"Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight." --Barack Obama accepting 2009 Nobel Peace Prize
Last Nov. 18, four former Air Force personnel with years of experience in President Obama's drone-strike program went public with a letter they had sent to the President, Defense Secretary Carter and CIA Director Brennan. Their letter was a plea to halt the drone program. They had come to realize that "the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS."
By going public in this way, they knew that they had exposed themselves to retaliation by the Obama administration as whistleblowers. Sure enough, their bank accounts and credit cards have been frozen, even though they haven't been charged with anything.
They are tortured by memories of the bizarre violence they have done, blowing up people thousands of miles away by manipulating a computer joystick. As one of the four, Michael Haas, explained in an interview with The Guardian, "Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That's what you are made to think of the targets -- as just black blobs on a screen." Children in the target area are jokingly referred to as "fun-sized terrorists."
The pain these former drone operators feel comes from what we can call moral imagination--a quality necessary for a functioning conscience. The more abstractly we think of the 'others' our actions affect, the easier it is to mistreat or harm them. What could be more abstract than a blob on a screen?
If you see these blobs as representing people with an alien culture, with foreign features and garb, it's easier to ignore their humanity as you target and blow them up. If the jihadist you're trying to kill is accompanied by noncombatants (even children), it's easier to see their deaths as a necessary means, as mere "collateral damage."
So, in assessing American drone warfare, we need to use our moral imagination, seeing targets as real people, with human feelings and basic needs like ours, even when some of them are jihadists. We need concrete descriptions of our targets whenever we can get them from witnesses and local officials.
Consider the fate of Ali Al-Qawli, a 34-year-old primary-school teacher in Sanaa, Yemen. On January 23, 2013, Ali was in a car driven by his 20-year-old cousin Salim, who used the car as an informal taxi service. They had picked up two passengers. A U.S. drone destroyed the car and, according to Ali's brother Mohammed Al-Qawli, who rushed to the scene, "The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming [and] the bodies were in pieces."
As VICE News has learned, "after a Yemeni government investigation, both Salim and Ali were exonerated of having any link to the men who rented their taxi." They had unknowingly picked up terrorist suspects and thus become collateral damage.
In an op-ed in Aljazeera America, Mohammed had this to say about his brother: "With his beautiful personality, he taught and enriched the lives of hundreds of children and young people in his village. Everyone was devastated by his death. Imagine the pain and sorrow I felt and still feel when my brother was ripped from my life. It is the same pain that is felt by our mother, our father, Ali's wife, their three children and all those who knew and loved him."
The most horrific account I have found of "collateral damage" is a November, 2014 study titled "You Never Die Twice--Multiple Kills In The US Drone Program." It was published by Reprieve, a non-profit organization of lawyers and investigators assisting those facing detention without trial, execution and extra-judicial killing.
The study examines a large number of cases in which a specific individual was targeted and reported killed more than once, in some cases as many as seven times. All of these strikes took place in Pakistan or Yemen, countries with which we are not at war.
For instance, "Seventeen men in Yemen were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 other people and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths. Each person was killed on average well over three times each." Four of the 17 targets are still alive. In Pakistan "The pursuit of 14 targets killed 142 children. Only six of these children died in strikes that successfully killed their target (21% success rate)."
Facts such as these contradict the official White House policy statement (5/23/13) that lethal drone attacks will not be authorized unless there is "1. Near certainty that the terrorist target is present; [and] 2. Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed."
We must use our moral imagination to consider not just the slaughter of innocents, but also what it is like to live in areas under threat of drone attack. Law school clinics at Stanford and New York University have jointly published a study of the effects of drone warfare on communities (Living Under Drones, 9/12). The study describes how "Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities."