is unfair, or un-chivalrous in the classical sense. I would never argue to ban the machine gun, the artillery shell, the modern jet or the bomber. Nor will I lament the fact that I wear a flak jacket and carry a modern M-16 A4 equipped with an ACOG scope and night vision. I am not arguing that warfare be fair. Within war ethics, how someone is killed is considered secondary to whether or not the person was a legitimate target. If the individual was a legitimate target, then conceivably, the weapon used is of little consequence. Rules that lesson the suffering of a combatant, or limit the intensity of combat are certainly to be encouraged, but are not required to meet the standards of just war. These rules are transitory and will change with technology and culture.[6]


Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello, and Right Intention

Generally, most scholars of war ethics have treated armed drones as if they were no different than any other weapon. James Turner Johnson, a preeminent scholar in war ethics, and Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, both agree that inherently drone strikes are no different than any other weapons platform, and are simply the newest iteration of killing machines that mankind has developed.[7] I respectfully disagree. As P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institute has said, “the introduction of unmanned systems to the battlefield doesn’t change simply how we fight, but for the first time changes who fights at the most fundamental level. It transforms the very agent of war, rather than just its capabilities.”[8] Daniel Brunstetter, of UC Irvine, argues that the categories of just war tradition provide for the vocabulary needed to discuss the ethical dilemmas that drones pose, but that the unique nature of drone warfare, the integration of semi-autonomous and potentially autonomous machines into the place of human warriors, changes the parameters of the just war principles.[9] I agree with this supposition. The traditional vocabulary of war ethics provides a useful structure within which drone warfare can be examined and the parameters adjusted in order to adapt to the challenges that drones pose.

War ethics consists of a dual set of principles, jus ad bellum and jus in bello, these proscribe whether the resort to war is just and whether the conduct of the war is just, respectively.[10] A just war may be fought unjustly, and an unjust war may be fought justly. This duality means that generally, the categories are examined independently of one another. Jus ad bellum consists of: sovereign authority, just cause, right intention, and an aim of peace, with the subsidiary criteria of proportionality of ends, last resort, and reasonable hope of success. Within this framework, right intention requires that the use force be discriminate in targeting and proportional in means. These two criteria form the basis of jus in bello.[11] The jus ad bellum criterion of right intention requires that one not plan to use force in such a way as to cause indiscriminate and disproportionate harm. Jus in bello is the expression of restrictions that enable one to act in this manner. As such, jus in bello flows naturally from the requirement of right intention.

Right intention derives from classical war ethics as espoused by Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, right intention is necessary in order to ensure that the state intend the advancement of the good, and the avoidance of evil. He quotes Augustine, who stated that a just war is not: “waged for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, punishing evildoers, and of uplifting the good.”[12] He argues that a war that is legitimate under the other criteria within jus ad bellum, but fails in right intention is an unjust war. He further utilizes Augustine’s criteria, “the passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit[implacable animosity]… all these are rightly condemned in war.”[13] Again quoting Augustine, Aquinas relates: “Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”[14] According to William O’Brien, classic right intention: limits the scope of war to the attainment of the just cause, insists on the creation of a just and lasting peace, and finally, requires that a spirit of charity exist toward the enemy.  Enemy personnel must be treated as persons with rights.[15]

Right intention is the recognition humanity of one’s enemy. As such, it is the lynch pin of jus ad bellum. Though O’Brien argues that all three of the primary criteria aught to be met equally, with no hierarchy, the first two indicate more of a legal basis for the justification of the use of force than moral reasoning.[16] The qualification of right intention is a thoroughly moral qualification. It exists in response to the understanding that war is terrible, and that it involves the shedding of blood. In the Middle Ages, soldiers did penance after battle, in order to receive absolution for actions committed in the heat of battle that would violate the spirit of right intention.[17] The weight of the responsibility of killing in combat was so great that Aquinas forbade priests from taking part in warfare. “Those who shed blood, even without sin, become irregular.”[18] The shedding of blood rendered a cleric in capable of fulfilling his duties. In the same way, David was told by God he was unfit to build the temple, as he was “a man of war and had shed blood.”[19] Killing another human being is a terrible thing, even when done as a justified act of war. Right intention is designed to recognize this fact.

Generally, there is a prohibition against using jus in bello to disqualify just ad bellum. Jus in bello deals specifically and exclusively with the conduct of the warfighters. The use of a tactic that is unjust under jus in bello does not make the entire war unjustified.[20] Therefore, even though the firebombing of Tokyo was horrific and violated both proportionality and discrimination under jus in bello, the US was not unjustified in its fight against Japan.[21] The same could be said for Vietnam. Atrocities committed by US soldiers fighting in Vietnam were a violation of jus in bello, but had no effect on the jus ad bellum justification for the war.[22] It is important to note that atrocities that result in an unjustified use of force on the jus in bello spectrum occur in the course of the conflict.

Actions and weaponry that violate jus in bello standards during the conduct of a war do not violate the jus ad bellum justification. However, the planned use of a weapon or tactic prior to the conduct of the war that would fail to meet the jus in bello standards would constitute a violation of right intention, and therefore undermine the jus ad bellum justification.[23] Therefore, it follows that a strategy centered around a weapons system that inherently violates jus in bello standards, or would be inherently cruel, interfere with the object of securing peace, or promote “an unpacific and relentless spirit” (implacable animosity), thus undermining right intention, would constitute a violation of jus ad bellum.[24]

Classically within war ethics, jus in bello was expressed through proportionality in attempts to limit the use of certain weapons. Such arms control efforts are generally focused on prohibitions against weapons that are unnecessarily destructive, indiscriminate, or cause excessive suffering.[25] Arms control has two categories, mala in se, and mala prohibita. A means that is mala in se is a weapon that by its very nature is wrong. There would never be a circumstance in which the use of this means could be justified. Very few means exist within the realm of mala in se. Means mala prohibita, on the other hand, are not necessarily mala in se, rather, they are means banned by law. While it is possible that a circumstance could exist within which a justified use  of the means could be found, overall, the benefits and costs have been weighed, and the means has been found to generally constitute an action that is in violation of one of the principles of international law governing conflict: military necessity, humanity, or chivalry.[26] Unfortunately, few weapons that are effective and cutting edge are placed on the list of mala prohibita.[27]

Arms control measures are morally an attempt to limit war, increase the likelihood of a subsequent peace, limit suffering, and to protect innocent life. In practice, it has been a means of preserving chivalrous hierarchy, saving money, and protecting interests. As with all things related to international activity, morality is usually best served when the moral course of action is aligned with strategic interests.  This being the case, a weapons ban is most likely to be achieved when the weapons are difficult to control, easy to produce, and hard to defend against.[28]

I will be arguing that the nature of drone warfare is such that it undermines right intention, specifically through the encouragement of implacable animosity, the pitiless and unrelenting use of force. Though generally of a jus in bello nature, the use of drones as a strategy for the implementation of force would therefore constitute a violation of jus ad bellum, making the use of drone warfare a legitimate candidate to be considered means mala prohibita.


