The Ethics of Drone Warfare

The Ethics of Drone Warfare
July 6, 2020 No Comments Brave New World Apara Sharma

 The Soldier Behind the Screen: The Ethical Implications of Semi-Autonomous Warfare

By Georgia H. Rabin

This research paper focuses on the ethical implications of semi-autonomous drone warfare used for United States (U.S.) counterterrorism efforts.  Drone warfare brings up questions about whether or not unconventional warfare calls for an unconventional response, and about what a military’s ultimate goals and adherence to the requirements of humanity should look like in wartime.  When applying drone warfare to the concept of Just War Theory, it is evident that drones cause an unnecessary amount of civilian lives to be lost, and an unnecessary amount of wrongful strikes to occur.  Meanwhile, drone pilots are left with debilitating psychological conditions from their time serving, suggesting that while they are not desensitized from their work, they feel that it violates their moral beliefs.  Drones also cause anti-U.S. sentiment, creating the grounds for more terrorist action.  Ultimately, while drone warfare saves soldiers lives by removing soldiers from the battlefield, and effectively kills terrorists, it has the potential to make war too easy, which is dangerous.  

Table of Contents


This paper focuses on the ethical issues that arise with the use of semi-autonomous drones in the war on terror.  Semi-autonomous warfare, warfare that maximizes military power by combining some of the mental capability of humans with the durability and physical capability of robots, has changed the stakes of war – from the demographic in danger, to each nation’s capability to kill, to the psychological impact that killing has on a new generation of digitally armed soldiers.  Semi-autonomous warfare is conducted with drones, such as the Reaper and the Predator, originally just armed with cameras, but now armed with Hellfire missiles, and used most commonly by the United States (U.S.) for action on the U.S. Counterterrorism Policy, a policy that will be explained in this paper.  Soldiers working with drones spend days tracking terrorists, or presumed terrorists, but often have to make instantaneous decisions about whether or not to strike based on new and classified information.  The war on terror is not strictly between governments and militaries, but between one government and combatant civilians.  It is now crucial that terrorist civilians are distinguished from regular civilians.  As they honorably serve to combat terrorism, drone pilots have a unique perspective from which they witness human suffering. 

Background Information

There are, however, many flaws to the drone deploying system.  Drone warfare is different from conventional warfare because the targets – terrorists – are not affiliated with their governments, but are civilians.  This nuance means that it is imperative to distinguish between uninvolved civilians and terrorists, and brings up questions about whether or not unconventional warfare requires the same response and rules of war as conventional warfare. 

When soldiers send drones into urban areas to drop bombs on terrorists, and uninvolved civilians are killed, the soldiers face moral injury, a debilitating psychological condition, due to their responsibility for so much damage. 

This raises two important questions: Is drone warfare the most effective and least hazardous way to elimate terrorism?  Does it, as many critics claim, “shear war of its moral gravity?” 

This new technology pulls soldiers out of physical danger, but questions arise about how we value the life of a soldier versus that of a citizen, as well as questions about protecting the physical health of soldiers at the expense of their long-term mental wellbeing. 

War, “the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state,” (Oxford English Dictionary) has always justified certain killing as a means to an end.  This paper will explore whether or not drone warfare is another plausible facet of warfare or if it is leading us down a dangerous path toward uncontrollable violations of human rights, taking all honor out of military action due to a lack of fairness seen never before in history.  All of these questions and issues will be addressed in the rest of this paper.  

In the discussion of these questions, it is important to note that war tends to skew morals; there has been much written about the ethics of warfare, but I will only address war concepts relevant to this specific aspect of warfare, and this paper will not address the ethics of war itself.  Along these same lines, this paper is not meant to discredit or devalue, in any way, the sacrifices that soldiers make for the benefit of their country.  Instead, this paper is intended to discuss whether or not it is fair, safe, and honorable for drone warfare to be used for defensive and offensive purposes in warfare due to its many flaws and risks, but not assessing the choices of military individuals involved.  

The main ethical values I will be considering in my analysis are the safety of soldiers and civilians, the responsibility that drone deployers feel for the killing that they do, and the resulting psychological damage, justice applied through the concept of Just War Theory, and the honor or lack thereof in battles where there are not soldiers on the ground, and at physical risk, on both sides.  

Warfare and Death of Conventional Warfare

It is important to begin by providing some background information on warfare, just war theory, drones in general, different takes on what is ethical in terms of the use of robots to assist humans in aspects of life (and death), and the legal grounds on which the development of drones is currently based.  The topic of drone warfare is so complex because, as noted above, drones are most commonly used for counterterrorism.  The war on terror presents special challenges because it is a form of unconventional warfare, unlike conventional warfare, which is when two clear military forces face off using common tactics such as guns, tanks, or even armed airplanes, and the targeting of civilians is minimal. 

Many believe that we are currently facing the “death of American conventional warfare” (Matisek et al.).  Since the Cold War, the United States has been a part of almost no nation versus nation conflict, but rather has been more involved in unconventional warfare.  Unconventional warfare is “warfare that is conducted within enemy lines through guerrilla tactics or subversion, usually supported at least in part by external forces” (  Terrorists do not abide by the “laws” of conventional warfare, but instead target civilians and are not associated with the government.  Should the United States be forced to abide by the principles of conventional warfare when their enemies do not?  If the answer is yes, then the U.S. may have a harder time efficiently carrying out orders to kill terrorists.  However, if the answer is no, the U.S. may be sinking to the level of the terrorists. 

If the U.S. develops the same cavalier attitude toward killing civilians in the apprehension of terrorists, isn’t that frighteningly similar to the strategy of terrorists who kill civilians to get their point across and to instill fear? 

The way citizens in Yemen, for example, view the American drone forces is shockingly similar to the way American citizens view terrorists.  Based on this fact, is drone warfare really the most ethical and effective way for terrorism to be fought?  In this new era of unconventional warfare, there are many moral questions to consider.  

While drones are effective in doing their job, saving the lives of those on “their” side by replacing their human counterparts in combat zones, and by killing enemies, they have also caused many civilian deaths, and have provided the grounds for growing anti-U.S. sentiment in other countries; quantitative data that justifies these statements can be found later in this paper.  Although this essay is centered on the U.S. perspective, the analysis is applicable to any nation that uses drones.  

Drones Warfare in Yemen

An example of escalating concerns with drone warfare comes from the tragedies that have and continue to occur in Yemen.  In 2017, more than 120 drone strikes were committed by the U.S. on Yemen.  Upon closer examination of just 8 of those strikes, it was seen that 32 unaffiliated civilians died as a result, and 10 more were injured.  As Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, the Executive Director of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, stated in his article, Civilian Casualties and Effectiveness of U.S. Drone Strikes in Yemen

“Incidents of civilian harm in Yemen continue to negatively affect the reputation of the United States in the country and push local communities to consider violence and revenge as the only solution to the harm they suffer.”

– Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih

The people of Yemen are told that the drones have specific targets and that their technology is very strong, meaning that there should be little to no accidents where the wrong people are targeted.  Muhammed Nassar Al Jarrah, however, survived a wrongful hit to his own car and said: 

“I was not worried at all when I saw the plane flying above us. I was sure that they had specific targets, and that these targets were members of terror groups, while we are just vendors and workers. I had heard a lot that these planes were very smart, and that they knew their targets and were very accurate in their strikes. While we were watching the plane, we were laughing and making jokes until we were stopped by one of its missiles, which hit my car and devastated the people in it.” 

– Muhammed Nassar Al Jarrah

Those who have experienced personal losses because of wrongful strikes, as well as frightened civilians, have requested that attacking nations provide a list of their “wanted” people, so that civilians know to stay away from them, and therefore will not end up as collateral damage in the war on terror. 

This technology, sometimes used in areas where on the ground technologies may be more accurate and do less harm, brings the appropriate use of these technologies into question: 

“Local security officials, social leaders, and witnesses of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen told us that the strikes targeted individuals in areas and conditions where it was possible for them to be arrested, investigated, and tried in a court of law.  As recently as late last year, the Governor of Mareb told researchers that the United States carried out a drone strike in November 2017 against a target that his security forces could access. The Governor lamented the failure of the U.S. government to provide information to local forces that might have led to the capture of terrorism suspects.”

– Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih

Though it could be considered a risk to place trust in another nation, with better communication, the local governments could handle many of these situations in a less destructive manner.  

Additionally, there have been instances where the screens that drone pilots  use to see are blurry, which can lead to mistakes when it comes to hitting targets.  In fact, an innocent group of tribal people were once caught in an attack, meant to target al Qaeda.  This mistake killed fifty five people. (Purkiss et al. ) Mistakes like these would occur less often if the apprehensions of terrorists happened on the ground.  

The more innocent civilians killed by drones, the more discontent the people in these countries are becoming.  “…the victims, many of whom are poor farmers who have waited so long for an acknowledgment for the harm they suffered, and for justice through legal means, begin to consider violent ‘solutions’ to their problems. The U.S. government should realize that Yemenis on the ground feel that U.S. practices that ignore civilian harm are not only dehumanizing but are also counter-productive to the United States’ long-term counterterrorism objectives” (Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih).

Though the intent of the U.S. military may be virtuous, these counterterrorism acts may cause the opposite of the intended effect, making countries like America too similar to “the enemy.”  In a quote from the New York Times Article, The Wounds of the Drone Warrior, a drone pilot veteran recalls seeing an imam talking to students in a courtyard, and thinking: 

“If a Hellfire missile killed the target… everything the imam might have told his pupils about America’s war with their faith would be confirmed.”

– Eyal Press

Background on Drones

Originally, the drones developed for modern warfare were only used as surveillance and reconnaissance tools.  They’re capable of flying over territories far away, without an onboard pilot, and of relaying information and images back to their country of origin.  The Predator, originally used for surveillance purposes, is now heavily armed, a perfect example of the capability of new and harmless technologies to turn into killing machines. 

The Reaper, which is heavily armed as well, has been used by the United States to attack suspected terrorists in Pakistan through cross border strikes.  As stated by the Pakistani prime minister, this is the biggest point of conflict between the two nations (Singer).  These drones work both in favor of and against the best interests of the military, which will be elaborated on later in this paper.  

In Iraq, the MARCBOT was the first robot to draw blood.  “One unit of U.S. soldiers ­jury-­rigged their MARCBOTs to carry Claymore ­anti-personnel mines” (Singer).  If soldiers saw that a combatant was coming, they would set off the mines.  Of course, this technology has its differences from drone warfare, but they have brought up similar concerns.  This first robot to draw blood in Iraq caused quite a stir, because it brought to light questions about who was responsible for the deaths it caused, and whether it was moral for the United States to use an abiotic, independent, and self-destructing object to kill.  The conditions here are clearly imbalanced, due to the fact that on one side, a life is on the line, while on the other, self-destruction will not take any American lives, seeing as the American individual on the line is not human (Singer).  However, though the human may be far down the chain, there is a human behind each of these technologies that holds some element of responsibility.  This idea will be elaborated on later.  

Just War Theory and Warfare Regulations

To understand the decisions that have been made in the past surrounding wartime decisions, and to analyze the options for the future, one must become familiar with the concept of Just War Theory.  Just War Theory is “the justification of how and why wars are fought…” (Moseley).  Just War Theory has two distinct elements that make up its body and its message: the legal side and the ethical side.  The legal side explains and asserts the “rules of war engagement,” while the ethical side attempts to address key issues of inequality and a lack of justice in warfare fought between varying groups.  

Just War Theory is explained through Jus Ad Bellum and Jus In Bello.  Jus Ad Bellum stands for “just cause” for going to war, and Jus In Bello stands for “just conduct” in/during war.  Jus Ad Bellum involves five main ideas: “having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used” (Moseley).  The issue with Just War Theory is that it is highly open for interpretation (Moseley).  This is problematic because it does not provide clear grounds for what is acceptable, leading to blurred lines and boundaries.  Jus In Bellum relates to more concrete, legal conventions dictating the proper standards of behavior during war.  

“Just War Theory is a philosophical idea and can be used as the basis of a legal process.”

Jon Dorbolo

The convention of Jus Ad Bellum deals with the common belief that if a group initiates an act of aggression, it gives the offended group a just reason to defend themselves.  The idea of war is sometimes considered as a “low cost option relative to continuing political problems and economic or moral hardship” (Moseley).  Similarly, the use of drones could be considered to have a lower financial and physical cost when compared with continuing to deal with the after-effects of terrorist action.  This is a utilitarian consideration; utilitarianism is an ethical concept that means focusing on the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

One thing that Just War Theory does not mention is that it is hard to determine exactly what a country’s intentions are for going to war, which can make it hard to determine whether the cause is truly just.  What is presented as a humanitarian mission could truly be a plan to gain power.  Whether the intentions for an action are just or not is never truly known; intentions are not always what they truly seem.  

The legal side of Just War Theory envelops key treaties and conventions from history that stand for morality and justice, even in war.  Later in this paper, in the ethics portion, two key international agreements will be referenced.  These agreements are the Geneva Convention and the St. Petersburg Declaration.  From the Convention and the agreements of the St. Petersburg Declaration, documents detailing humanitarian law for international conflict sprouted.  These documents dealt with the safety of civilians in war, as well as the allowances for inhumane acts in warfare.  They state that human rights abuses must be limited to an extent, but it is important to note that there was no clear cut line drawn as to how much abuse of human rights is “too much” in wartime.  With the institution of armed drones, these documents should most likely be updated again.  Alternatively, it could be argued that the use of counterterrorism tools, including drone warfare, should not be subject to the rules of conventional warfare, because terrorists do not pay attention to these rules either.  However, when countries combat terrorism without following the “rules” of conventional warfare, it can be suggested that they are sinking to the level of the terrorists. This raises questions about what it means to be an enemy, and should we produce technologies that allow us to work in similar ways to terrorists?  This idea will be applied in the consequentialist analysis later on in this paper.  For now, here are some more details on the important conventions that are applied to conventional warfare, and are potentially applicable in the war on terror; essentially, they can be compared to how drones function and are used.  

The Geneva Convention, previously referenced, produced doctrines last updated in 1977, focusing on protecting civilian rights in times of war  (International Committee of the Red Cross) ( Editors).  This convention, and the Hague Regulations, led to a ban on weapons that caused unnecessary harm, such as bullets that flattened inside their victims.  However, this ban only applies to weapons under 400 grams, a specification that excludes drones.  Another strategy banned for its immorality after the Vietnam War by the Chemical Weapons Convention is chemical warfare.  These bans have set a precedent that immoral acts should not be a part of war any more than they have to be.  However, there is no clear line drawn as to how much abuse of human rights is too much in wartime (Daryl G. Kimball).

The other piece of legislation, referenced before, is the St. Petersburg Declaration.  This declaration has three main goals.  The first goal is “distinction,” which states that the only thing that the military should “endeavor to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy.”  However, because terrorists are usually unaffiliated with their nation or government, the war on terror is different in that it does focus on the apprehension of civilians.  The distinction now is between terrorist civilians, and common civilians.  The next principle is “proportionality,” which is the ideology that the action committed should be responded to with a punishment of the same level.  This principle/goal is the least relevant to this case of the three, because this paper is not focused on the proper punishment for terrorism.  Instead, it is focused on the use of drones to target terrorists who have taken lives.  

The third principle is the prohibition of unnecessary suffering.  It proclaims that at some point, military necessity must yield to requirements of humanity.  Again, there is a gray area here.  Just as these regulations were updated to ban chemical warfare after Agent Orange in Vietnam, with the institution of these drones and the change in identity of “the enemy,” these documents should be updated again (International Committee of the Red Cross).

Moving into the philosophical portion of Just War Theory, it is important to understand the long history of these ideas.  Its roots lie with Augustine of Hippo, a religious figure born in 354 AD.  Many philosophers since then have added to the writings that contribute to the idea of Just War Theory, a concept which, in itself, is not at all concrete or complete.  “…Warfare has been infused with some moral concerns from the beginning…” (Moseley), and religious texts have made attempts to understand and rationalize war: “Parts of the Bible hint at ethical behavior in war and concepts of just cause, typically announcing the justice of war by divine intervention” (Moseley).  The Romans believed that “practical and political issues tended to overwhelm any fledgling legal conventions: that is, interests of the state or Realpolitik (political realism in declaring and waging war)” (Moseley).  Today, “…just war theory has undergone a revival mainly in response to the invention of nuclear weaponry and American involvement in the Vietnam war” (Moseley), but now applies to this newest form of warfare that still needs to undergo bioethical examination.  

This ethical dimension of Just War Theory points to the flaws of war conduct. 

“…The role of ethics to examine these institutional agreements for their philosophical coherence as well as to inquire into whether aspects of the conventions ought to be changed”

Alexander Moseley

The immorality of war without conventions and the inability of legal conventions to control world powers was thoughtfully addressed by Alexander Moseley as follows:

“…in some cases, no just war conventions and hence no potential for legal acknowledgement of malfeasance, exist at all; in such cases, the ethic of war is considered, or implicitly held to be, beyond the norms of peaceful ethics and therefore deserving a separate moral realm where ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ (Shakespeare, Macbeth I.i).  In such examples (e.g, Rwanda, 1944), a people’s justification of destructiveness and killing to whatever relative degree they hold to be justifiable triumphs over attempts to establish the laws of peaceful interaction into this separate bloody realm; and in some wars, people fighting for their land or nation prefer to pick up the cudgel rather than the rapier, as Leo Tolstoy notes in War and Peace (Book 4.Ch.2), to sidestep the etiquette or war in favor securing their land from occupational or invading forces.”


Something potentially applicable to this question of how to combat terrorism is the aspect of implicit racial bias.  When enemies are “culturally similar,” “we often find that they implicitly or explicitly agree upon limits to their warfare.  But when enemies differ greatly because of different religious beliefs, race, or language, and as such they see each other as ‘less than human’, war conventions are rarely applied” (Alexander Moseley). 

“In part, the motivation for forming or agreeing to certain conventions, can be seen as mutually benefiting – preferable, for instance, to the deployment of any underhand tactics or weapons that may provoke an indefinite series of vengeance acts, or the kinds of action that have proved to be detrimental to the political or moral interests to both sides in the past.”

– Alexander Moseley

While “…the rules of war should apply equally,” they don’t.  Nations in the past have chosen to “opt out”  of following international standards.  War often occurs because nations refuse to accept boundaries, barriers, or regulations, so what is to say that they won’t act in the same manner again?  With a dictator like Hitler, who violated the concept of just authority (Dorbolo), Nazi Germany defied all conventions and legislature, violating human rights left and right.  

Another interesting facet of the generalized principles that are meant to guide fighting is that “…what is [considered] ‘honorable’ is often highly specific to culture…” (Moseley).  What this means is that different countries hold different morals, making one system or collection of principles hard to resonate with all cultures and nations.  Along with this, justification of war is not concrete.  It is deeply complex.  Here are two examples of things that do not occur in what is called a “Just War:” genocidal campaigns and wars on ethnic groups.  

A writeup from the Defense Technical Information Center, the place that stores information for the U.S. Department of Defense, states that:

“Guerrillas can best be defeated militarily using guerrilla warfare techniques. The major tools are psychological operations and effective use of intelligence assets. Defeating guerrillas will not eliminate an insurgency if the causes which gave rise to it are not addressed and corrected by the government in power. However, as these problems are being corrected, the guerrilla must still be defeated militarily”

Peter A. Dotto  

However, this military defeat does not need to come from drones.  The violation of the safety of many for the safety of more, through the use of drones, is a last resort, which is not necessary when the U.S. military has other options for fighting terrorists.  An essential question is: should “state interest of military exigency… …always overwhelm moral concerns?” (Alexander Moseley).

It is helpful to briefly consider here what a consequentialist or a utilitarian might think about war.  A consequentialist believes that the moral rightness of an action is determined solely by its consequences.  A utilitarian is someone who believes something to be moral if it provides the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people, maximizing happiness over suffering.  From these two perspectives, a war is only just if it provides the intended outcome, and involves the loss of minimal to no resources.  

“If military victory is sought then all methods should be employed to ensure it is gained at a minimum of expense and time”

Alexander Moseley

These types of beliefs allow for certain actions to be committed as a means to an end: “… to defeat Germany in World War II, it was deemed necessary to bomb civilian centers… ” (Alexander Moseley).

Contrasting those beliefs are the beliefs of deontologists or intrisicists, those who believe that “certain acts” are always good or always evil.  People holding these views “may [also] decree that no morality can exist in the state of war: they may claim that it can only exist in a peaceful situation in which, for instance, recourse exists to conflict resolving institutions” (Alexander Moseley).  While war is always deemed immoral to these people, no alternative form of resolving such conflicts has appeared to be quite as effective yet.  Hopefully, we will be able to get there some day. With these varying opinions, and the varying beliefs of what is honorable between cultures, as mentioned before, it can be hard to come to one agreement on wartime values.  

