The civilian impact of drones Essay Paper

Ethics of Drone Strikes

The increasing use of drones in combat has raised a number of different ethical issues. Drones are typically used to bomb foreign territory. The operators control the drones remotely, often from locations in the United States. Working with equipment not unlike a video game, they fly the drones into combat or ambush situations, where they then carry out their missions, often from thousands of miles away. Some of the ethics issues that arise are the impacts on the operators, the impacts on the territories where the drones are being used, and the morals of war in general, which may be altered by the use of weaponized drones.

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Weaponized Drones and War

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Michael Hayden (2016) argued that drones play an important role in modern warfare. His position essentially argues that while there are flaws with the program, the program itself is necessary, and it would be better to work out those flaws than to abandon the use of drones. There are a few underlying principles worth exploring. First, the United States has always worked with a realist outlook to the world. As such, it uses its economic, political and military power to achieve its objectives. This creates tensions with other nations and groups, and sometimes those tensions escalate into open conflict. The United States has therefore maintained the world’s largest military to address the constant state of conflict in which it finds itself. The doctrine of realism rejects the idea of morality in international politics (Karpowicz, 2013). This is necessary in part because there are many competing moral frameworks by which actions can be judged, but also because international politics is seen in terms of outcomes for each individual nation — if its outcomes are superior than the action is justified.

Hayden’s central argument, then, is that the objective of America’s political action is either to enhance America’s interests or to ensure America’s safety. The latter is more important because it satisfies the condition of maintaining a standard of existence rather than enhancing it. Thus, threats to America’s security will need to be dealt with. This, Hayden points out, is the role of the military. The choice of technology that the military uses, ultimately, is not that important. What is important is that the military performs its job. Keeping America safe is interpreted as launching attacks on its enemies, sometimes in a punitive manner but sometimes in a pre-emptive manner.

Under realism, the only manner in which to judge drone strikes is based on their effectiveness at performing a specific role. Hayden argues that the drones strikes are effective, as they often kill senior operatives who are actively planning threats against the United States, including attacks using weapons of mass destruction. The actual impact of such targeted killings at preventing terrorist attacks can only be speculated, but the military believes that the drone strikes have played a critical role in the prevention of such attacks, therefore they are to be considered effective.

Just War Theory

The discussion on the ethics of drone strikes makes reference to just war theory. This theory is outlined in three parts — the justice of entering into war, justice in the conduct of war, and the justice in the termination of war (Orend, 2005). These concepts, not surprisingly are open to significant interpretation. Just war theory combined with political realism categorically places a nation against its enemies. If those enemies are believed to be a direct threat, then nation has just cause to pursue action against them. There is no requirement for procedural justice — the nation can do what it needs to in order to ensure the outcome of its security. Within the confines of realism, a lot of war can be deemed just.

This is not to say that the ethics of entering into this conflict with terrorist groups is settled. The terrorists in question are often in remote locations on foreign soil — in Pakistan, in Yemen and other similar locations. It is hard to make the case that they pose any sort of direct, immediate threat to the United States from these places. The self-defence argument, therefore, rests on one of two propositions. The first is that terrorist attacks planned in such locations often target areas in the U.S., or the West, and therefore they are more a threat than they would appear. Further, that U.S. interests extend beyond the territorial borders of the nation, and many of the attacks were focused on defending U.S. troops in these areas, or the troops of U.S. allies. This position is more or less defensible on realist grounds.

The other proposition is that the people targeted in these strikes are rogues, terrorists whose mission by definition is to commit violent atrocities. It is not a matter that they are enemies of the United States, but that they are enemies of all decent people, anywhere. This proposition is somewhat harder to defend, but it can be noted that there are very few moral codes where killing innocents is considered acceptable, and thus for most of the world the individuals targeted in drone strikes are indeed immoral people. It is, at the very least, worthy of military engagement with such individuals.

The second component of just war theory pertains to the rules of engagement. This is where the ethics of drones are viewed as considerably muddier than the ethics of war in general. Hayden does not accept that there is any sort of noble way to wage a war, but rather that war is something to be fought with the objective of winning. To insert morality into war — for example as in the Geneva Convention — is absurd because war is about killing. Even if waging war with some rules to protect against civilian casualties or cruel deaths makes sense, drone strikes are typically clean, instant deaths that would not under normal circumstances contravene any ethics about killing enemy combatants.

The question of civilian casualties is often raised in the context of drone strikes There are many anecdotes about civilians being killed or injured in drone strikes. Even with the best evidence and surveillance, there is an element of uncertainty with respect to who is being hit, and who might be in the vicinity at the time. Coll (2014) outlines a few narratives of civilian casualties, for example. But there are questions about such concerns. First, a realist does not question the morality of the weapon, and if the weapon lacks precision so be it, as long as the objective is achieved. Second, all war involves civilian casualties and if anything drones are more likely to avoid them than conventional weapons and warfare. Third, the enemy specifically targets civilians, so there is no expectation in this conflict of avoiding civilian casualty. Morality is not applied in either case, but if it is, it should not only be applied to one side.