Drones and Jus in Bello: Proportionality and Effectiveness

Would drones qualify as weapons that are unnecessarily destructive, cruel or indiscriminate? After all, drones are potentially, incredibly discriminate, utilizing low yield, “smart” missiles guided onto target using extremely powerful cameras, virtually ensuring that what is aimed at, is hit. James Turner Johnson has argued that the development of the cruise missile, another highly accurate, potentially low yield, “smart” weapon was a positive development for war ethics, as it has the capacity to be very discriminating in its targeting capacity.[29] In his newest work, he made a similar argument for drone strikes. There however, he argues that although drones are capable of extraordinary discrimination and proportionality, problems with target selection have resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths. He claims that the responsible use of drone strikes would require that the US abstain from strikes in cases where the information is ambiguous.[30] It would seem then, that drone strikes do not violate the principle of right intention, at least not implicitly. After all, if war fighters were to follow Johnson’s admonition that strikes be avoided in ambiguous cases, then there should be little issue.

The problem is that Johnson’s requirement is not being followed, in fact, in spite of the controversial nature of drone strikes, both as a result of civilian casualties, and the questionable strategic value of drone strikes in Counter Terrorism (CT) operations, their use has been expanded and the protocol loosened.[31] Yet even the new relaxed standards, which focus on the effort in Yemen, are not enough for senior Intelligence and military officials. Despite the fact that the standard has been expanded to include unnamed, mid-level individuals, officials are pushing for a Pakistan-like protocol. In Pakistan, a method known as a “signature” strike is used to identify a target. If the target is observed behaving in a manner consistent with militant activity, to include activities such as transporting weapons, or even, as is purported in one case is tall, they are an eligible target.[32] Senior military and Intelligence officials have pushed for this method to be used in Yemen, but have yet to achieve their goal. This is largely due to Yemeni government opposition to such a targeting method.[33] Other senior military officials, including General Loh, a retired Air Force General, have called for an expansion of the drone program, to the exclusion of ground operations in the America’s Overseas Contingency Operations.[34]

Up until May 1, 2012, the Obama administration had never officially recognized the use of drone strikes. In a press conference, John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism advisor, claimed the strikes were legal, and followed a strict targeting protocol, while downplaying the number of civilian casualties, calling them, “exceedingly rare.” Brennan refused to comment on signature strikes, claiming he was only discussing targeted strikes against specific individuals.[35] An accurate count on how many individuals have been killed by drones strikes is difficult to achieve, and an accurate breakdown of how many of those killed were civilian as opposed to militant is even more difficult.

1 Drone Strike Casualty Estimates[36]

2004-April 30th 2012 Total Deaths Civilian Dead Percentage Civilian
New America Foundation
  • Min: 1785

Max: 2771

  • Min: 293

Max: 471

  • Min: 16%
  • Max: 17%
  • Min: 1518
  • Max: 2811
  • Min: 1148
Max: 2271
  • Min: 76%
  • Max: 81%


The New American Foundation follows drone strikes in Pakistan alone, and estimates that between 1,785 and 2,771 people have been killed by drone strikes since 2004, with around 293 to 471 of these being civilian. This places the civilian collateral casualty rate at around 17%. The New America Foundation’s numbers are considered to be on the relatively conservative end of the spectrum.[37] On the liberal end of the spectrum, Pakistan Body, which also focuses exclusively on drone strikes in Pakistan, has a similar total count, ranging between 1,518 and 2,811 dead since 2004. The number of civilian dead however, is drastically different, ranging from 1,148 to 2,271 people. This gives a civilian collateral casualty rate of around 80%.[38] The discrepancy is accounted for in the wildly different methodology of the two organizations.

Pakistan Body (PBC) has been the subject of significant criticism; independent researchers have shown that Dr. Zeeshan Usmani, who ran the site, was using a highly unreliable method. [39] PBC relies on media reports for its information.  Any person who is not specifically labeled as a militant, belonging to a named organization is coded as a civilian.[40] Despite the questionable nature of this cites coding system and analysis, its data has been widely viewed and accepted. In the military there is an expression that senior leadership is often found of quoting, “appearance is reality.”

The New America Foundation’s methodology for calculating drone strike casualty figures utilizes numbers derived only from recognized and reliable media outlets. These were limited to the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Daily TimesDawn, and The News, as well as major news services and networks and reports.[41] Any persons not labeled as civilian were automatically labeled as a militant.[42]  Other organizations, the Jamestown Foundation, and the Long War Journal use different coding systems as well, achieving even smaller numbers of civilian dead. Their methods are suspect as well, however, as one method labels all military age males as militant unless otherwise stated.[43] The massive discrepancy in numbers demonstrates the difficulty in assessing the actual effectiveness of the strikes. Michael Walzer, a renowned expert on war ethics, has criticized the administration for not providing proportions of innocent to combatant deaths. A failure to provide this information has made it very difficult to assess the moral implications of the program.[44]

In addition to generating an unknown number of civilian casualties, the strategic effectiveness of the program is questionable. Lt. Col McClane, USMC, and Col Summer, USA argue that General Loh’s assertion that increased drone strikes instead of ground operations will improve outcomes is wrong. Lt. Col McClane first distinguishes the operations in Pakistan and elsewhere as counter insurgency, not CT. He then states that the “operations are not solved from a cockpit at 20,000 feet, nor from a drone whose operator sits thousands of miles away. They involve complex coordination and information-sharing with our allies and regional partners, specially trained ground-based CT operators and a host of legal authorities and specific rules of engagement.”[45] Col Summers goes on to say that, while the strikes have had an impressive track record in leadership strikes against Al Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates, “selective killing can’t disable terrorist organizations like the Taliban or Hamas that are deeply embedded within a supportive host society.”[46] This is supported by evidence that in Iraq, killing al-Zarqawi resulted in only 18 days of diminished activity; and the necessity of multiple attempts to kill some targets, such as the case Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed after 16 strikes resulting in civilian casualties numbering between 207 and 321.[47]

This outlines the impression that drone strikes are being utilizes as a CT tool for the exercise of a decapitation tactic within a counter insurgency strategy.[48] This presents a mismatch of strategy and tactics, at least in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Within such a strategy, the population is considered the Center of Gravity (CoG). The CoG is the person(s), equipment, or assets that the enemy requires in order to be successful. In operations in the AfPak region, the CoG is the population within which the insurgency is embedded. In order for a military to be successful in such an environment, the military must isolate the population from the insurgency; this is accomplished by providing security for the population, establishing the legitimacy of the government and its security forces. In the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual, published in 1940, which has provided much of the foundation for modern counter insurgency strategy, the emphasis for strikes and attacks within a population center are on proper intelligence, avoidance of civilian casualties, presence within the population, and even a provision for “yell down” in conjunction with air strikes on a town.[49] The intent is to ingratiate the occupying forces to the population as much as possible, develop the legitimacy of the local government, and to alienate the insurgency. The drone strikes, however, have had much the opposite effect. Though the Obama administration has largely separated itself from COIN (a specific doctrine of counter insurgency operations), the question remains: is a tactic that inflames the populace against our efforts consistent with the overall aim of our strategy in the region?

Not only did Pakistan suspend the NATO supply route running through its territory, and publically condemn the drone strikes and cross border actions of the US, but the population too has been alienated. [50] In a recent article on Al Jazeera English, the Pakistan Commission on Human Rights has claimed over 957 Pakistanis were “murdered’ in 2010.[51] Regardless of the factual accuracy of this claim, it is what the Pakistani people, and indeed, people around the world, are hearing. The author quotes an Afghan as saying: “Americans are cowards. Real soldiers risk their lives. They do not send buzzing machines to kill people half a world away…people they know nothing about.”[52] If this is indeed the mentality that drone strikes are fostering among the Afghan’s and Pakistani’s, then our efforts are doomed by the tactic. The strategy was even condemned by those within the CIA, as reported by Jeremy Addicot, a former legal advisor to Special Forces. They argue that far from diminishing the capacity of the insurgents, the drone strikes have become a recruiting tool.[53]

The Obama administration was elected partially in hope that President Obama would work to undo the damage that the Bush administration caused to the United States image in the world through its implementation of immoral anti-terrorism policies and detainment practices. To an extent, President Obama has made grand gestures toward dismantling the detainment system and revoking orders that permitted enhanced interrogation techniques. All the while, the President drastically expanded the drone strike program. The administration has substituted drone strikes and targeted killings for detention. One al-Qaeda suspect was reportedly killed because officials did not want to deal with figuring out how to hold him. The moral superiority of killing a man instead of rendition is questionable. Such a policy, when added to the massive propaganda opportunity afforded by potentially inflated reports of civilian casualties has had a damaging effect on the image of the US that is little better than the legacy of Bush.[54]

The potentially high number of civilian casualties coupled with the ineffectiveness of the tactic indicates that drones strikes have a jus in bello proportionality problem. Yet, drone operations are expanding: in scope, targeting, and geographic area. Brennan indicated that in addition to AQ and the Taliban, drone strikes could be used against two AQ affiliates in Yemen and in North and West Africa; and the Shabab militia in Somalia, while monitoring the Nigerian group Boko Haram.[55]

Why would a tactic that is inconsistent with the strategy at hand, ineffective at counter insurgency operations, and controversial internationally, from both a legal and moral standpoint, be the preferred strategy for the current administration? The answer lies in what I believe to be the primary issue with drone warfare. It does not lie within proportionality or discrimination, though, these are important issues. Rather, the issue with drones is what they do to the people who use them.



Killing and the Killer

Killing another human being is a fundamentally difficult action, requiring the killer to overcome a naturally and socially engrained inhibition to kill. Throughout history, engagements have resulted in significantly lower casualties than would be expected; given the number of soldiers involved and the lethality of the weapons they carry. After WWII, General SLA Marshal apparently discovered that only around 20% of his men were firing. While the accuracy of this statistic has been called into question, the shocking claim led to further investigation. A trend developed that can be seen across multiple wars, indicating that even when their own lives are at stake, many soldiers still refuse to return fire. Realizing this, the American military set about attempting to rectify the problem. They did so by breaking down a soldier’s innate resistance through “conditioning” during basic training. The end result of the conditioning efforts was a drastic increase to over a 90% firing rate in Vietnam.[56]

Lt. Col Grossman, a career soldier and psychologist has done important and pioneering work into the psychology of killing. In his work he has established what an equation to determine the factors that reduce the soldiers’ resistance to killing. These factors are:

  • Distance from the Victim
  • Proximity of a Group/Group
  • Absolution Proximity and Legitimacy of Authority
  • Target Attractiveness
  • Predisposition of the Soldier


The degree to which these factors are present indicates the willingness of the soldier to kill. Distance from the target is one of the most important of the factors. The distance between the soldier and his target permits a depersonalization of the act. Killing is one of the most intimate acts that a person can commit, with ties to sex in the human psyche. In no other acts are two people more connected than in sex and killing. To kill at a personal range is exceedingly difficult. To kill with a knife is easier than with the bare hands. To kill with a spear is easier than a knife, a bullet than an arrow, a bomb than a cannon, and so forth. The weapon not only makes the physical act easier, it also creates emotional distance.

Distance can exist physically and emotionally. Emotional distance is contributed to by mechanical, moral, social, and cultural factors.[57] In dealing with pilots who bombed population centers in WWII, Grossman says, “Intellectually, they understood the horror of what they were doing. Emotionally, the distance involved permitted them to deny it.”[58] Bombing deaths are impersonal, due to the distance involved, both mechanical and physical. It is far easier to get Naval or artillery gunners and pilots to kill because the machinery and distance between them and their victims permits them to emotionally and psychologically separate themselves from their actions and the consequences that ensue.[59]

Another important factor involved in the act of killing is group absolution, or the proximity of the group. Marshal found that crew served weapons, that is, weapons operated by more than one person, such as a machine gun, had a firing rate of almost 100%. The effect of peer pressure and the capacity for the group to dissipate the responsibility for the killing enables the group to be far more effective at killing than the rifleman.[60]

The next vital factor in overcoming resistance to killing is the proximity and legitimacy of authority. Similar to group absolution, this factor enables the soldier to place the responsibility for the killing onto his superiors. They told the soldier when to fire, and who to aim at. So in the end, the soldier is nothing more than an instrument of the authority figures, or so the rationalization goes. The more legitimate the authority, the less likely the soldier is to question the order, and the closer the proximity of the authority figure, the more likely the soldier is to obey, and in obedience deflect responsibility upward.[61]

