Forums Question: Grounded

Linda Harradine

Linda Harradine, Executive Director of Legal Aid of Manasota posed this question for this year’s online discussion. Read her bio by clicking here.

The Question

As drone strikes have increased there are more questions than answers surrounding the legal, ethical, and moral implications of these attacks.

In describing how the drone strikes are seen by the countries where they have occurred, General Stanley McChrystal has said, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

As war becomes more sanitized and plays out like a video game, will this invite increased conflicts? What are the ethical and moral dilemmas for this “virtual warfare”?

The Response




Scott Mann, Retired Lieutenant Colonel  and Green Beret – Read his bio by clicking here.


War is hell. It is caustic. It is corrosive. It is ugly.

It is also, at times…necessary.

But it is NEVER sanitized!

War is killing. And killing is never clean.

Consider the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Late in the war, the Allies were eager to secure capitulation from the Germans, and the ‘gloves came off.’ Civilians were targeted along with military forces.

This bombing campaign in February of 1945, across 13 square miles of Dresden showed the ugliest face of war. Allies dropped over 4,500 tons of heavy explosives and incendiary devices. Historians estimate that of the 750,000(+) inhabitants living in Dresden, as many as 100,000 innocent civilians were killed in the bombing.

War is ugly. But some wars are uglier than others. World War II was an example of total war that must be considered when we talk about today’s moral challenges of combat.

In fact, war today is usually much more precise. Much of this is in response to an ever-evolving extremist enemy who often wears no uniform, and hides among non-combatants. In many cases, if these fleeting threats are not engaged, they can re-appear wearing a suicide vest in a busy shopping mall.

As a career Army Green Beret, with multiple overseas tours of duty, I’ve been involved in combat operations that ranged from close-up fighting, to the employment of platforms and munitions, like the drones and wire-guided missiles portrayed in this play.

The employment of precision weapons, like a drone, is at times, a necessary evil when hunting a strategic, global threat. Especially if we are unable to project ground forces effectively into an area to eliminate a dangerous threat.

This weapon can accurately strike a high-value target, while reducing friendly casualties, and minimizing collateral damage to innocent civilians.

This makes drones attractive to military planners and politicians.

Drones are here to stay, but will likely invite more conflicts for the simple reason that they are easy and precise to employ anywhere in the world.

Today, aerial strikes, drones, and even ground combat forces seek to minimize collateral damage, compared to the total warfare mindset of WWII. They do this through enhanced technology and processes, such as rule of engagement, that focus lethal outcomes on elusive threats.

But, they are far from sanitized

The problem with drones is that politicians and senior military leaders often become enamored with drones as politically expedient – safe – clean. They become the default platform for making bad guys ‘go away,’ while reducing domestic political risk, and showing the American People, that our leaders are “doing something” about extremist threats.

This single-minded approach is highly flawed and, made things worse for the U.S. in the War on Terror, 2001 – 2015.

Our over-reliance on drones prevented the U.S. from developing a narrative for fighting violent extremists that could be accepted by the American People and the people in the rough places abroad where terror groups were hiding. This is what I had to say about drones keeping us from telling a better story in my book Game Changers:

“This war can be won with drones” is another misplaced narrative to our own people which fuels the extremist narrative. Some lethal targeting is necessary to remove extremists from the battlefield. Done in isolation, with no local ground presence, however, it degrades our effectiveness. ”

Drones are also likely to prompt revenge from people living in tribal areas. This revenge could show up on our own shores. You see, the places where most extremists live, are extremely honor-based and tribal. According to Akbar Ahmed in his book, the Thistle and the Drone, local tribes view the drone as the “apostate’s way of warfare.” It is considered cowardly and grounds for tribal revenge.

This means that even if we manage to strike a bad guy where he’s hiding, the secondary damage caused by the strike, and the perceived “dishonorable form of aerial warfare” elicits tribal vengeance.

This makes it easy for groups like ISIS to come in after the dust clears from a drone strike and recruit new fighters from tribal members who originally had no beef with the U.S.

But, now they do. Tribal vengeance knows no boundaries and no rules. It is ugly.