Psychological and Biological Effects

The psychological and biological effects of drone warfare on drone pilots have ethical implications.  Christopher Aaron worked as a drone pilot for many years.  He had long, twelve hour shifts where he received feed from monitors, as well as telecommunications from higher-ranked authoritative officials. 

His controls were attached to a Predator drone.  He did not experience any trauma while serving, but years later, he began to experience a type of both mental and physical pain known as moral injury. 

He experienced a lack of motivation, bad moods, and graphic and disturbing dreams in which he was forced to watch innocent people die in front of him.  This pain caused him to experience real suffering, and after many years trying many different forms of therapy and yoga, although he is better, he is still not fully recovered.  

It is important to understand the differences between moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Soldiers on the ground often leave the military as veterans afflicted with PTSD.  PTSD occurs after you experience severe trauma or a life-threatening event, and is when “your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event.”  Some common symptoms of PTSD are: “recurrent, intrusive reminders of the traumatic event,” “extreme avoidance of things that remind you of the traumatic event,” “negative changes in your thoughts and mood,” and “being on guard all the time, jumpy, and emotionally reactive.”

Soldiers who deploy drones are not physically in the face of danger, but they still experience a type of psychological damage.  This type of psychological damage, moral injury, has been around for a long time, but its definition has continued to evolve.

Moral injury has been defined as “ inner conflicts that weighed on the conscience,” due to the “betrayal of what’s right by authority figures.” 

According to an article published in Clinical Psychology Review, it is “anguish that resulted from ‘perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.’”  Moral injury is faced by the soldiers behind the screen who have “constant exposure to ‘gut-wrenching’ things they watched on-screen — sometimes resulting directly from their own split-second decisions, or conversely, from their inability to act.”  The horrible things that they view on screen and the impact they have are because the soldiers “betrayed themselves, through harmful acts they perpetrated or watched unfold. This definition took shape against the backdrop of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, chaotic conflicts in which it was difficult to distinguish between civilians and insurgents, and in which the rules of engagement were fluid.”  Oftentimes, orders to strike come from higher ranked officials, or are split second decisions.  Moral injury appears in soldiers “intentionally doing something you felt was against what you thought was right” (Cappele), “in the course of doing exactly what their commanders, and society, ask of them” (Eyal Press).  It is this transgression of personal morals that comes back to haunt them later in life.  

Research suggests that soldiers in this line of work do not feel the anguish of moral injury right away, but experience it later on.  In the moment and for years, this work can feel exciting and meaningful, because they are making a difference and working for their country, seeing as their goal is to stop terrorism and to spread justice.  However, a soldier who had been creating geospatial maps that were used for drone strikes felt that drone warfare was immoral even when he was in the military, mainly for the destruction that it caused: 

“I just felt like overall, the war was totally immoral for a number of reasons,” he said. “Mostly because of the destruction in general we were causing in the country. And I saw that there was really no plan to help the country get back on its feet, and we were doing more harm than good”

– Attia

As a result of moral injury, soldiers face everything from stress, to back pain, to sleepless nights, to divorce, to suicide.  Intrinsically, this shows that drone warfare is not a “clean” or seamless alternative to on the ground warfare, which puts soldiers at more physical risk.  It is also interesting to note that studies done by analyzing the electronic health records, which contained information from medical professionals, of both drone pilots and manned aircraft pilots, found that rates of moral injury were similar between the two groups. 

“[Drone warfare] has made [hidden wounds] more acute and pervasive among a generation of virtual warriors whose ostensibly diminished stress is belied by the high rate of burnout in the drone program”

– Eyal Press

Because of this, moral injury and the new amplification of it through drone warfare, pose a threat to military function.  Many people in the military refuse to recognize the legitimacy of moral injury because it arises out of military function and decision making.  Moral injury suggests that the actions perpetrated through drone strikes are not inherently good.  However, soldiers on the ground feel moral injury too, but these symptoms overlap with PTSD.  By working behind a screen, moral injury seems to be amplified – perhaps because it is the only ailment they face – and now more researchers are turning their attention to the issue.  Does the distress of these drone pilots help to expose an underlying issue with military function, or perhaps is the issue of drones crossing a new line in warfare that we may not be able to come back from?  

Continuing with the issues surrounding the experiences of soldiers working as drone pilots, and how their lifestyles may contribute to drone warfare, we now come to questions about their daily life.  Soldiers experience rather abrupt and hard to manage transitions, as they are working intense twelve hour shifts, and then are entered back into regular life as if they had any other job.  

“A retired pilot, Jeff Bright, who served at Creech for five years, described the bewildering nature of the transition. ‘I’d literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy, and 20 minutes later I’d get a text — can you pick up some milk on your way home?’”

– Eyal Press

Along with this, “unlike office-park employees, drone operators cannot reveal much about how their day went because of classification restrictions. Unlike conventional soldiers, they aren’t bolstered by the group solidarity forged in combat zones.  …at the end of every shift they go home, to a society that has grown increasingly disconnected from war.”  This transition can be psychologically bewildering and confusing, and the lack of camaraderie leaves drone pilots isolated and alone to handle the strange feelings of fear and distress that their jobs may bring them; in their inner circles, they are the only ones going through what they are going through, and the only ones that will understand.  Another contributing factor to the psychological damage that drone pilots experience is that drone analysts/pilots get a better view of the death and destruction of the whole area than Special Forces, who are on the ground among the destruction; they essentially have eyes on a real life gory horror movie, which is terrifying and potentially shocking to the system.  Drone operators often experience horrifying flashbacks to these scenes of mass death.  

“Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear and grief once they return to civilian life, so long as ‘what’s right’ has not been violated”

– Eyal Press

While moral injury is relevant to this case because it showcases the painful and debilitating issues that arise when soldiers have a lack of autonomy and decision-making in doing things they believe are morally wrong, I cannot say that it necessarily worse than the effects of PTSD for on the ground soldiers.  Moral injury is the lesser of two evils; the harms of moral injury alone are less than that of the combined harms of life threatening work, PTSD, and moral injury.  However, evidence has shown that moral injury is strongly correlated with suicide risk among veterans (Ames et al.): “one study found that perpetration-based events (events where someone perpetrated an act outside of one’s values) were associated with more re-experiencing, guilt, and self-blame than were life threatening traumatic events (13). Reporting perpetration is also associated with greater suicidal ideation, even after adjusting for PTSD, depression and substance use (14)” (Norman et al.).  However, those who value honor or valor the most in a fight may argue that the work of drone pilots is an inferior alternative to on the ground fighting.  One veteran drone pilot explained his sense of moral injury by stating that “what troubled him was, in fact, precisely his distance from them – that instead of squaring off against the enemy in a fair fight, he had killed in a way that lacked valor.  Obviously not all pilots felt this way….” (Eyal Press).  But many did.  

When soldiers enlist in the military, they are “contractually aware” of the danger that they are getting themselves into, whether they truly understand it or not.  By enlisting, they are consenting to being put on the front lines of a battlefield; if enough people are consenting to do this, and it is a better path, morally speaking, why is it necessary to change the way things are done, by putting at risk innocent civilians who haven’t consented to sacrificing their lives for the greater good? 

