Captain Ferguson (not his real name) gets up early in the morning, and has breakfast with his wife and children. At the office, Captain Ferguson sits in front of the computer for almost eight hours every day. At the end of the day he heads back home. Captain Ferguson’s wife is glad to see him back to discuss the events of her day. He does the same, with one omission. By most measures, it has been a beautiful day.
Beautiful, that is, if you don’t consider Captain Ferguson’s omission, something he doesn’t tell his wife. While sitting in front of his computer, he was directing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, carrying powerful bombs to land in distant countries. He presumes, but he is not totally sure, that he has hit the right target. After the bombs exploded four suspected terrorists were killed. Four fewer terrorists the U.S. will have to deal with.
A later investigation will later reveal that they were not terrorists but rather they were parents and children on a birthday party. As a result of the attack, four adults and eight children were killed, and several more seriously injured.
Captain Ferguson, of course, was unaware of the consequences of his actions. He only thinks that he has a somewhat tedious but rewarding job, since he is an important piece in the fight against terror. Only later he will know the truth, when the outcry of the victims’ relatives cannot be silenced any longer. The predictable apologies will not bring back the dead to life, nor heal those injured.
Let’s compare this made–up scenario with reality.
During the first year of the Obama administration, there were 51 drone attacks, compared to 45 drone attacks during President Bush’s two terms in office, according to The Year of the Drone, a report by the Washington-based New America Foundation. The report also states that in 2010 the civilian fatality rate has been 32 percent in drone attacks since 2004. Today, there are more than 7,000 drones being used by the U.S. the military in several countries around the world.
In a research paper entitled “Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones” Mary Ellen O’Connell, a Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, says, “The CIA’s intention in using drones is to target and kill individual leaders of al-Qaeda or Taliban militant groups. Drones have rarely, if ever, killed just the intended target. By October 2009, the ratio has been about 20 leaders killed for 750-1000 unintended victims. Drones are having a counter-productive impact in Pakistan’s attempt to repress militancy and violence. The use of the drone is, therefore, violating the war-fighting principles of distinction, necessity, proportionality, humanity.”
The use of drones has also another unintended consequence, affecting those that carry out the attacks. According to a new report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, intended to show the psychological impact of waging a “remote-controlled war,” 29 percent of the pilots surveyed said they were burned out and suffered from high levels of fatigue. Also, 17 percent of active-duty drone pilots surveyed were “clinically distressed.”
Dr. Wayne Chapelle and Colonel Kent McDonald, authors of the report, wrote that up to 4 percent of the operators were at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. The authors of the report believe that the cause is that the operators had seen close-up video images of women, children and other civilians killed during the operation. McDonald described their reaction as an “existential crisis,” where they have to rethink aspects of their own lives.
Thus, in addition to the harm they cause in the enemy, and the high percentage of civilians killed by error, use of drones has a deleterious effect on those that carry out the operations with them.
War, we should sadly acknowledge, is not a Nintendo game. And innocent people’s lives are not expendable. Those that trivially act as aggressors can end up being also victims of the tragic dimension of war.