Here is another excerpt from my book Game Changers on the effect drones are having on local tribes and the deep hatred many local Afghans have for drones:

“Drone attacks make it worse. Much like the dark memories of the Soviet Hind Helicopters that strafed Afghan villages, drones have become the feared harbingers of death and destruction from the West,” writes Eliza Grizwold in her in-depth study conducted across Afghanistan.”

“The U.S. Drone is building its place in Afghan poetry known as Landays. By replacing the Soviet attack helicopter as the manifestation of evil in tribal society. “Even for those locals who hate the Taliban, the fear of drones has helped to drive support for the militants, as they’re seen as the only ones brave enough to fight the occupation of land, and now the sky,” concludes Grizwold.”

When we breed this kind of resentment in areas that are already at odds with us, it doesn’t end well.

Finally, the real danger comes from politicians and bureaucrats who don’t understand or refuse to consider the impact drones have on local tribal populations when striking a strategic target.

As a soldier, I support the use of drones along with a range of other war weapons, if it is in the proper context of application. At times, drones are the right choice for a hard situation where dangerous targets are fleeting.

And yes, innocent people might die in these strikes. People die in war, and while this should always be avoided at all costs, it is an unfortunate reality of combat, no matter how precise the weapon.

However, we need leaders who responsibly weigh the pros and cons of every remote strike opportunity in the context of not just removing the bad guy from the scene, but also on what the long-term impacts will be on local populations abroad and eventually – here at home.

Regarding this leader capacity gap, we have many miles to travel. My hope is that this play and more importantly the conversations surrounding it can help us advance our policy with drones and modern warfare in a positive and relevant direction.

Time is not on our side.

Dr. Debra Carter

Dr. Debra Carter, PH.D Clinical and Forensic Psychologist at Carter Psychology Center- Read her bio by clicking here.

As war becomes more sanitized and plays out like a video game, will this invite increased conflicts?

While the U.S. military has been using drones for the better part of the last 20 years, it wasn’t until 9/11 and the  ‘War on Terror’, a signature foreign-policy initiative of the Obama administration, that drones were employed in surveillance, reconnaissance, and lethal attacks.  The only three countries known to have used armed drones in combat are the U.S., UK, and Israel.   The U.S. has the largest fleet of armed drones, estimated at around 7,500.   The countries of the Asia Pacific are believed to be the second largest purchasers of drones, but only the US and UK possess large drones that are armed or capable of being in the air for a significant period of time.    As more and countries have access to surveillance drones, which can be armed for combat, it is reasonable to suggest that drones may become a routine weapon of war.   In the past, leaders had to balance a willingness to go to war against the possible loss of soldiers deployed on the battlefield.   Now, in the age of global terrorism, we may ask if the price of virtual war is necessary and effective.   Will drones lead to a world of globalized warfare, where people may find themselves exposed to war literally anywhere on the planet?

In a 2012 Pew Research Center Report, the majority of Americans approved of the use of drone strikes, unlike the majority of citizens in all other countries that were surveyed.   Those in support of drone strikes argue that they provide a unique ability to locate, pursue, and neutralize targets at great distances which make them ideal for a conflict that extends past traditional battlefield boundaries.   Waging war through remote control has been a boon to commanders eager to keep casualties low and results maximized. .   Policy makers and military leaders point out that successful strikes against important militant and insurgent targets have proven their worth in combat roles.   But the moral problems still plague the concept of engaging enemies with what are basically flying robots.

The “Living Under Drones” study (September, 2012) from Stanford and New York University law schools concluded that instead of deterring militant causes by killing off leaders, drone warfare actually promotes it and breeds anti-U.S. sentiment by creating an environment of terror in which anyone might suddenly be killed by bombs from the sky.  The psychological impact of drone surveillance, when combined with the civilian casualties that occur during strikes, leads to significant negative strategic costs and blurs the line between citizen and militants. In the Stanford & NYU study, a vast majority of the Pakistani people surveyed reported being perpetually scared of drone strikes, day and night.   Just the constant noise above makes people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety.   There are reports of men, women, and children too terrified to sleep at night.