The disposition of the soldier and the attractiveness of the target are the final factors. The disposition of the soldier is extremely important, and relates to the training and conditioning that the soldier has received. Some of this has to do with the recent experiences of the soldier as well, for example, what has the soldier been through so far in the conflict? Has the soldier lost a close friend at the hands of the enemy? If so, the soldier is less likely to feel conflicted about killing the enemy. Training and conditioning enable the soldier to act in accordance with the mental and psychological “muscle memories” that training built into him.[62] The attractiveness of the target essentially deals with the opportunity, means, and payoff that the target presents. If the soldier can kill with little risk to himself, relative ease, and with a high payoff to his own side as a result of the enemy’s loss, the kill is easier to carry out.[63]

Karl Marlantes, a veteran of combat in Vietnam as a Marine Lieutenant, provides an earthier, less clinical look into killing and the effect that it has on the human psyche. For Marlantes, dealing with killing is about coming to terms with the Mars within, and to remain human in a process that is fundamentally dehumanizing. Like Grossman, Marlantes recognizes that killing requires a psychological transformation on the part of the killer. This process involves conditioning, to overcome what he calls the societal restraints that hold back the savage nature of man. For Marlantes, the capacity to kill is within us all, what civilizes us are the societal restraints that keep the dogs at bay. [64]

Grossman’s research is deeply psychological and clinical, while Marlantes speaks from the position of experience. Unlike Grossman, Marlantes has killed. He is not a virgin discussing sex. He understands more than the mechanics, on a deep level, he understands the intimacy and intensity of killing.[65] Marlantes operates from the understanding that killing is a burden; it leaves the warrior with guilt.[66] He recognized, like Aquinas, that the warrior has blood stains on his hands, stains that can never be washed off.[67] Killing is one of the burdens that a warrior undertakes on behalf of society. This action generates within the warrior a split in his psyche, where the savage nature has broken free of the civilized.[68]

Historically, most warriors have killed in situations where their own lives were at stake. One of the key aspects of what it means to be a warrior is that in conjunction with accepting the responsibility to kill on behalf of his nation, the warrior has also accepted the risk of being killed or experiencing grievous bodily harm. A warrior is one who accepts the responsibility to utilize violence only in response to violence, and is therefore, by definition, one who acts ethically.[69] This is congruent with Walzer’s conception of the moral equality of soldiers.[70] The warrior has chosen a side, and while this side may not be the right side, the duty of the warrior is to respond to violence with violence for the protection of others, and to accept the consequences to his own person, both that of the burden of killing, and the risk to life and limb.

The result of this conception is that killing for the soldier in battle carries with it some sort of honor. At the time of the kill, the warrior feels either nothing, or elation at still being alive.[71] This is a principal similar to Grossman’s understanding of killing the noble enemy. Such a kill carries less psychological weight.[72] For Marlantes, dehumanization of the enemy is almost a necessity while engaged in the act of killing. What is important is that after such a kill, the warrior should come to experience a sense of empathy as he comes to recognize again the humanity of his victim. The warriors who have participated in a battle rarely cheer or celebrate. In part, this is due to the exhaustion that follows a fight, but it is also due to the sense of kinship the warrior feels with his enemy. They were engaged in something sacred, and sacrifice was made on behalf of both sides.[73]

Killing should be accompanied by empathy. A kill should be conducted with a sense of profound sadness and respect on behalf of the warrior for his enemy. The warrior must possess a profound understanding of death, suffering, and subsequent responsibility.[74] This is a necessary element of maintaining right intention in warfare.[75]

Unfortunately, killing in war, especially modern warfare is not as clean as that of the infantry soldier or Marine engaged in face to face combat. Soldiers and airmen often kill when their own life is not imminently threatened by the enemy. In such a situation, death becomes an abstraction, and the enemy may never regain human status in the mind of the killers and observers.[76] Marlantes related a story from his time in Vietnam when a headquarters element had established their command post on a hill that overlooked his company’s objective. The company had been through a series of hellish fights, and when they finally captured the objective, taking heavy losses, the command post cheered. Despite feeling a sense of elation himself, neither Marlantes, nor the other Marines who had participated in the assault were celebrating. The cheering of the command element disgusted him. Their sacrifice and that of their enemies, the sacred act of combat and killing, had become a form of entertainment for the observers.[77]

Marlantes himself experienced this sense of elation at the death of the enemy while serving as an air observer on a Huey attempting to rescue a reconnaissance team that was pinned down by NVA troops. The helicopter crew called in close air support, and Marlantes watched with fascination and celebration as Air Force jets dropped napalm onto the enemy below. His fellow Marines were saved and the enemy was destroyed. Years later, Marlantes has taken measures to empathize with the enemy troops that were burned that day.[78] However, it seems as though he is in a better position to do so than most service members who kill or observe death only from afar. After all, Marlantes had been engaged in combat on the ground previously, face to face with his enemy. He also had the advantage of being able to see the aftermath of the destruction, as he was close enough to watch the enemy burn.[79]

Technology is an enabler for violence. Modern weaponry engenders feeling of superiority to the enemy, and enables the user to avoid risk of injury, all while sanitizing the experience of killing. The horror of personal combat is visceral, the blood and guts, the sounds, the smells all drive home the depth of the horror that is war. The infantry soldier must confront the horror that his actions have caused. Modern technology enables a serviceman to avoid this. The myth that technology like drones generate is that of the clean kill. The language that is associated with such a strike is designed to reinforce the concept. Words such as precision and surgical describe strikes on targets. This distancing language avoids the reality of the broken and dismembered bodies that result from a hellfire missile striking a shack filled with human beings.[80]

The myth of the clean kill, which is never dismantled by human interaction with the resulting carnage, enables the sense of self righteous justification that permits the dehumanization of the enemy.[81] The personal experience of warriors, who must confront the carnage that results from calling in fire missions or using their own personal weapons, is unfiltered and involves all of the senses. While this encounter with the horror of violence has the dangerous capacity to numb the warrior to violence, it also has the capacity to humanize the enemy in death. Properly managed, this engenders compassion and empathy on the part of the warrior. This experience is lost in part for the operator of a drone. Visual media has a limited capacity to convey the aftermath of violence.[82]




