American-Style Drone Warfare and How and When Humans Count

Most drone-strike images show technology, e.g. drones, missiles, or targeting crosshairs with foreigners appearing as ant-like creatures in infrared cameras.  Rarely do we see damage, and, rarer still, the shredded and blasted bodies of innocents

W.J. Astore

When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?

I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.”  Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system).  They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft.  They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.

Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings.  Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair.  But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles.  Shouldn’t these humans count?

Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.”  The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.”  Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans.  We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right?  A terrorist, not a fellow human being.  Right?

Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us.  Why?  Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  Note that word: subnational.  By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.

Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts.  Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”

So who counts, and who doesn’t?  Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?

Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.

20 thoughts on “American-Style Drone Warfare and How and When Humans Count

      1. This is a short-sighted mess we are creating. Besides the immorality on a practical level the drone killings are v counterproductive. Indeed, our “precision” bombing fetish is the go-to foreign policy move – highly disturbing.


  1. There is a point at which any thinking person has to ask whether the United States should be considered an enemy of the free world, little better than Putin’s Russia when it comes to aggression and inflicting death.

    Power, when concentrated, gets used. The fact that all American presidents in recent memory have committed to global interventions despite America’s inability to conclude them successfully, and all have embraced drone strikes (only a threat to people unable to defend themselves – State-level opponents can easily jam, hack, or shoot RPAs down) as a matter of national policy, cheered on by the compliant media.

    The US is no better a global actor than China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, Israel (take your pick). It has to be reined in, just like the British Empire, or else it will plunge the world into another Great War, this one fought with nuclear weapons.

    Collective human survival in the 21st century depends on getting DC under control, one way or another.


  2. David Bowie had it nailed in ‘Tis a Pity She’s A Whore’. Is he referring to the statue of Liberty ?


  3. it is clear to a blind mongoose that the US govt is NOT, and likely never has been a democratic institution “of the people, by the people, for the people… entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. it has always been under the suzerainty of mega-corporations, who in a biofeedback loop are under the seigneury of the power-elite. the late 1700’s contrived electoral college is an irrefutable example.

    where in these drone-provenanced murders are the arresting officers, the evidentiary affidavits, the carefully-crafted legal indictments, the judges, the court-appointed legal teams, the ‘trial-by jury of one’s peers’, the offence and defence strategists? they do not exist… not for the helpless, the defenceless, the de-humanized, nor for the kangaroo courts cowering undercover of obfuscation in the ‘defence’ dept’s pugnacious pentagon and the subreptitious CIA.

    thank you, sirs astore and foster, for your unrelenting determination and inexhaustible energies to help maintain balance, equiponderance, and relevancy in the ‘word-war’ against the corporate war-mongering military~industrialists and their global myrmidons in saudi arabia, israel, oman, libya, nigeria, the UK, mexico, egypt, and too many other nation-states to list, for whom the peace ambit would be their economic death-knell. without war and the commensurate weapons of war, including the petro-energy necessary to power those weapons, they would all be bankrupt.


  4. I seem to recall Ronald Reagan saying, “The video game players of today are the fighter pilots of tomorrow.” Something like that.
    In the current century, I have a nephew who – after getting involved in some multiplayer online role-playing war game and attaining the rank of 600th in the world (“In the WORLD, Uncle Bill!”) – 86’d his lifelong dream of becoming a marine biologist and is now enrolled at The Citadel. When I asked his mother “What’s the deal?” she replied, “He just wants to kill people who hate America.” I was the only family member who found this at all disturbing. (I have since been advised by his mother that she can no longer talk to him, as “all he talks about are weapons, tactical exercises, and how great it will be when he gets into Special Forces.”)
    And now this drone business, for which there is a push to create and award a medal?
    All this reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s “Jousting with SAM & Charlie,” in which he found Navy fighter/bomber pilots so clinical and detached from the havoc they wreaked every day as to be automatons. All that mattered was whether the day’s mission was a success or not.
    So, by all means, let’s pass out medals on a scale that would make Oliver North proud. We’ve finally achieved the means of sanitized warfare, war in the abstract, with the fighting done by pushing buttons and it’s all in a day’s work.


    1. Yes. If memory serves, when I was in AF ROTC in the early 1980s, I watched a video during which the narrator asked, Who will be the fighter pilots of tomorrow, and it cut to a scene of young boys playing in a video arcade. We all laughed — but now it’s become true.

      Those thermal imaging cameras: the “enemy” doesn’t look human. Just blobs of heat to be extinguished with a push of a button from a safe distance. Just like those video games of the Reagan era.


      1. In 2003, I was at University in San Diego, where the presence of about 1/4 of the US Navy and 1/3 of the Marine Corps gave a couple International Relations profs the chance to bring active personnel in to lecture to discuss their perspective.