The answer to the question of “why is it necessary to change the way things are done?” has multiple answers.  There is a potential for financial/resource benefits.  More people may enlist, because they want to fight for the country, but don’t want to risk their lives; with the role of drone pilot becoming more common, joining the military may become more popular.  While I believe that the military is already too heavily invested in, many may view an increased militia as a good thing, especially in times of conflict.  The other reason for the constant development of new war technologies is to always be at the top of the resource chain.  This idea is very much from the lens of the U.S. perspective, but essentially is saying that being a leading technological power is important in keeping the U.S. the safest and most powerful it can be.  By keeping the U.S. up to date on military strategy and technologies, other nations and terrorist individuals may be less inclined to combat the U.S.  These considerations  of the military becoming more appealing, preserving the upper hand in battle, and deterring other countries from being agressive with the U.S. justify the view that as terrorism evolves, so should the way we counterract it, and perhaps there is some level of ethicality in drone warfare.  

There are also some theoretical rules from literature that propose the proper instances to employ robotic technology, that have oftentimes served as resources for those working with or creating robots.  The first of these theoretical rule lists is that of Isaac Asimov.  Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer born in 1920, wrote several books about robots as part of daily human lives, before robots were even common in the workforce.  In his writing, he came up with three laws for robots that, despite being only a piece of his story, many have looked to as a reference point on the topic of what robots should and shouldn’t be able to do.  Drones, sometimes called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are flying robots, according to multiple sources.  Therefore, it is of value to apply these laws in an ethical analysis of drones.  The three laws are: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,” “a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law,” and “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”  Upon examination of these laws, we see that armed UAVs conflict with the first law.  However, because UAVs are meant for warfare purposes, does it make it ethically permissible for them to have the capacity to kill?  Is this inherently different than a gun, or is this just a new extension of weaponry?  Do drones change anything?

The other set of guiding principles is called the “Three D’s.”  Robot technology is most commonly developed to assist humans with work that falls under one or more of these three categories.  That is, work that is Dull, Dangerous, and/or Dirty.  Robots have been constructed to do this work, saving humans from meaningless dull work, unsanitary work, and most importantly, dangerous work.  Most applicable here is the idea of dangerous work.  Robots in place of soldiers may seem ideal because it takes soldiers off the ground and protects them from the direct and physical dangers of war.  However, soldiers working behind the screen have found that there are new and painful side effects to this “removed-from-the-ground” work.  Can one “poison” be valued over another?

There are more drone pilots in the U.S. Air Force than any other pilot of “traditional manned aircraft.” (Rob LeFebvre)  This takes more soldiers out of harm’s way, and could continue to do so more and more if we continue to develop drones.  This is a major benefit that will be expanded on later in this paper.

Over and over again in history, the principles of just war theory and the attitude towards killing have changed, as technology has become more advanced.  It is important that the practices of the military stay up to date, and continue to modernize in a positive direction.  What “positive” means, however, is disputable, and the benefits and consequences of drone warfare will be examined now in the main ethical portion of this paper.  

To restate, drones used for counterterrorism efforts take more soldiers off dangerous battlefields, but expose them to another kind of threat, revealing underlying issues with war, leading to questions about whether or not Just War Theory, which advocates for distinction and the protection of humanity, is truly just.  Moving forward, the values of safety, responsibility, fairness, and honor will be used to further examine the ethical implications of drone warfare.

Ethics: Introduction

For the ethical portion of this paper, I have chosen to focus on four key values – the values of safety, responsibility, justice, and honor.  Before the central discussion of these values, it is important to note the key stakeholders.  Drone pilots are a stakeholder in this case because this whole discussion is based on the ethicality of their job, and whether it should be continued, discontinued, increased, or only applied in certain situations or ways.  They are also a group facing moral injury, and have to make ethical decisions on a daily basis, or carry out the decisions of higher ranking military officials.  High ranking military officials also are a key stakeholder, because they often are the ones making the decisions that the lower ranking drone pilots have to carry out. 

When thinking about the value of responsibility, it is important to question how much responsibility these higher ranking officials feel for the damage that they are further removed from, versus the drone pilots who directly cause the damage, regardless of their personal opinion. 

However, when judging the way that things are done, and the privileges of those who are highly ranked, it is appropriate to remember that the higher ranking officials were once lower ranking officials, and understand the impacts of the decisions they make.  The nations and governments that use drones to combat terrorism are also a huge stakeholder, because while combating terrorists who work separately from the government, they have to make sure to fight against them in a way that doesn’t make them enemies with the country that the terrorists are from.  There are certain manners and communication streams that should be upheld to protect international relations, yet these communications are not happening as much as they should be.  Also, each nation has a responsibility to their own nation’s citizens, and this plays a big role in the decisions that nations make when combatting terrorism.  Civilians are a huge stakeholder in this situation, because they are either U.S. civilians that are at risk of terrorist attacks, or Yemeni civilians at risk to fall victim to the drones that are targeting the terrorists.  Also, it has been proposed that a policy is developed that limits the ability of the U.S. to strike terrorists that are surrounded by a certain number of civilians, but if this type of policy is implemented, we may face terrorists hiding out in places like hospitals or public areas so that they cannot be killed by a drone.  Civilians are the ones who are feeling very unhappy about drone warfare, and they are very important to the integrity of the mission of the U.S. Counterterrorism Policy.  It is a little bit complex though with the added understanding that terrorists are also civilians, and instead of combating another nations’ military, we are combating certain civilians.  The identity of the terrorist also is important in another way.  Drone strikes occur in Middle Eastern nations, and it is pointed out that when enemies are “culturally similar,” “we often find that they implicitly or explicitly agree upon limits to their warfare. 

But when enemies differ greatly because of different religious beliefs, race, or language, and as such they see each other as ‘less than human’, war conventions are rarely applied” (Alexander Moseley). 

The terrorist(s) have stake in the situation as well, because they are the targets of these technologies.  The way they act, and the things they perpetuate are the reasons they are targets, and depending on where they lie, drones are used on them.  

Imagine that you have one clear shot at a terrorist, but striking would mean the death of 10 civilians that are all in close proximity.  Is that legal and is that ethical?  There are articles, such as the St. Petersburg Declaration, that speak to limiting the danger that weaponry has for civilians, but as mentioned before there is no clearly drawn line.  It is in these tough and instantaneous decision moments that drone pilots face the beginnings of what tends to become moral injury.  When looking at the potential for collateral damage from drone strikes, the ethical questions presented at the start of this paper are relevant.  

Is drone warfare the most effective and least hazardous way to elimate terrorism, and does it, as many critics claim, “shear war of its moral gravity?”  Because drone warfare typically is applied in urban areas and many civilians are subject to their power and danger, is it potentially causing more damage than necessary to get the job done?  Because there is the idea that we are killing terrorists, the civilians that die as a result are not remembered or recognized, but the disadvantages of drones may outweigh the benefits.  This is because it spreads ideas for new terrorists, causes extra damage, and there is lots of human error and moral injury.