The Moral Consequence of Killing with Drones

What does all of this mean? After all, militaries are always looking to find ways to make their troops better and more effective at killing. Drone warfare appears to be approaching the very apex of human capacity to overcome the innate resistance to killing. When analyzed according to the principles that Grossman outlines, the Predator and Reaper drones are incredibly efficient means of overcoming resistance to killing. Physically, the pilot and crew in control of the drone may be 7,500 miles away, seated at Nellis Airforce Base in Nevada. After a shift, the crew would handover the controls, stretch, change, and head home to their families for dinner and maybe a night out with the significant other.[83] This sanitizes the carnage resulting from the explosions occurring on the other side of the planet and blurs the lines between combat and civilian life. Karl Marlantes warns that the consequence of the imbalance created by the sterilized impunity with which modern warfare exercises lethal force, is so acute that it jeopardizes our humanity.[84]

The actual combat of drone warfare plays out on a video screen in high definition. Lt. Col Marin, an Airforce Predator pilot, described his first experience of combat with his drone as “electrifying.” He said it was, “almost like playing the computer game Civilization, in which you direct units and armies in battle. Except with real consequences.” [85] He talks about being the first generation to wage war with robots, and how it was almost like watching tv, even mildly entertaining at times. “All the potential gains of war without the costs. Could it not also become too easy, too tempting, too much like simulated combat…?”[86] It would be difficult to find a scenario which could increase the distances concerned, physically, emotionally, and mechanically. Such a system enables the myth of the clean kill, while filtering out all but the visual ramifications of the missile strike. When coupled with the nine-to-five nature of the drone pilot’s combat experience, it creates a situation that makes death an abstraction for all but the victim of the strike, separated from the serviceman by 7500 miles and 9 hours time difference.[87]

Drones are flown out of command trailers, with the pilot linked in to MERC chat, radio lines, and with commanding officers standing by.[88] The drone is flown by a pilot and a Sensor Operator, and takes off and lands under control of a separate crew, generally in theater, while the images it collects are analyzed by a shop of trained imagery analysts. The drone is a true crew-serve weapon. All targets have to be approved through an extensive chain of command, affectionately known as the “stove pipe” in which authorization comes from the top. The presence of superior officers and authorization from on high are a significant part of the drone pilot’s world. As such, the pilot is enabled to minimally shoulder responsibility for his actions, capable instead of spreading the responsibility among the crew and to pass the buck to leadership.

Drone pilots also maintain a favorable disposition to kill and posses high target attractiveness. Not only are they trained and conditioned extensively, but they bear no risk in relation to the target. Targets generally consist of high value individuals, or at least appear to be legitimate in the scheme of leadership decapitation and CT operations. To quote Lt. Col Marin again, “I found it easier and easier to justify bombing these barbarians back to the hell that spawned them. I moved Zarqawi to the top of my hit list as a personal nemesis whose life I could take without a moment’s hesitation and without losing a wink of sleep.”[89] The video acquired from drone strikes is recorded and some footage has made it onto YouTube and been shared between soldiers and airmen. Footage of combat, referred to as “moto-videos,” has turned images of the strikes and resulting carnage into entertainment. Apparently some have even taken to calling the videos “war porn.”[90]

While technology permits the dehumanization of warfare in many systems, one aspect unique to drone warfare is associated with the nomenclature used for the drone aircraft. The systems carry monikers such as Predator, Reaper, and Hunter. While many military systems bare names that are intended to play up the fierce character of the weapons system, the names of UAS systems are indicative of the unique role they play. Unlike most warfare, which is impersonal and directed against an opposing force, drone warfare is deeply personal.[91] This is clearly indicated in the afore mentioned remarks by Marin regarding Zarqawi.[92] Unlike most airstrikes, the target’s location is rarely known ahead of time. Instead, utilizing the drone’s linger time, the drone stalks its prey. The stalking of a human target is then executed by profoundly impersonal means, despite the fact that a targeted killing is an extremely intimate form of killing. The killer often knows the target’s name, has developed a pattern of his daily routine, and may even strike the target in the supposed safety of his own home. Yet the killer is 20,000 feet above the target’s home, and there is no one on board the craft. Instead, the decision to execute him, and anyone unlucky enough to be with him, was made by a set of analysts who inputted his target data into a computer algorithm they call “bug splat” which evaluates collateral damage, potentially his family, and then executed by a burnt out Air Force Captain who, after leaving his shift, will go home to his wife somewhere around Las Vegas, Nevada.[93]

To be fair, the drone pilots are generally not bad airmen. As drone warfare matures, the psychological effects on the pilots are beginning to emerge. PTSD-like symptoms, including: fatigue, burnout, stress, and domestic problems have been documented. Drone operators work long shifts and are forced to take the role of an observer with a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and very little capacity to affect the situation on the ground. So far, however, most of the stress seems to relate to the distress caused by watching ground forces in combat, causing feelings of relative helplessness and guilt for not sharing in the risk.[94] This indicates that the PTSD is not a result of the killing, and that therefore, the distance does indeed insulate the operators. The disconnect experienced by the drone pilots exacts a cost as well, as predicted by Marlantes.[95] Some pilots do, however, take time to reflect over the consequence of their actions, and the fact that a human being has died as a result of the strikes, as indicated by the testimonies of drone pilots Lt. Col Martin and Maj Callahan.[96]

It is important to note, however, that the interviews conducted, and indeed most of the information available about drone warfare, its conduct, and the pilots who fly the drones is derived from the Air Force. Their pilots and crew are all instilled with a sense of pride, honor, and discipline as members of a uniformed armed service. They are accountable to significant over site under the laws of war and the UCMJ. These pilots operate under a clear set of ROE’s, often work in support of ground troops, and have a chain of command that is accountable to the public.[97] The CIA operation, on the other hand, is shrouded in secrecy and operated by civilian, non-uniformed CIA operatives and even civilian contractors.[98] These personnel are not subject to the same requirements, ROE, or over site, nor are they initiates into the “warrior ethos” established through the training, discipline, and tradition in the armed services. There is, therefore, doubt as to whether or not the same level of honor, self-reflection, or accountability exist in within the ranks of those who carry out the most controversial of the strikes.[99]

So what? Drones make killing easy, so do F-16’s and cruise missiles.

Why is the drone so different from the cruise missile or the fighter pilot? The issue is deeper than what the drone enables its operators to do. The nature of drone warfare is such that it combines the myth of the clean kill with zero-risk to a human operator, low cost and a high probability of success. This permits military and civilian leadership to authorize the use of drone warfare to exercise lethal force with so little consequence that it risks right intention and reasonable alternatives. This is evidenced by the expansion of the drone campaign, both in scope and geography, perpetual relaxation of restrictions on drone warfare, implications that little evidence is required to authorize a drone strike, and an infatuation with the technology and tactics of drone warfare, despite their strategic failure.