The Impact on the Operators

One of the areas of interest to observers with respect to drones is the impact that this new type of warfare has on the operators. A unique characteristic of drone warfare is that the drone operator is entirely removed from the combat. Aircraft pilots, for example, must still physically fly an aircraft and activate the weapons from the airspace in order to strike a remote target. The drone operator, on the other hand, can be located anywhere in the world. This has significant implications for the ethics of drone warfare. On one hand, the realist view is clear that the remoteness of the operator is not relevant because there is no moral question about how a war is waged. To apply any sense of morality, that there is nobility is actually sending troops into harm’s way is irrational. The result is all that matters. Drone warfare under that logic is just. If the operators are bothered psychologically is also irrelevant — war always scars its participants, and that is no more or less true with drone strikes.

But the conduct of war in this context is interesting. The drone operator can be in the United States, far from the combat zone. The drone strike is little more than a video game — using a device to control something on a screen. There is a certain detachment in this type of killing that was never there in any other type of warfare that has been waged. Killing someone in Pakistan, and then driving home in a completely safe domestic environment begs the question, at the very least of the impact that has on the drone operator. The drone operator may theoretically fail to realize the scope of the drone action. More important, the people giving the orders to use the drones might feel that way as well. The leaders in a warfare situation are always at least somewhat removed from the conflict, but with drone warfare they may be so disconnected from the theater of war that it might affect their decision-making. There is moral hazard here, because the decision to utilize drones might be made more casually than other forms of attack, when there is no risk whatsoever to the people making the decision and carrying out the attack.

If drone strikes were perfect in their execution, this might not be a problem, but they are not. As with any weapon, drone strikes can and do kill unintended targets. If the decision to utilize a drone is made too casually, it can result in needless death. Decision-makers can indulge in the drone strikes more than is reasonable or necessary, simply because there are no negative consequences associated with doing so. When drones are used too much, there are negative consequences to the U.S. Not only are the people authorizing and carrying out the strikes responsible for taking innocent lives needlessly, but they are also engendering ill-will in the countries that are subject to these strikes. Careless use of drones borders to homicide, and there is much more risk of careless use of drones than combat missions where actual soldiers are put at risk (CCIC, 2012).

Furthermore, there is the issue of the disconnect between the political-military leadership’s views on drones and those of the general population. The leadership of the U.S. has always been realist, but there are many in the country who do not see themselves as such, and in fact find that drones strikes in foreign countries amount to summary execution and therefore violate their moral standards. This is not a niche view — there is a strong opposition to drone strikes on moral grounds. This is the issue with just war theory — many do not subscribe to it, and even among those who do there is a sense that remote killing of people in remote regions of Pakistan, Yemen or Afghanistan is not nearly justified enough as there is no meaningful direct threat associated with those people. Moreover, there is disagreement over whether defense of the United States can be extended to include all manner of the nation’s interests overseas.

Glover (2012) points out that moral identity is a restraint on behavior. The large subset of Americans who do not subscribe to realist values could potentially act as restrain, demanding that specific conditions be met with respect to drone strikes. However, they are bound by their ability to reach those in power, the level of transparency with respect to drone activities, and ultimately by the friction between the realist worldview and other worldviews that build in morality. For those who feel that America stands for something in the world, and that those values should act as a restraint against overuse of drones in combat, there is reason to be concerned about the prevailing ethics in the halls of power, and what that means for redefining America’s moral identity (Glover, 2012).

The anonymity of drone operators is of particular concern when it comes to striking the balance between the competing interests of the nation. The drone operators can do what they do from anywhere, and they could be anybody. In essence, this is a form of disembodied violence, which lends itself to a lack of accountability. There are times when leadership accepts some accountability for mistakes, but rarely is there accountability for the program as a whole. Those running the program are convinced of its justice, even though their views may not reflect the views of America as a whole. It is important to remember that anonymous drone strikes are only known as “American” in the places where they occur. As such, the strikes represent the nation, its foreign policy, and all the people who identify with that nation. It is a moral stain for many Americans to be associated with anonymous drone strikes, in especially not when they kill civilians. This goes back to the unresolved issue of the justice of such remote and distant conflicts.

Drone strikes are substantially different from other forms of war at a distance. The people who are involved face no risk, have no accountability and there are no consequences. They have less incentive to make sound ethical decisions. This creates moral hazard. A drone operator when faced with a choice, and insufficient information, might simply choose to bomb, knowing that there are no consequences. War at a distance always removes its participants from the battlefield to a certain degree, but for drone operators the consequences are no more or less substantial that if they were playing a video game. You bomb a video game village, nobody cares, and you never have to think about it again.

Most people would, of course, think about it. That is what makes the ease with which such decisions can be made unique. One can easily, in a moment of uncertainty, opt to bomb. But then, one knows what the consequences were. Anything that makes this decision easier carries with it moral hazard. A drone operator may only come to fully realize the impact of his/her actions at a later date, which puts them at risk for psychological damage.