        At the time, I was one of those video-gaming kids wanting to be a fighter pilot – I grew up playing Janes Navy Fighters, fighting a resurgent Russia bent on annexing Ukraine (yeah, the past few years have been kinda deja-vu in some respects). Dogfights with Flankers, interdiction of Russian tanks – all that Cold War goodness.

        Anyway, count me a shocked teenager to find out that most “fighter” pilots were basically just bomb trucks, flying long hours over Iraq waiting for somebody on the ground to call in airstrike coordinates. Little has likely changed in the years since.

        For fun, Here’s what it’s like when that sort of thing goes wrong:

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        Just so you all know that the gung-ho pro-American gamers do (usually) grow up, particularly when they’re the type super into spec-ops and all that stuff the recruiters try to portray as nonstop excitement. When I eventually joined the Army as a cavalry scout, I discovered that real operations are boring. Very, very boring. Like duck hunting on a day when the birds have decided to go asleep.

        Until they aren’t – and then have fun with the lifetime of PTSD.

        I think the best remedy for anyone wanting to go play Imperial grunt is a few weeks practicing what it’s really like. Before anyone signs up, they should have to pass a month-long pre-basic training experience that sends them to JRTC or Fort Irwin to see how things really work. Maybe do that with all high school students in their Senior year. Right after reading All Quiet on the Western Front.


  5. The idea of a “Drone Medal” is so repellent to me. As a former Army Grunt in Vietnam (Draftee Type), the idea of receiving a medal for pressing some buttons is ludicrous. I can understand the concept of a service medal vs a medal awarded for being involved in combat.

    I can respect the pilots and crew of aircraft as they are highly trained. They are not escorting a flight of B-17’s in the daylight over Germany facing a flight of Me-109’s or Fw-190’s, these days. We always hear or read about some terrorist who was killed in an air raid or drone strike. No one really knows for sure, those infra-red humanoid figures could be a family on a picnic.


    1. Ever counted the number of wedding parties US drone operators have blasted to hell?

      And the truth is that they never actually *know* what they hit. Do they send in teams after a strike to verify, well, anything?

      Nope. And neither do journalists (most of them, most of the time) who claim to ‘report’ on the strikes. The few who do try, usually find more civilian than militant deaths.

      The whole monstrosity is a giant lie. There is no meaningful threat to America. It’s just an excuse for Presidents to look like they’re tough guys protecting the American people. And when in ten or twenty or thirty years another vengeance operation like 9/11 kills a few thousand Americans, the people responsible won’t be in office.

      Does anyone know if there is a strong Veterans group with a formal proposal for getting the Pentagon under control? I’m a policy nerd, so I’m always curious to see what’s out there. Myself, I’d propose:

      Eliminate the Active Duty Army, and reinvest in the National Guard (cut Army budget by 70%)

      Reduce the Active Air Force by 50%, eliminate land-based ICBMs, heavy bombers, and the F-35 project, and focus the next-generation force on air superiority and electronic warfare.

      Maintain the Navy at ~80% present strength, with 6-7 carrier groups with a supercarrier, marine carrier, escorts, and submarines. Marine Corps becomes the primary expeditionary ground arm, absorbs the Special Ops pseudo-branch.

      Finally, adopt a firm no-first-use policy with respect to nuclear weapons, reduce the arsenal to half a dozen SSBNs, and publicly announce that US military spending will be pinned in $ terms to China and Russia’s taken together.

      As for the money saved – take your pick of tax cuts, Green New Deal, whatever.


  6. I’d like a list created for some drone strike, picked at random of the many available.

    The list would have detail on all of the people injured and killed in the strike along with those whose property (homes, businesses) were damaged.

    Next to each name would be the offense against the United States for which they had to be injured or killed or had their property destroyed.

    1) I believe this list would be quite embarrassing to our country and that this would hold true for any drone strike selected.

    2) Such a list would require a lot of expense because of the investigation involved to get the details. I doubt one in a thousand service members knows any one of the languages spoken by the natives in places over which we routinely deal death. Surely this investigation would be viewed as a waste of time by those who run the drone program. If the commander in chief that orders the hits doesn’t care, why bother? Taking your bank analogy, a bank will investigate collateral thoroughly to see if is acceptable against a loan. When anonymous people are collateral damage, meh.

    It was said that in the Vietnam War, USAF/Navy pilots ran out of significant targets in North Vietnam, but the bombing continued. There are so many drone strikes, I wonder if the same situation exists with the drone program.


  7. I could be wrong, of course, but I’m thinking the “incredible accuracy” of drone strikes is merely an updated version of the “pinpoint accuracy” nonsense of the Norden bomb sight during WW II.
    It sounds great, though.


    1. Today’s drone strikes are more accurate than those old Norden bomb sights. The problem is the accuracy of the intelligence. Hitting the target is no good when it’s the wrong target. The USA is often fed bad or outdated intelligence. “Signature strikes” are guess work (well, they look like militants, so let’s bomb them). And when you bomb the wrong people and kill innocents, you just create more enemies. It’s counterproductive, unless your goal is forever war.


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