This new technology pulls soldiers out of physical danger, but how do we value the life of a soldier over the life of a civilian?  Because fewer soldiers on the drone-side are put in danger, but more civilians end up getting hurt because of drone pilot error and the increased destruction of drones, questions arise about how we value the life of a soldier over that of a civilian who is also of another race or nationality than the country using drones.  Could we potentially use drones in tandem with other more moral strategies when applicable? 

There is this “we have to do what we have to do” attitude surrounding drone warfare, but do we always have to do this, or can it just be used in situations where it is the only feasible option?  Could it be just one of many tools/strategies that the U.S. has when fighting terrorism?

The majority of this ethical discussion will be grounded in the U.S. perspective, because America tends to strive for acting in a “Just War manner” when fighting in wars.  It is also important to understand that the global perspective is very different from the American perspective.  While America is very focused on the apprehension of terrorists and the protection of itself, the global perspective may see drones as a threat to global peace, and leave the world feeling like it is constantly on the brink of devastating war. 

Ethics: Safety

First I will address the arguments and counterarguments for drones that have to do with the value of safety.  What I have found with this value is that there are underlying biases that allow different stakeholders to value the safety of one group over another, which defies the idea that all human beings are inherently equal.  While this section of the paper speaks to the sense in these divisions, it also prods at the deeper issue of inequality and inequality of safety that is a questionable component of society and society at war.  

The argument that drones increase safety has multiple components that deal with both the American and the global perspectives.  With the use of drones, fewer soldiers (on the drone using side) are put in physical danger.  This is a major benefit for the U.S. military, as well as the families of those in the military and all American citizens.  Another way that drones have the potential to promote and increase safety is that these drones are used for counterterrorism, which is meant to end terrorism and save the lives of as many people as possible.  However, the nations that use the drones are clearly prioritizing the safety of their civilians over the safety of other civilians.  When the U.S. military uses drones, it is prioritizing U.S. soldiers’ lives over other lives.  The goal of the U.S. Homeland is to protect American lives at all costs, justifying their decisions to sacrifice foreign lives instead.  This is a form of skewed utilitarianism that values the greatest good for the greatest number of American lives.  

Drones are an effective way to kill enemy targets, when done right – but only when done right (more on this later).  They limit terrorism and work from the utilitarian perspective with the intentions of saving the most lives by stopping terrorists.  However, there is a key question: When and under what circumstances do people have to die for other people to live?  If one civilian is sacrificed to kill a terrorist, so that 80 more people, who would have died in a terrorist attack, can live, is it worth it?  Does your choice change if you are the one who has to kill the civilian?

Along with those questions, there are counterarguments to the arguments stated above. They suggest that perhaps we will live in a less safe world if we continue to use and develop drones.  If other countries develop these same technologies, potentially nobody is safe.  Nuclear warfare has left the global community in a stalemate.  With the knowledge that most powerful nations have developed nuclear weapons, the world cowers in fear of their capability of destruction.  However, the capability to cause so much harm has actually rendered these weapons almost powerless, because of the knowledge that if one nation hits another with a nuclear weapon, they will just get hit right back.  Although both nuclear warfare and drones have the capability to initially halt attacks on their country of origin, their ability to cause devastation and their growth in popularity have rendered them almost useless.  They are no longer unique and able to dominate over other nations.  Because of the stalemate aspect, one could argue that we are always on the brink of war, which is a negative, or one could argue that everyone having them and being afraid to use them is what is keeping us alive.  Another key fact entitled to greater weight than soldiers’ safety is that because of this, more civilians are put in jeopardy.  The key pieces of legislation, detailed in the section of this paper on Just War Theory, have been updated time and time again as technology has modernized and wars have taken place.  Now, these conventions and declarations should be updated again, to protect civilians from drones.  The St. Petersburg Declaration, however, has a key statement on the safety of civilians, as applied to the laws of humanity: 

“The only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy;…that for this purpose it is sufficient to disable the greatest possible number of men;…that this object would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable; …that the employment of such arms would therefore be contrary to the laws of humanity.”

– St. Petersburg Declaration

What is being said here is that no civilian lives should be taken where they are not necessary, and drone warfare is not a necessity to get the job of counterterrorism done.  However, 

“What suffering must be deemed ‘unnecessary’ or what injury must be deemed ‘superfluous is not easy to define.”

International Committee of the Red Cross

Another reason that drone practices may not be as safe as one may at first think is that drone pilots face major moral injury, and some end up divorced or committing suicide as a result of this.  Research has found that the moral injury of drone pilots is at a similar level of extremity to the PTSD that forces on the ground face (Dao).  What this means is that there are still safety issues for the drone pilots.  These include suicide, mental illness, and physical health problems. 

The last point supporting the view that drone technology is unsafe is that these technologies may increase anti-American sentiment, leading to more terrorist activity and full fledged warfare.  A group of American researchers who traveled to Yemen shared that they “heard a number of men who were relatives of the civilian victims of a drone strike loudly discussing whether they should kidnap us to pressure the U.S. government to look into the cases of Yemeni drone strike victims…” (Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih).  Governments are also feeling angry as their land is continuously strafed by strikes without communication between countries, which may lead to further armed conflict and the loss of more lives.  People across the world can turn to violence when their voices go unheard.  When the Iranian general, Soleimani, was killed in an air strike, many were angered, and twenty-two missiles were fired at two U.S. bases in Iraq.  Many articles say that there is more retaliation to come.  Though an air strike is different than a drone strike, I will later explain how a drone strike can have even more serious consequences than other military tactics.

Moving back to the concept of safety, the enemies created by using these drones outweigh the temporary suppressing of current enemies through this means.  We should use different tactics to halt terrorist action, and then we should work to prevent it.  This is the way to make the global community the most safe in the face of terrorist dangers.  

When thinking about this issue from the utilitarian perspective, it is hard to know if the truly utilitarian approach is to kill these terrorists in the moment using devastating but effective drones to stop them from killing others, but providing the grounds for future terrorism, or to take the slightly riskier approach, but earn the trust and respect of those in the nation of origin for the terrorist.  Because it is unclear what the actual consequences of continued drone warfare will be, the question is raised of whether the utilitarian approach should satisfy the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the moment, or for the future?  Does the utilitarian choice look like killing terrorists using drones or trying to earn global trust?

There is a questionable increase in inequality of safety for international civilians versus those in the American military.  From the American perspective, this may be ethical, but from the global perspective, this is largely unethical due to the informed consent that those in the military have toward risking their lives, while unaware civilians are simply unaware of the danger they are in until they have lost their lives because of it.  Should the protection of lives and the safety of innocent humanity move past political boundaries?

Ethics: Responsibility

Before diving into the value of responsibility, I will begin with a hypothetical known as the trolley problem, and then I will shift gears into what it means in the context of drone warfare.  

