Former British drone operator speaks out

A British serviceman, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, talks about his role as part of the US drone program, which was to use satellite imagery to identify targets on the ground. He describes how on one occasion he was about to order a hit on someone whom he thought was planting an explosive device in the ground. At the last minute, a much larger figure appeared on the scene and he realized that the first ‘terrorist’ whose death he had been about to bring about was a child playing in the sand.

He talks about how on another occasion he was observing on the screen an attack ordered by someone else on a house that was supposed to have ‘terrorists’ inside and later receiving reports of the bits of bodies of six children being brought out.

He says that drone warfare and aerial warfare against countries that have no defenses against it removes one of the most important checks and balances against war, which is the risk of real casualties to your own side. If a country’s leader can order the deaths of people remotely, with no risk at all to his or her own troops, against people who have no means of fighting back directly or of marshaling public opinion against the acts, then that leader has been pretty much been given carte blanche to go to war. He says that drones have made it “too easy to kill”.

The drone killings will be the everlasting shame of the Obama legacy. Not in the US, of course, since we have a genius for averting our eyes from the ugliest parts of our history, but (I hope) in the eyes of the rest of the world.

It still sticks in my craw that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize.


  1. eric says

    He says that drone warfare and aerial warfare against countries that have no defenses against it removes one of the most important checks and balances against war, which is the risk of real casualties to your own side.

    I sort of agree and sort of don’t. IMO there’s nothing inherently bad in finding ways to go to war that minimize your own casualties. In fact, that’s a good thing…just so long as you continue to minimize noncombatant casualties at the same time.

    The problem with current US drone policy is that we seem to be trading one for the other in an extreme fashion. That, we shouldn’t do. Our standards for when an attack is justified should not be lower just because we will not suffer casualties.

    But that is not a problem with drone technology. That’s a problem of operational use and war policy.

  2. Kevin K says

    The ethical dilemma about drones isn’t about being “fair” and allowing someone to shoot back. Fuck that noise – this isn’t a duel.

    War is ALWAYS about trying to kill someone without being killed. Range of weaponry is a huge part of it.

    Remember the Falkland Island War? When Argentina had missiles that had a 6 mile range and Britain had missiles that had a 10-mile range? No complaints there about the inability of the Argentinians to kill the Brits. There was zero risk to the Brits. Should they have been “fair” and moved in 4 miles? I don’t think so.

    The US maintains an enormous advantage in range of weaponry in all kinds of situations. Our sniper rifles are FAR more accurate and deadly at longer ranges. Our airplanes can kill other fighter jets before the enemy can even spot our guys, much less target them. Our ships can drop a cruise missile on you pretty much from drydock in Virginia to anywhere in the world.

    The ethical dilemma with drones is about accurate targeting — true bad actors and not some poor schmo digging fence posts. Or kids playing in the back yard.

    It’s also about using drones in countries which are not combatants in any declared or undeclared war. Rules of engagement against an enemy that does not respect country borders haven’t quite caught up with our modern times, I’m afraid.

    But “fair” has absolutely nothing to do with warfare. I’m shocked that you would think so.

  3. Alverant says

    I remember when Phantom Menance came out and one of the “learning” TV stations did a “Science of Star Wars”. It addressed the issue of using machines to do the actual killing and they had Colin Powell on saying that the decision would always be done by an actual person (or something like that) to give us assurances the US wasn’t going to send an army of robots saying “Roger Roger” out onto the battlefield. It seems like he was wrong.

  4. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Seeing as this is about a drone operator speaking out and not a drone operating system, Colin Powell is right so far.

    I wouldn’t put it as aggressively as Kevin K, but war isn’t supposed to be standing in a straight line wearing bright red coats and taking turns firing at each other.

    The main problem are the humans. They push the button on bad intel or mistaken perspective. They certainly should try to minimize death, but the machines aren’t making the decisions for us.

    If it was done right, drone warfare would be very civilized. Wars don’t have to be fought by bombing everything around, calling down indirect artillery fire or cannons rolling in through cities. Taking out a car full of terrorists without having to bring down the entire city is much more civilized than what we saw during the days of WW2.

    Except maybe for London being one big target. And Berlin. And Dresden. And Hiroshima. And Nagasaki. Pretty much any population center in Europe. Ah, the civilized days of warfare, when a human had to push the bomb out of the plane or drive the tank itself.

  5. mnb0 says

    If Kissinger received the Nobel Price for Peace while bombing Cambodja we should not be surprised Obama receiving it and subsequently using drones.

