Star Spangled Candour: Bugsplat

After the unprecedented events of 9/11, President Bush vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another attack on the United States. Although terrorism was not a new phenomenon, states have interpreted terrorism as the issue most threatening to state security. As a result, states have employed less than honourable tactics in order to secure the safety of their citizens. In the past decade, the morality of the American government has been questioned due to the use of torture techniques which masquerade as ‘enhanced interrogation’, and the suspension of habeas corpus, which has led to the indefinite detention of suspects. In particular, the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (known popularly as drones) has become a hotly disputed ethical dilemma.

Image courtesy of US Airforce, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of US Airforce, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The use of this new technology has become an integral part of United States military operations in the Middle East. Today, the United States military has more than 7,000 drones in operation, with more than 12,000 units on the ground. Last year, drones were utilized in hundreds of attacks in six countries. Unofficial estimates have put the death toll from drone strikes at between 1,900 to 3,200 lives. The advent of this technology has proven to be a significant strategic advantage for the United States in their Middle East operational capacity. Drones are inexpensive, safe and efficient weapons. Their operators have the ability to monitor their target for hours or days in anticipation of a strike. They have the capability to identify targets more accurately than ground troops or conventional pilots, and an attack can be diverted after a missile is fired in case a civilian walks into the line of fire.

Despite these safeguards, critics of the use of drones have expressed outrage at the unintentional killing of innocent civilians. There have been multiple accounts of children and families accidently murdered by these strikes, which critics argue help fuel anti-American sentiments and spur Muslim radicalization. However, according to the New American Foundation, the number of civilians killed by these attacks has decreased from 46 percent of total fatalities during the Bush administration to 14 percent during the Obama administration. Last year in Pakistan, 95 percent of drone strike fatalities were militants.  The increased accuracy of the attacks, coupled with evidence that they have substantially weakened al-Qaeda, has made the use of drones less of a tactic and more of a habitual form of engagement.

Some fear that the ease and accuracy of these weapons has created a military culture of unnecessary killing. Hundreds of suspected terrorists have been killed during the Obama administration, yet only one has been taken into custody overseas. Arresting suspects overseas is met with infinite logistical issues, and the administration’s failure to establish a clear detention policy suggests that they have no intention of taking prisoners.

The language used to describe legitimate targets has become increasingly vague. Non-combatant immunity is a norm in the traditional rules of warfare. By its very nature, terrorism inherently violates the norm of non-combatant immunity. The United States government has used this distinction to their advantage, deeming suspected terrorists  ‘enemy combatants’ in order to evade the rules of the Geneva convention. Most disturbing is President Obama’s method for qualifying civilian casualties. According to the New York Times, the administration counts all military-aged males in a strike zone as combatants, unless there is unequivocal posthumous evidence to indicate otherwise. This policy of ‘guilt by association’ could explain the low number of civilian deaths.

The drones provide a technical advantage that is sure to minimize the United State’s causalities, but does this remote form of warfare desensitize soldiers and citizens from the acts of warfare they are committing? U.S. troops can operate these machines from thousands of miles away, ensuring the troops safety. If the drone fails or is shot down, only technology and not lives are lost. Of course the United States military has the right to minimize its own casualties, but will this minimization take away the weight of the decision to go to war? The ability to carry out a strike with a touch of a button from thousands of miles away evokes the image of adolescents playing video games. The fact that the CIA calls the victims of these attacks ‘bug splat’ does nothing to reassure the American people that these attacks are being executed with the appropriate gravity.

The United States must diligently and continually prove these attacks are necessary measures for self-defense, and are proportionate responses to the threat of nation security. If the United States wishes to successfully tackle terrorism, they must utilize their technical advantages whilst adhering to the moral principles intrinsic to their foundation.