Imagine driving a trolley, when all of the sudden you see that there are five people on the tracks up ahead.  In this scenario, you only have two options: you can either use a lever to turn the trolley onto another set of tracks, where one person is in the middle, or let the train run its course.  The choice is between killing five people “accidentally” – but knowing there was an alternative – or killing one person intentionally.  Many people would switch the tracks so that they would only kill one person, and this is the utilitarian way – to preserve the greatest number of lives.  This ethical case is an old and hotly debated case, that sometimes includes other issues. 

Imagine now if there was no lever, but instead you could stop the train from hitting the five people by throwing someone in front of it.  Fewer people favor this option, because without the lever, people feel much closer to the resulthat they pts erpetrate. While the end result is exactly the same, one person dead instead of five, the experience feels totally different.  Why is that?  The lever distances the decision maker from their decision, and feels morally safer.  The level helps to shield people from their responsibility toward the severity of their decisions.  While I value the utilitarian perspective, I also believe that it is harmful for people to favor technologies that make it easier to kill.  Drones are good because they help to get a hard job done without putting the pilots in danger, but I believe that it is never moral for killing to become less emotional and feel less real.  This concept of “the lever is often referred to as desensitization, and brings about questions of the responsibility that workers behind the screen feel for what they do, when the results of their actions are so distant and removed from them because of the technology in between.  You may say that the gun is kind of like a lever, because it is different than killing someone with a sword or with your own hands.  However, the difference is the presence/or lack of presence of the person doing the killing.  

Arguments that support the responsibility of drone pilots are as follows.  The military and soldiers have a more effective way to kill and save people around the world from terrorism.  The tactic of drone warfare for stunting terrorism is generally effective at achieving its goal, and therefore its availability makes soldiers and governments who have drones have a certain level of responsibility.  The powers who are capable of employing this strategy should use it to protect the global community, but also have prioritized their own citizens first.  This statement, on the responsibility of powerful nations, brings up several questions about the intentions of the U.S. in its global role, and about its obligations.  Is the fight against terrorism related to the fight for the spread of  democracy?  

“Our National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, first published in February 2003, recognizes that we are at war and that protecting and defending the Homeland, the American people, and their livelihoods remains our first and most solemn obligation”

U.S. Department of State

Do we have a moral obligation to other nations, or should we just be focused primarily on ourselves and help others if we can? 

Moving to the next evidence of responsibility taken seriously, it must be said that while moral injury is a bad thing, it supports the fact that soldiers are fully aware of the repercussions of their actions, and don’t take their work lightly.  Studies have shown that soldiers feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility that can be debilitating.  This fact supports the idea that soldiers are not desensitized from this kind of warfare, but also it provides a problematic piece of the case because it is dangerous and potentially unfair to the soldiers, and the military and government are responsible for the mental as well as the physical wellbeing of their soldiers. (Norman) (DAV) (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).

In response to these arguments, here are some counter arguments that further examine desensitization, and who is responsible for killing.  Some say that drone warfare is turning war into almost a “first person video game” experience, taking all of the emotional and “moral gravity” out of the affair.  With no life on the line on the drone-side,will drone pilots always recognize the full actuality of the damage they are doing?  The stakes may seem lower because the risk of physical harm to the soldiers is removed, but drone warfare could end up causing more damage.  The lower stakes on the American side could cause war to become “too tempting and too easy” (Singer). 

Moving back to the idea of responsibility as something that lasts forever: Agent Orange is a prime example of  “technology” banned for its immorality.  Just because it helped to win some battles, was it acceptable to use?  The devastating effects of Agent Orange have lasted a long time, and the U.S. is responsible for this destruction that spanned broader than intended.  Going back to the rules of war, nations are responsible for civilian deaths that happen in the crossfire, and these should be limited.  They have a legal responsibility.  However, countering this argument is the fact that though Agent Orange caused damage that is still around today, buildings and land that incur damage by drones can be reconstructed.  Agent Orange took a major toll on the environment.  Also, there is a certain aspect of ruthlessness to war, and the principles that the U.S. acts on in times of war prioritize Americans, making drone warfare okay.  The end justifies the means along these lines.  Should it though?

Another interesting facet of this nuanced issue of responsibility is that the decisions made, surrounding the best response to counterterrorism, will determine how the U.S.  is viewed.  Is it ethical to let terrorists cause some terror, so that we are viewed as the “good guys,” or should we just act preemptively against terror, and be viewed by everyone outside of the U.S., and some within the U.S., as the “bad guys” causing mass destruction?  This is the idea of a propaganda war, and the paternalistic role that the government plays.  The government has to choose whether or not to allow drone warfare for the good of citizens that may not necessarily appreciate or agree with the choice made.   

To summarize, it would be bad for those who are killing via drones to feel less responsible for the deaths they cause than those who kill from the ground, but research showing that drone pilots feel intense moral injury suggests that we do not have to worry that being behind the screen is causing desensitization..  The U.S. is very powerful, and is responsible for protecting its people, and doing the best it can to stop terrorism.  It is up to society and those in power to determine how the role of the United States should be defined globally with regard to peacekeeping and the use of drones to do so. How can the U.S. work to end terrorism without dominating the world too drastically? 


This section will address the arguments and counterarguments for drones that have to do with the value of justice, as applied through Just War Theory.  Though there are legislative and moral regulations that attempt to bring an element of justice into war, typically war is won due to things not being exactly just or fair. 

The Scales of Justice

Governments tend to generalize and form opinions of entire populations, and then use their power and advantages to win against that enemy.  Whether these advantages are geographical, weapon-related, tactical, or rely on alliances doesn’t matter.  War is never fair nor just, and for soldiers on the drone-fighting side, many sacrifices are still being made.  A quote from a spectacular movie about the use of drones for counterterrorism stated: “don’t ever tell a soldier he doesn’t understand the stakes of war” (Eye in the Sky).  This quote reminds that war is a unique and perplexing experience and concept.  A soldier does what they have to, and is always having to make hard decisions.  When they make decisions from the safety of a base in America, about a war going on in another country, it is because they have been on the ground experiencing these dangers before, or have lost comrades in this manner.  They understand the stakes because they have faced them directly.  What I may see as “unjust” is nuanced and highly particular; there are deliberations and discussions that go on that we don’t know about.  

However, when war is waged without soldiers on one side, one could say that the other side has higher stakes, and that is unjust.  The fact that we don’t have to be in the same country, yet can still “see” our opponents on the battlefield, and instead now risk civilian lives that may not favor either side is unfair and takes honor out of warfare.  Soldiers enlisted in the military know what they are signing up to do, unlike those who are unaffiliated and end up dead despite this.  The civilian should be at less risk than the soldier.  However, the civilians in question are not American, and from the American perspective are therefore slightly “less important.”  Should we really be placing value on people based on where they are from?  This new level of disparity that drones create could be considered immoral, because the principles of Just War Theory support minimal civilian deaths.  However, could it be said that these civilian deaths are “worth it” in pursuit of a greater goal?  

Just war theory states that fairness does not always have a place in war.  However, one could argue that this is wrong and just war theorists should adapt their thinking to consider the extent of unfairness in war.  Should fairness be implemented into Just War Theory, or does it diminish warfare?  Is there a certain extent to which war can be unfair, and does military necessity always outweigh humanity?