  6. Psychopomp Gecko says

    “Pretty much any population center in Europe.” really ought to be any population center in any of the nations at war. Much more accurate and gets rid of that pesky Western-centric bias.

    Ok, now y’all can go back to reading and mistaking me for some sort of carnage-hungry blood hawk.

  7. mikecline says

    Kevin, I disagree with you on many levels. Anything about war is already an ethical dilemma. The ethics and “rightness” of any violent conflict is certainly “fair” territiory for ethical critique and debate. Besides, traditionally, warriors have tried to be fair. Until quite recently, nobody would thinks it’s okay for someone with a gun, not immediately threatened, to kill someone holding a knife. In most countries in the world, this sense of ethical fairness is why many cops don’t have weapons. It certainly sometimes is needed and save lives, but shooting from a distance someone holding a non-fire arm, isn’t fair. Remotely dropping a bomb on some guy standing next to a mud hut while olding an AK is like using a sniper rifle from 300 meters away to shoot a guy holding a metal pipe. Just cause the guy with the sniper rifle won dosne’t mean he was right or the situation was fair. Most “warriors” would find this idea repulsive because of how uneven and unfair it was.

  8. Scott says

    but war isn’t supposed to be standing in a straight line wearing bright red coats and taking turns firing at each other.

    Maybe it should be. I’ve been reading Patrick O’Brien’s novel over the last few years, and I’m constantly struck by how different war is now than it was 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Dehumanizing one’s enemy seems a pre-requisite for war now.

    Regardless, killing someone over a difference of opinion is, in my mind, always wrong.

  9. says

    Not true.

    You are conflating the overall ethical considerations with the concerns of the man on the ground.

    As far as the guy fighting the war is concerned, if the other guy is a fighter on the other side, he is fair game, whether he holding a gun, knife or the remote to a guided missile launcher.

    The ethical concerns overall are different, and are about the ethics of the manner of warfare. Like Kevin K says, it is about doing this in a country which is not an active combatant in your war. Once the dogs of war have been loosed, only your rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention matter. Where the GC is lagging is in dealing with an opponent who is a non-State actor and ignores national borders. It really doesn’t cover those situations, and modern International law hasn’t either.

  10. says

    Dehumanizing one’s enemy has always been a part of war, it’s just that we used to do that simply by looking at others as “not my tribe”, which automatically dehumanized them. Now that the Internet makes others seem much more human, it is more difficult to desensitize our soldiers to killing other humans.

    And just think, if we ever encounter “ET”, we’ll have to fight this struggle all over again!

  11. jamessweet says

    At the last minute, a much larger figure appeared on the scene and he realized that the first ‘terrorist’ whose death he had been about to bring about was a child playing in the sand.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: The worst thing about having children of my own is the sick feeling I get when I read stuff like this. It hasn’t really given me any deeper insight; my opinions surrounding things like this are more or less unchanged. But it makes me feel a visceral creeping horror that I didn’t feel before. Kinda sucks.

  12. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Except back then the Red Coats could easily dehumanize the numerically inferior, ill-equipped Colonial army as heretics, since they were rebelling against the head of the Anglican Church.

    Or maybe say they were moochers since they weren’t paying a fair share of taxes.

    Or even call them out on being a bunch of monsters who owned or condoned the owning of slaves.

    Either way, if we had held to the convention of the day to only fight in those straight lines, we’d still be the colonies. As it turned out, much fewer of our guys died when we did something despicable like hiding in the environment or wearing clothes that blend in better.

    In short, warfare changes a lot, one of the few things you can try to do is to save the lives of people on your side as much as possible, and every war has been a bunch of patriots fighting a bunch of monsters as far as each side is concerned.

    That said, I’m all for using satellites to do our best to avoid hitting civilian targets with our more precise weaponry, unlike in the 1700s when a city would face a siege with cannonballs tearing through random houses while disease, hunger, and dissent killed off the civilians and military holed up there.

    And it wasn’t uncommon for sieges before that to end in what Taggart of Blazing Saddles called “a number 6!” Here’s a hint: They didn’t spare the womenfolk.

  13. eric says

    Besides, traditionally, warriors have tried to be fair.

    No, not really. If you look at how hunter-gatherers wage war, then the “traditonal” method that humans used for probably the last couple hundred thousand years involves conducting mightnight raids. Where warriors go in, kill who they can fairly indiscriminantly under the cover of darkness and confusion, then get out before the other tribe has a chance to muster a counter-attack. Very stab-in-the-back. Much like chimpanzees.

    Now, I’m all for rules of war. But lets not pretend they are grounded in tradition. They are at best an invention of the last couple thousand years – maybe 1-3% of the time humans have been around on earth.

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