The use of drones permits a nation to use force with relative impunity. A drone is cheap, replaceable, deadly, accurate, and does not risk a pilot. The Congressional 2012 Review of UAS refers to drones as being capable of doing the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” missions that would not require a pilot.[100] Dull jobs generally refer to recon missions or missions which require long linger time, dirty missions would take place in a CBRN environment, and dangerous missions are those with a high risk to the pilot, such as missions to take out enemy air defenses.[101] Additionally a drone has the capacity to use extreme discrimination, rivaling that of any other system available.[102] As such the drone is more accurate and less likely to cause collateral damage if used with caution than a cruise missile strike. This improved accuracy emboldens policy makers when considering interdiction in a populated area. This creates the false tendency to think of the drone as inherently discriminatory, forgetting that a drone is only as accurate as the intelligence that guides its targeting.[103] This is called the “drone myth” or the myth of the “clean kill.” It also has a higher success rate, as linger time and reconnaissance capabilities make positive identification of the target more likely, with the organic capacity to conduct an aerial battle damage assessment. Drones are also relatively cheap, with a basic Predator costing in the ballpark of $4.5M, while a jet fighter, such as an F-35 costs in excess of $75M.[104] This in addition to the cost of training and equipping the pilot makes the Predator a preferable option for utilizing force, as it eliminates risk to a US serviceman.

Political figures and military officials in the US and western countries are subject to restraints in their use of force by the political consequences of US casualties. Western countries have a low tolerance for casualties, and as such, the risk to their combatant personnel plays a significant role in the decision making matrix. Drones afford leadership the capacity to exercise force with zero risk of taking casualties. This permits far greater flexibility and decreased political liability in the decision to utilize force. This neglects the risk to foreign civilians in the operations area posed by the use of drones without the presence of friendly ground forces to improve the proportionality and discrimination of the strikes, inverting the just war consideration [105]  Jus in bello, dictates that a military impart risk on its combatants in order to decrease the risk to non-combatants.[106] The warrior, by the nature of his decision to become a warrior, has accepted this risk. The use of force, for the warrior, is legitimate only in response to violence in order to protect others.[107] As such, a strategy which accepts increased risk to foreign civilians in order to reduce the risk to US combatants is a violation of discrimination. Yet, this decision appears to be reflected in the pattern of US drone operations.[108] It is politically expedient, permitting the President to take aggressive action against the enemies of the US while avoiding the political fallout of US casualties, knowing that the consequences of the drone strikes are thousands of miles from public scrutiny.[109]

The burden of responsibility that political and military leadership bears for the well being of their troops is significant. After all, their decisions send the men and women of the armed forces into harm’s way. However, concern simply for the well being of the troops or even for foreign civilians is not enough. When the President of the United States orders his troops into combat, he is utilizing them as weapons against the enemy. The men and women of the United States military constitute the most well equipped and trained killing organization on the planet. As such, the President is engaged in the killing of the enemy. Despite being isolated from the battlefield by thousands of miles, technology, and thousands of links in the chain of command, the President too ought to take into consideration the consequences of the lethal force that he has authorized. Though his participation is not as immediate as the drone operator, it is ultimately with his authority that lives are ended with the pickling of the trigger.[110] Maintaining this prospective, as the Commander in Chief, is necessary to ensure the fulfillment of right intention in the employment of force.

The gravest issue with drones is their tendency to dehumanize warfare. Killing is an act that is extraordinarily intimate, and in this intimacy, is extraordinarily difficult. The reason killing is so difficult is the realization that what you have killed is an actual person. This is why people try so hard to dehumanize the enemy, and it is this dehumanization that leads to atrocity. Within the military, honor plays a large role in preventing atrocities. To act honorably, or in accordance with a warrior ethos is important for the prevention of unethical actions. When an enemy is killed who poses a clear and present danger, who has fought hard against a soldier, this enemy is considered to be a noble enemy. There is a sense of honor in the old, almost chivalric sense. The enemy is recognized as a man, and as an opponent. His death was honorable, as were the warrior’s actions in killing him. Killing an enemy who does not represent an immediate threat to the warrior is more difficult, and seems less honorable.[111] This is why night attacks, surprise attacks, and ambushes were seen as dishonorable, and at times formally banned.[112] Drone strikes are a kind of ambush kill, an ambush where the killer is invulnerable. In his accounts of Predator strikes Lt.Col Marin consistently remarks that his targets were unsuspecting. At times this is related with a sense of smugness and disdain for the people that are killed. One of his pilots referred to Predator strikes as “squashing bugs.”[113]

In 2004, when Lt. Col Marin’s autobiographical account took place, the order to strike in Iraq followed the same ROE’s that a manned air mission carried. If anything, the ROE was stricter than it is today.[114] In 2012, missions are authorized based upon very little evidence, on targets that do not even need a name. All a person needs to do in Pakistan to find their way onto a kill list is to demonstrate a suspicious pattern of behavior. The individual is then eligible to be killed in a “signature strike,” a type of drone strike distinct from the carefully and methodically prepared target packages on the upper management of AQ and the other terrorist networks.[115] Killing through a computer screen sterilizes and dehumanizes the act, and seems to create a cavalier attitude toward their use by both their operators and senior leadership in the US government.

The dehumanization of victims, and the removal of humans from the act of killing flows contrary to the very nature of war ethics. Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, sets up an argument for the necessity of war ethics based largely on the principle, that even within war, human beings have rights. In spite of Clausewitz’s assertion that war is hell, and that therefore, is subject simply to an endless escalation of force, mankind has always sought to stem the hellish nature of war with the interjection of limiting principles. These limiting principles have served to preserve a measure of humanity in what is by very nature an inhumane activity.[116]  Guidance on the conduct of war is even present in ancient China, where Sun Tzu appears to have held to some standards of right conduct in war, dictating that all captured prisoners be treated kindly.[117]

Walzer relates several instances in which soldiers chose not to kill. These instances occur when soldiers, who do not appear to be non-firers, but rather are soldiers who in a moment of humanity have made a decision to demonstrate compassion. In every instance the pressure of necessity is not a factor, and the moment of compassion results from the observation of the enemy engaged in an action that demonstrates all too clearly their humanity, a naked soldier bathing or shaving, a soldier with his pants down, sleeping or drinking coffee.[118]

In these moments the efforts at dehumanizing the enemy fail. Despite the hell that is war the soldiers recognize in their enemy another human being. This recognition is essential for right intention to be manifest. O’Brien’s third requirement for right intention states that the enemy must be treated as human beings with rights.[119] A recognition of the humanity of one’s enemy is an elemental concept of War Ethics. Dehumanization is a denial of personhood. The language of administration officials regarding those killed with drones is indicative of dehumanization. Brennan claimed that drones are capable of, “surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it…”[120] This language is consistent with a dehumanized view of the enemy combatants.

The greatest effort for dehumanization in warfare will follow in the next generations of drone warfare. The Air Force has indicated that a development goal for future drone aircraft is increased autonomy. This autonomy includes an effort to generate the capacity for autonomous target engagement, finally taking human beings out of the loop by around 2025. The long range planning document also indicates an effort to dramatically expand the drone fleet to include a greater array of drone craft, ranging from vehicles capable of cargo transport, to small swarm drones for indoor use. The effort includes plans to equip almost all iterations with the capacity for lethal force.[121] This report is consistent with predictions from multiple sources, and appears to be the general trend in the research and development of drones.[122] This spells a deep and troubling moral dilemma for war ethics. Who is responsible for the deaths that result from an automated target engagement, and by what right does a drone kill? Michael Walzer has said: “there can be no justice in war if there are not ultimately, responsible men and women.”[123] Can killing conducted by an automated drone ever be just?



The introduction of drone warfare has proven to be a corrosive influence on the use of force by the US. This is demonstrated in the proliferation of “war porn” in the form of drone strike footage, throughout the armed forces as killing and suffering by the enemy devolves into entertainment.[124] The dehumanizing effect introduced by drone warfare is like an infectious disease within the armed forces, running contrary to the principles of the warrior ethos. The ancient warriors resisted the innovation of technologies which created distance between the combatants for fear that it would undermine honor.[125] Honor acts as a preservative within a military, preserving the concepts of chivalry and staunching the propensity to dehumanize the enemy and to commit atrocity.[126] The manner in which drone strikes are carried out has a dishonorable feel, encouraging the dehumanization of the enemy, and in this way, assisting the operators and their leadership in assuaging the blood guilt that follows a kill.[127]

The corrosive influence is also seen in the rapid expansion of ROE’s and the requests by top military officials that they continue to do so, in the face of mounting international and domestic concern over the number of civilian casualties associated with the program. It is also manifest in the administration’s efforts to expand the program in scope and geography, and the massive increase in the number of strikes authorized since Obama’s inauguration, despite mounting evidence that the program is counterproductive and fuels recruitment by AQ and its affiliates.[128]

The use of drone warfare has proven corrosive to the point that it has inverted the necessity to respect non-combatant immunity by accepting increased risk to the belligerent’s own combatant personnel in order to reduce the risk experienced by the noncombatants in the area of operations. Instead of accepting greater risk to its own combat personnel in an effort to increase the proportionality of drone strikes and decrease civilian casualties, the US has seen fit to reduce the risk to its own personnel by shifting risk to local civilians. This demonstrates an extreme risk aversion on the part of the military establishment and the administration to the point that it represents a potential violation of discrimination.[129]

The final evidence of the corrosive nature of the program is the effort to introduce a fully autonomous targeting capacity in the future, with the target date of 2025. Such an effort represents the attempt to fully remove humans from the loop, and an evasion of personal responsibility for the killing of enemies.[130] Such an effort runs entirely contrary to the recognition of the humanity of the enemy combatants, or the respect due them. This marks a departure from both the essence of war ethics, which is to introduce an element of humanity and order into the hellish machine that is war, and the chivalric essence of the warrior ethos.

Traditionally, the risk of civilian casualties, the cost of military operations, and the risk to US personnel would create a decision making matrix that would encourage military and civilian leadership to ensure that the case for the use of force was secure within jus ad bellum, and that reasonable alternatives had been sought. Drone warfare, however, ameliorates the urgency of such deliberations, promising quick, clean, and cheap results. The nature of drone warfare makes it an attractive alternative to the use of conventional force, or even means short of war where the risk of retaliation is low.

The nature of drone warfare is such that it undermines right intention, specifically through the encouragement of implacable animosity, the pitiless and unrelenting use of force. It does so by the dehumanization of the enemy, by breaking down the inhibitions to the use of force on the part of its pilots, and its capacity to sterilize and isolate its operators from the carnage and suffering it produces. Further, it provides the conscience assuaging myth that as it is capable of extraordinary discrimination and proportionality, it will naturally limit civilian casualties, while still promising a high probability of success. Finally, it offers reduced risk, both in cost of equipment and threat to US military personnel. This incentivizes the use of drones in low intensity conflict as a politically expedient alternative to other reasonable means short of warfare.

As such, drone warfare undermines right intention by distancing leadership and warfighters from the need to recognize the humanity of their victims in the act of killing. This removes the conception that killing is a burden, and assists in eliminating the prohibition to kill. This precludes the capacity for the warfighter to demonstrate mercy or to recognize the humanity of his victims. The use of drone warfare is willing to accept an increased risk to civilian non-combatants in order to ensure the safety of US military personnel. The distance and sterility with which the outcome of a drone strike are perceived by military and government officials undermines their capacity to demonstrate empathy to the enemy, and more importantly to innocents killed as a result of collateral damage. This is expressed in the moral failure of the Obama administration to track and release official reports of civilian casualties in an attempt to maintain proportionality.

Military and civilian leadership are not compelled to come to terms with the blood on their hands by a lack of confrontation with the humanity their actions destroyed. Such a failure indicates a lack of charity toward the enemy, and a failure to see him as a human being with rights and personhood. This has undermined right intention and permitted the expansion of a program that utilizes force on a low intensity level, but in manner consistent with implacable animosity.

Though generally the use of a weapon in the conduct of war falls under jus in bello, the administration’s use of drones as the means for the implementation of force in its war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, constitutes a violation of jus ad bellum. This is by virtue of the fact that drone warfare is a strategy centered around a weapons system that inherently dehumanizes the enemy, removes a spirit of charity toward the enemy and promotes “an unpacific and relentless spirit” (implacable animosity), on the part of the United States, thus undermining right intention, while reducing the incentive to seek reasonable alternatives to force. This makes the use of drone warfare a legitimate candidate to be considered means mala prohibita. Despite Leon Panetta’s assertion that drones are the “only game on the block” against al Qaeda, it is important to remember that even within war, it is necessary to maintain our humanity, and to fight with honor.[131] It is as important to fight well as to win.

[1] (New America Foundation, 2012)

[2] (BBC , 2011)

[3] Invalid source specified.

[4] (United States Air Force, 2009)

[5] (Jordan, 1907) pp. 101-102

[6] (Walzer, 2006)

[7] (Johnson, Ethics and the Use of Force, 2011), (Koring, 2010, June)

[8] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011) p. 1 emphasis mine

[9] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011) pp.1-2

[10] Or three, with the addition of jus post bellum, though I suspect this falls under right intention somehow.