Ethics: Honor

Now, for a brief discussion on honor.  Some soldiers feel that not being physically present on the battlefield to face danger makes them less honorable in their actions.  As one soldier explained, he was troubled because “instead of squaring off against the enemy in a fair fight, he had killed in a way that lacked valor.”  The lack of fairness in the battle also plays a role in this, with there being a high amount of honor in a fair battle.  Human versus human feels a lot more honorable than having robots come in place of the humans on one side.  However, war has had human enhancing technologies before – guns are just one example.  Are drones just another extension of this, or are they different because of the lack of a physically present human? 

Being in the military has always been associated rightfully with the highest degree of honor.  It is not my intention for this paper to dishonor those who work as drone pilots, because they are making an honorable sacrifice. 

The perspective that there may be a perceived lack of honor in fights involving drones is not coming from my opinion, but from the pilots themselves.  

To counter this belief is the point that one shouldn’t have to almost die or actually die to be honored for protecting their country.  Those who dedicate themselves and their mental health should also be honored for their service to the country.  However, should this level of honor be to the same degree?  Honor is a fundamental piece of the military system in the United States; will drones change this fact as drone warfare could one day be seen as dishonorable?

While those in the military should always be honored for the sacrifices of time, energy, and health/safety that they make, their lack of presence on the battlefield has left soldiers questioning the valor of their actions, and may lead others to question the way those in the military are revered.  While I believe that one should be honored for just spending their time to protect other citizens, I am biased toward honoring people who have risked their lives.  Risking their lives for the safety of the nation is what has always set soldiers apart, and drones take away this aspect, instead making it easy to kill.  However, I don’t want anyone to have to risk their life, so this technology is favorable in that regard.  Drones offer major benefits for soldiers, but they will change the societal perception of the military, and while their work is still honorable and important, there may be less honor associated with the military, especially by current veterans who have risked their lives.  Another key factor here is that drone pilots do risk their mental health when they enter this line of work.  Going back to Christopher Aaron, he has been left severely changed by his work, likely for the rest of his life, so the time he spent as a drone pilot was an honorable sacrifice.  Whether this equates to risking lives, I am not sure, but I know that the trauma is real and there is still a level of honor in the work of drone pilots, even though it is different and maybe to a smaller degree.

Consequentialist Analysis

Now, to examine this case through the consequentialist perspective, here are the benefits and harms of semi-autonomous warfare. This technology saves soldiers’ lives, works to protect from terrorists, can be more accurate than soldiers on the ground due to the number of analysts and the technology, could benefit the United States until many other nations have this technology, limits PTSD, carries out the purpose of war effectively, and kills terrorists.  However, this technology changes the stakes of warfare in a major way.  While some compare drone warfare to guns, as just another extension of human capability, drone warfare has a ground-breaking, game-changing aspect.  For the first time, there is no life on the line on one side.  While I believe that war is never fair (because each nation uses their own strengths to combat the others), this completely changes the meaning of war, and the gravity of it.  There is no way to win against technology that has no human.  Something that has always been true about war is that it has been human versus human, even if there were some technological aspects. 

With no life on the line, war may become “too tempting and too easy,” according to an essay called Robots at War.  There is a shift of responsibility, and the repercussions of responsibility have changed. 

While more soldiers are saved, more civilians are put at risk of dying as a result.  This says something about how we value the life of a soldier over the life of a civilian, and may also suggest implicit racism.  The U.S. is willing to kill non-American civilians for our anti-terrorist cause. 

According to the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, it is “recognize[d] that we are at war and that protecting and defending the Homeland, the American people, and their livelihoods remains [their] first and most solemn obligation.”  This does make sense, but I would like to look further into our willingness to sacrifice foreign civilians for this cause.  While anti-American sentiment has always been an issue, these drones intensify this feeling.  Going back to Yemen, the people there feel like their governments could help the United States apprehend these terrorists without mass destruction; they feel that the United States doesn’t care about the impact it has on the Yemeni people, shown through the ambiguity around the number of drone strikes and deaths that the U.S. claims to have caused.  Whether this is true or not, this has led to hateful feelings, which can potentially lead to more terrorist action.  While drones may eliminate a terrorist in the moment, the use of drones sets the stage for terrorism in the future, making it ineffective in the long term.  Drones cause lives to be unnecessarily lost, and unnecessary suffering to occur.  Lastly, those against drone warfare argue that it is turning war into a video-game like concept, that lacks any real emotion.  While moral injury proves this to be incorrect, there are still ramifications of the lever, separating the pilots from the people they kill.  


To conclude, we return to a key question: Is it ethical to kill terrorists remotely?  However, it is a more nuanced question than that.  As explained earlier, throughout history, many warfare tactics have been banned for their immorality.  Although none of them is drone warfare, the willingness to declare some techniques unacceptable for military use demonstrates that immoral tools do not need to be a part of a country’s armamentarium. 

From the global perspective, I believe that drone warfare is not the most efficient or effective way to reduce terrorism in the short – or long – term. 

It has a high risk factor, it is not truly utilitarian or effective, and doesn’t save soldiers to the extent that it may seem due to moral injury and an increase in anti-American and anti-democratic sentiment.  Nevertheless, from the general United States perspective, it is perceived as the safest and easiest way to counter the actions of terrorists.  

Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of semi-autonomous warfare, I believe that it is unethical for drones to be used to kill.   It is not the most effective strategy, as it leaves other nations brewing with discontent, and although I don’t believe that it shears war of its moral gravity, I think that it is too risky and changes the stakes of war too much for there to be any fairness.  I also believe that along the lines of Just War Theory, there should be room for fairness in war.  Though the terrorists involved in the war on terror are deserving of the destruction applied through drone warfare, we cannot treat everyone in a nation as an enemy combatant.  Civilians have to be protected from harm.  Drone warfare and a lack of communication between the countries involved is too slippery a slope into a gross generalization of the enemy which, as outlined in the definition of  Just War Theory, is not just.  Soldiers today are honorably willing to sacrifice their lives when they join the military, so even though I think that no one should have to die in solving international conflicts, it is more ethical for soldiers to die saving our country, rather than non-affiliated and unaware civilians.  The United States government is seeking to protect the lives of soldiers by using drone warfare.  There is no U.S. law that prevents that.  However, whether or not this is the best decision for the U.S. so that they can have positive relations in the future is unclear.  

Questions that I would like to examine further are: How do we apprehend internal terrorists?  And how are other countries combatting terrorism?  Do war technology advancements really help progress and improve the concept of war?  Perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to get “better” at war, and instead should look at other ways of solving international conflict.  How can America be a changemaker moving toward greater peace, without leaving itself vulnerable to others?  

“War is neither a scientific game nor an international sport; it is an act of violence, characterized by destruction”

– Jordan Lindell

With this in mind, is it more valuable for our nation to continue to develop destruction-enhancing technologies and securities, or should we be working to reshape our global society so that future conflicts can be settled without putting the lives of our seven billion – and growing – population on the line? 

About The Author

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *