The Corner

National Security & Defense

When Civilians Die in Drone Attacks, It’s Not ‘Failure’ — It’s War

I’ve been reading with interest much of the commentary surrounding the tragic deaths of American hostage Warren Weinstein and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto in an otherwise-successful drone strike in Pakistan (I say “otherwise successful” because the strike did indeed kill senior al-Qaeda officials), and I’m struck by the extent to which our leaders — including people who know better — seem to think that war can somehow be truly “surgical” or “precise.” They perpetuate a dangerous fiction that war can be so carefully conducted, so precisely stage-managed, that no innocent people will die. In a long New York Times piece about the uncertainties of the drone war, this paragraph stood out as almost comically absurd:

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

“Gradually” this became clear? This should have been clear before an operator launched his first missile. This should have been clear based on — I don’t know — perhaps the entire history of aerial warfare. Even the most precise missiles have a blast radius, after all, and not even “hundreds of hours” of observation can enable us to see through walls or control for all variables. In fact, it’s foolish to try. And it’s even more foolish to blame American intelligence for innocent deaths, as some do:

“I hope this event allows us at last to have an honest dialogue about the U.S. drone program,” said Rachel Stohl, of the Stimson Center, a Washington research institute. “These are precise weapons. The failure is in the intelligence about who it is that we are killing.”

No, Ms. Stohl, the “failure” is al-Qaeda’s for refusing to comply with the laws of war. They should be punished for that failure and not rewarded with even more American caution. Jihadists bear all — and I mean all — the moral responsibility for the hostages’ death. And if we adjust our tactics in response to this strike — making us even more reluctant to shoot — then we’ll only guarantee that jihadists will further burrow themselves deep into the civilian population and do their best to surround themselves with western hostages.

Let me be perfectly clear: When we create rules and procedures of warfare that treat each and every civilian death as an American failure, we tie the hands of our men and women in uniform, we empower terrorists, and we cost American lives. A hidden scandal of the War on Terror is the indefensible toll in American lives due directly to excessive caution, unduly strict rules of engagement, and a military legal culture that creates palpable fear of punishment for even good-faith mistakes under fire. Read Dakota Meyer and Bing West’s Into the Fire and tell me that we don’t empower the enemy with our timidity and caution.

Our timidity isn’t moral. It’s just weak. In fact, it’s worse than weak because it’s often driven and motivated by the international Left’s lawfare — its efforts to so restrict the legal conduct of war that it essentially outlaws conventional combat. Americans weep for Mr. Weinstein and his family, but our mourning must turn not into self-doubt but into rage, a renewed resolve to find and kill terrorists — no matter how they hide, or who they hide behind. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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