[11] (Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam, 2005)

[12] (Aquinas) p. 33

[13] (Aquinas)p. 33

[14] Ibid.

[15] (O’Brien, 1981) p. 34

[16] (O’Brien, 1981) pp. 35-36

[17] (Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 1999) p. 33

[18] (Aquinas) p. 34

[19] ESC, 1 Chronicles 28:3

[20] (Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam, 2005) p. 39

[21] (O’Brien, 1981) p. 87

[22] Ibid. pp. 125-126

[23] (Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 1999) p. 38; (Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam, 2005) p. 39

[24] (Aquinas) p. 33

[25] (Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, 1999)

[26] (O’Brien, 1981) pp. 56, 59, 64-66

[27] Ibid. p. 59

[28] (Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just, 1984) pp. 88-91,92, 95-96

[29] (Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just, 1984)

[30] (Johnson, Ethics and the Use of Force, 2011)

[31] (Entuos, Gorman, & Barnes, 2012)

[32] (Entuos, Gorman, & Barnes, 2012), (Ofek, 2010)

[33] Ibid.

[34] (Loh, 2012)

[35] (Savage, 2012)

[36] (New America Foundation, 2012); (Pakistan Body Count, 2012)

[37] (New America Foundation, 2012)

[38] (Pakistan Body Count, 2012)

[39] (Pakistan Media Watch, 2011)

[40] (Carpenter & Shaikhouni, 2011)

[41] (Bergen & Teidemann, 2009)

[42] (Carpenter & Shaikhouni, 2011)

[43] Ibid

[44] (Abbot, Jan, 2010)

[45] (McClane & Summers, 2012)

[46] (McClane & Summers, 2012)

[47] (Ofek, 2010)

[48]Decapitation is a strategy of utilizing leadership strikes to “cut the head off the snake.”

[49] (United States Marine Corps, 2010) “Yell down,” is a term coined in response to Michael Walzer’s provision to the standard of Double Effect, in which he postulates that a good soldier accepts risk to himself in order to preserve civilian lives. In the incident for which the term is coined, a soldier yells down into a cellar to warn the occupants that he is throwing a grenade, giving the occupants the opportunity to proclaim their civilian status. Thus, the soldier accepted additional risk to himself in order to preserve the lives of innocent civilians. Walzer sees this as simply the action of the “good soldier,” not as going above and beyond the call of duty.  (Walzer, 2006) pp. 152-153

[50] (BBC , 2011)

[51] (Rall, 2011)Murdered is the exact wording of Rall, the article’s author and does not reflect the sentiments of the author of this essay.

[52] (Rall, 2011)


[54] (Ofek, 2010)

[55] (Entuos, Gorman, & Barnes, 2012)

[56] (Grossman, 1995) pp 1-36

[57] (Grossman, 1995)

[58] Ibid. p. 101

[59] Ibid. pp 107-108

[60] Ibid. pp. 152-154

[61] (Grossman, 1995) pp. 142-146

[62] Ibid. pp.177-184

[63] Ibid. pp.171-173

[64] (Marlantes, 2011)

[65] (Grossman, 1995)p. 1-2

[66] (Marlantes, 2011)

[67] (Aquinas) p. 33

[68] (Marlantes, 2011) p.26

[69] Ibid. pp. 221-222

[70] (Walzer, 2006)

[71] (Marlantes, 2011) p. 26

[72] (Grossman, 1995) pp. 197-198

[73] (Marlantes, 2011) p. 34

[74] Ibid pp. 42-43

[75] (O’Brien, 1981)pp. 34-35

[76] (Marlantes, 2011) pp. 36-40

[77] (Marlantes, 2011)

[78] Ibid. pp. 36-42

[79] Ibid. p. 40

[80] (Marlantes, 2011) pp. 70-71

[81] Ibid pp.73, 74, 76

[82] Ibid pp. 76-77

[83] (Lt. Col. Marin)

[84] (Marlantes, 2011) p. 18

[85] (Lt. Col. Marin) p. 31

[86] Ibid P. 46

[87] (Marlantes, 2011) p. 18

[88] MERC is a chat program, similar to civilian AIM or MSN messenger, which enables the operator to be linked into chat rooms in multiple command and control functions, as well as operations and intelligence portals. The difference between MERC and AIM or MSN messenger, is that it like most military technology, it is cumbersome, unreliable, and has a distinctly 1980’s feel to it.

[89] (Lt. Col. Marin) p.72 In fairness to the Lt. Col, he did do several tours in theater on rotation. However, most Predator kills and missions are flown from the US. He also took the time as a man to reflect on what he had done in killing another person, though only after he witnessed the first “collateral” death of an innocent civilian.

[90] (Spiegel Online, 2010)

[91] (Sifton, 2012)

[92] (Lt. Col. Marin) p. 27

[93] (Sifton, 2012), (Pitzke, 2010)

[94] (Lt. Col. Marin) p. 27

[95] Ibid. (Marlantes, 2011) pp. 17-19; (Pitzke, 2010)

[96] (Sifton, 2012)

[97] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011); (Ofek, 2010)

[98] Ibid.

[99] (Sifton, 2012)

[100] (Congressional Research Service, 2012)

[101] CBRN-Chemical Biological and Nuclear

[102] (Expert Panel , 2010)

[103] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011)

[104] (AFA)

[105] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011)

[106] (Walzer, 2006)pp. 151-154

[107] (Marlantes, 2011)

[108] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011)

[109] (Ofek, 2010)

[110] (Marlantes, 2011)

[111] (Grossman, 1995)

[112] (Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just, 1984)

[113] (Lt. Col. Marin)

[114] Ibid

[115] (Entuos, Gorman, & Barnes, 2012)

[116] (Walzer, 2006 pp. 23-24, 34-36, 136-143)

[117] (Tzu & Giles, 2007)

[118] Ibid pp. 136-143

[119] (O’Brien, 1981 p. 34)

[120] (Miller, 2012)

[121] (United States Air Force, 2009)

[122] (Expert Panel , 2010)

[123] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011)

[124] (Spiegel Online, 2010)

[125] (Pressfield, 2011) p. 11

[126] (Axinn, 2009)pp. 187, 190

[127] (Grossman, 1995); (Marlantes, 2011)

[128] (Entuos, Gorman, & Barnes, 2012); (Ofek, 2010); (McClane & Summers, 2012)

[129] (Brunstetter & Braun, 2011)

[130] (Expert Panel , 2010); (United States Air Force, 2009)

[131] (Ofek, 2010)


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