In the fine tradition of dumping unpleasant news on the Friday of a holiday weekend, the Washington Post reported this afternoon an admission by the Obama Administration that it has “inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 noncombatant civilians in drone and other lethal attacks against terrorism suspects in places not considered active war zones” such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
The “transparency” is progress of a sort, in this Administration’s last year in office, but it’s still symptomatic of the moral blinders that have accompanied drone warfare under Obama. There is nothing illegitimate about using unmanned drones as weapons of war; if you would be justified in taking a man’s life by sending a soldier to kill him, you’re equally justified in sending a flying death robot to do the same job. There’s no moral requirement that you risk the lives of your own people in order to use force. And while there are compelling moral and strategic arguments for an obligation to minimize civilian casualties, it’s a sad reality of war that it is rarely conducted without the accidental deaths of innocents, especially when the enemy deliberately uses them as human shields.
But what’s dangerously seductive about drones is that precisely because they put no American servicemen’s lives at risk, they allow the government to engage in the pretense that using them is not war, and allow politicians to present themselves as peacemaking non-interventionists while lobbing bombs into other sovereign countries. This is the grave moral weight of war purchased on the cheap, with little effort to justify it to the American public, let alone the public in countries where we rain down death from the sky. It encourages the worst instincts of opponents of American ground interventions, even though the enemies we target from the air are likely sooner or later to require finishing off on the ground. That’s something we can’t do if the public has been conditioned to think ground wars are never necessary and American casualties are never tolerable – not even for causes that justify bombing places with a lot of civilians. And it encourages our enemies to see us as cowards who won’t risk our own people to fight them.
Drones are weapons of war. Wars are sometimes necessary, but we should have the moral courage to admit when we are waging them and publicly justify our resort to violence.