Ethical Considerations

There has been some discussion about the differences between drone strikes, in particular the distinction between personality strikes targeting a specific individual, and signature strikes targeting, more generically one presumes, people engaged in terrorist lifesetyles. The issue arose with the killing in Yemen of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative. There were specific ethical implications with the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens (Williams, 2013).

One of the central issues is that individuals targeted in personality strikes are said to be on the government’s kill list, which essentially means that the President has ultimate responsibility for the killing. The White House must approve putting somebody on a kill list. (Rohde, 2015). This, more or less, absolves the drone operator of responsibility where their actions are concerned. Deaths that occur as part of a personality strike are not the responsibility of the operator, creating a moral hazard with respect to the duty that the operator has to act within the bounds of the law. At that point, the drone operator is simply following orders.

Many around the world, naturally, question the legality of what are essentially extrajudicial executions. Nations such as Pakistan have expressed their outrage at the use of drones on their territory, to which the U.S. has countered that the Pakistani military is ineffective, and this leaves the U.S. no choice in the matter. However, the use of signature strikes had been particularly contentious. Where the President has reserved the right to specifically authorize the kill list (Becker & Shane, 2012), signature strikes are broader in nature, and the target is not always known (Fair, Kaltenthaler & Miller, 2014). There are significant ethics issues that arise from this, such as ordering the execution of somebody simply on the suspicion of terrorist activity. There are often civilian casualties, and in some instance the target might not be as terrorist as they seem. There is substantially more risk to the drone operator from an ethical perspective in carrying out a signature strike because of the unknowns in the situation.

For the operators, the dehumanization associated with signature strikes would appear to be psychologically damaging. Being removed physically from the killing can make it easier to do, but then knowing that innocent people, and sometimes children, are killed in signature strikes can take a toll on the drone operator. In a personalitry strike, there may be family members present, and that certainly would not be easy, but at least in those situations, the President has done the moral calculations, removing some of the moral responsibility for the killing from the drone operator. This is not so much the case with a personality attack, where lower-level officials and operators bear much more responsibility for the act.

For the people making the decisions, they must weigh the pros and cons of the action, the doctrine of double effect. There are negative consequences, both morally and practically, to the use of drone strikes. The strikes eliminate enemies, and they preserve the lives of American soldiers. But they often kill civilians, and they also engender anger. It is often held that drone strikes create militants in places like Pakistan where the strikes are common, because of the resentment that they cause among the people in the affected areas. This is particularly true when civilians are killed or injured. The President as Commander-in-Chief can reasonably assume responsibility for making such decisions, but drone operators and their immediate superiors are perhaps in less of a position to handle the consequences of killing in the name of peace. The moral stress of such actions may weigh heavily on these individuals, especially when their actions bring about civilian casualties.


By the ethics of the political and military leadership of the U.S., there are few moral quandaries regarding drone strikes, even those that end up harming civilians. However, many other Americans face moral quandary because of the agency question — drone strikes affect their sense of identity as an American. They also affect the way that others see the country — when there is no human attached to an action, then the only entity that can be ascribed the moral consequences of that action is the nation that perpetrated it.

There is moral hazard with drones, even more so than other forms of war at a distance. The drone operator is so far removed from the conflict theater that there is risk they do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. This is especially true for operators who have never been to the countries where they attacks are in question — they have a hard time to relating to those realities, and understanding them to be truly real. The physical detachment and lack of personal risk means that the decision to strike can be made with ease. This ease may cause drone strikes to be used more than the equivalent conventional strike would be, which further opens the door to ethical dilemma.

While the leadership of the country wishes away the issue of morality be leaning on just war theory and their realistic mindset, the issue is not that simply for those who conduct the strikes, those who authorize them, and for the large number of Americans who find their positive identity as Americans is challenged by the ethics questions raised by the conduct of drone warfare in remote corners of the world, in particular the use of pre-emptive strikes and strikes that harm civilians.


Becker, J. & Shane, S. (2012). Secret kill list proves a test of Obama’s principles and will. New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2016 from

Coll, S. (2014). The unblinking stare. The New Yorker. Retrieved April 23, 2016 from

CCIC (2012). The civilian impact of drones: Unexamined costs, unanswered questions. Center for Civilians in Conflict. Retrieved April 23, 2016 from

Fair, C., Kaltenthaler, K. & Miller, W. (2014). Pakistani opposition to American drone strikes. Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 129 (1) 1-33.

Glover, J. (2012). Humanity: A moral history of the twentieth century. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT.

Hayden, M. (2016). To keep America safe, embrace drone warfare. New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2016 from

Karpowicz, W. (2013). Political realism in international relations. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 23, 2016 from

Orend, B. (2005). War. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 23, 2016 from

Rohde, D. (2015). What the United States owes Warran Weinstein. The Atlantic Retrieved April 26, 2016 from

Williams, B. (2013). Inside the murky world of ‘signature strikes’ and the killing of Americans with drones. . Huffington Post. Retrieved April 26, 2016 from

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