On October 13 at 4am, a US naval destroyer launched a series of Tomahawk cruise missiles towards three radar sites along the Iran-backed Houthi controlled coast of Yemen. The missiles signaled an escalation of US intervention between what is essentially a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the ensuing weeks, a heated discussion erupted in the American media regarding the role of the United States in the region, with many worrying aloud that the US would mire itself in another Middle Eastern war. But, to the surprise of many Americans, the US has actually been involved with the conflict in Yemen for years. Though this is the first missile launched from a warship, the US has been quietly conducting airstrikes since 2002 using a more discreet technology: drones.
In terms of consequence, there is virtually no difference between the type of bomb dropped from a drone and the type launched from a warship. However, to the American public as well as military personnel, drone strikes are not considered as serious an act of war as naval strikes, and so despite the fact that there have been well over 100 strikes in Yemen over the past dozen years, the public has not considered Yemen to be a war zone comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan. Since the last formal declaration of war in WWII, the United States’ standards for what constitutes a “war zone” have changed dramatically, muddying the status of battles fought by drone strikes. Because drones are a military gray area, and because most drone strikes are clothed in intense secrecy, the public discourse surrounding the ethics of drones is equally murky. The American public cannot continue with this moral dissonance surrounding drone strikes; in cases like Yemen, it must start addressing the practical and ethical consequences of such attacks. It must start holding its leaders accountable for these novel forms of war.
The ethics of war can be very complicated, but for the most part, many people agree that preemptive strikes can be justified if, and only if, it can reasonably be determined that the attack would spare more casualties than it would cause. This holds true for civilians as well as combatants. For instance, if the US could obtain credible intelligence that indicated an attack plot in New York City whose blast would kill or injure three thousand people, then it is justified to prevent the attack through preemptive force, provided the casualties don’t exceed three thousand. Of course, the Pentagon rarely has such accurate information, but that hasn’t stopped it from authorizing drone strikes in the name of preemptive defense. In fact, under the Obama administration, the use of drone warfare has sharply risen.
This raises two distinct questions: is the drone program effective, and is it ethical? It may never be conclusively proved whether or not a certain drone strike prevented a certain terrorist attack or spared a certain number of lives. Furthermore, the ambiguous definition of what a “combatant” is tends to skew the assessments of efficacy – often with devastating results. Assuming, though, that drone strikes do save lives by way of preemptive strikes, they may do more harm than good by breeding anti-American sentiment, which can further radicalize militant extremists. What’s more, the strikes can cause other damages that are not typically included in the calculus of casualties. These include serious psychological trauma and widespread fear among civilians – effects that can extend far beyond any impact crater. But because data like that are extremely difficult to measure, intelligence officials suspect that limited and precise drone campaigns may lead to less anti-American sentiment than a full-scale, boots-on-the-ground land war, and drones typically lead to fewer civilian casualties than conventional warfare. Unfortunately, they are notoriously poorly monitored, and their effects can be impossible to definitively report. The dangerous potential for imprecisions and the hasty use of drones are only amplified by the lack of public oversight.
The question of ethics, however, is unsurprisingly the harder one to address. Certainly, drone strikes can have a host of unethical consequences: unnecessary collateral damage, harm to US interests, and more lives lost than lives saved overall. But since relevant information remains strictly classified – accessed and released only at the discretion of independent organizations such as the London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism – the public is often not aware of whether or not the strike can be justified. While this is a problem for much of conventional warfare – a nation should be able to explain and justify its military operations regardless of the weapons used – it is especially pronounced with respect to drones. This is because drone strikes are easy to conduct, which may have the pernicious effect of eroding the scrutiny and standards that military personnel have for ground assaults or special operations. This is a crucial shift in the psychology of warfare, and it must be treated with tremendous wariness. President Obama personally authorizes most, though not all, drone strikes, especially in non-war zones such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan; without the constraints of public awareness, he is free to make each one of those decisions without the gravity of risking American soldiers. If he could not comfortably send a Navy SEAL team to carry out a certain mission, and instead use a drone because the risk of sending soldiers would be too great, it signals that the mission is not vital for America’s defense.
For better or worse, drones are now a fixture in the modern American arsenal and their use is only likely to increase. The public, widely unfamiliar with this mode of war, has let drone strikes become a commonplace facet of military operations without considering the grave consequences that such strikes entail. The most significant damage drones may ultimately cause, therefore, is on the psyche of the American people. As strikes become easier and more efficient, Americans may succumb to the belief that their country isn’t at war at all. Make no mistake, the severity of the drone program ought to be reckoned with as if it were as serious as a manned invasion. The true danger of drone warfare is that the drones seem to be removed from the rules of war, but that is hardly the case. They are every bit as lethal and strategic as any other weapon, and they must be treated as such.
It is for this reason that the US military must be more transparent with regards to the drone program. The decision to defend American interests abroad through the use of drones warrants critical scrutiny, and every strike must be carried out with the immense caution, deliberation, and accountability that a manned mission would have. Finally, if the US military is making these decisions on behalf of its citizens, then the American people have a right to know what it is they are being defended from.