Medact issued a report in 2012 which considered the impact of drones from a public health perspective.   They drew attention to the “growing asymmetry in warfare between those who have drones and those who do not.   We believe that a completely asymmetrical conflict equates to terrorism.” According to the New York Times, drones have replaced Guantanamo Bay as the “recruiting tool of choice for militants.” Although there are few longitudinal studies and the results to date are limited in scope, both geographically and culturally, the evidence suggests that drones are likely to promote conflict.   At a minimum, they lower the threshold to conflict and fail to promote peace.

What are the ethical and moral dilemmas for this “virtual warfare”?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly known as drones, have the ability to hover over communities twenty-four hours a day and to target– and kill– those below at the mere push of a button.   Reprieve US, a non-profit organization working to expose and challenge the CIA’s covert drone program, has called it “a covert war being carried out by the CIA” and “death penalty without trial.”

As a free and just society, we are challenged to examine the ethical and moral dilemmas of this virtual warfare.   The infringement of basic privacy, combined with potential lethality, is likely to have a profound psychological effect on those living with drones overhead.  Drones don’t enter a battlefield like a Special Forces team, they are omnipresent, hovering over villages and cities, watching, then killing, then watching again.   Even when targeting is discretely and accurately focused on combatants, their intrusion and omnipresence affect everyone in the region.

Drone attacks frequently kill and maim civilians and cause men, women and children to live in constant fear of the skies overhead.   Their experience of drones is often their first and only encounter with the U.S.   Commonly, the individuals who are targets are unable to find an explanation for why U.S. strikes continuously target their communities.   The destruction and civilian casualties caused by targeted killing have a greater impact on local society rather than the individual, spreading animosity and protests.   The most common link that can be found between the psychological effects of war and drone strikes is that of communal suffering.

The psychological impact of drone strikes can also be understood through Learning Theory Analysis.  This branch of trauma explains how exposure to ‘stressor events” cause certain associative, motivational, and emotional deficits.   A learning theory formulation of war trauma postulates that experience of war violence, and life-threatening events, exert their traumatic impact on people through their helplessness effects.   The feeling of helplessness, unpredictability and uncontrollability cause certain “fear-induced traumatic stress reactions’ in those communities that are affected.   The uncontrollability and unpredictability of drone strikes becomes a core element of the “anticipatory anxiety’ felt by residents of regions targeted, as they are unable to minimize their exposure.   Entire generations of children will be affected by these forces. The impact of these effects will be felt as these cohorts of children move on to adulthood and, in some cases, positions of national leadership.

In addition to those killed and maimed by drones, there are casualties among the pilots who remotely directs targeted killings.   In one 2011 study, military psychologists concluded that nearly half of the drone pilots have “high operational stress” and a number also exhibited anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect them in their personal lives.   Overwork caused by the chronic shortage of pilots contributed to the pressures on these pilots.  In traditional aviation warfare it has been common to limit the number of missions pilots flew in a given time frame. As we move into drone warfare, what steps should we take to protect our own men and women in service?

Even if those carrying out the drone attacks are spared long-standing psychological symptoms, the remote nature by which death is administered obscures the central truths of war – the reality of killing, death, and dying.

Liz Moneymaker

Liz Moneymaker, Retired US Army Officer and Elder Law Attorney –  Read her bio by clicking here.

At first blush, one might think that drone warfare leads to random, unplanned attacks.  To the contrary, evidence suggests that drones do a better job at both identifying an appropriate target and avoiding unintended targets – collateral damage – than any other military tool we have in our arsenal.  Obviously, however, that drone precision is compromised when human error or flawed intelligence enters the mix.

Unfortunately, when there is little or no risk to a country waging war, as is the case in drone warfare, a vital form of restraint has been lifted.  What is the risk of offensive action when the “pilot” is safe and sound in North Dakota?  If a country or entity has no risk when engaging in warfare, one of our best conflict avoidance tools is lost.   And then once the drone is engaged, is that button-pusher pilot who is sitting in the middle of innocent civilians a legitimate target, opening up the entire world essentially as a war zone?  In the ever more increasing war of global opinion, continued use of drone warfare, even when used against legitimate targets, increases animosity and vitriol against U.S. forces and U.S. citizens both at home and abroad.  The end result may or may not be worth that.