Drones and the Human Cost of War

The prompt for a recent Atlantic Community call for articles on utilizing drones for military purposes asks “When do we have to start considering human rights violations and what the consequences of that might be?” As an American whose government has been a pioneer in deploying drones offensively in war zones, that question is of primary importance and ought to be addressed before the practicality of drones comes into question. And while we should consider what current global norms could prevent abuse of these technologies, we should be equally concerned with the inverse, namely, the impact these technologies could have on our norms and attitudes toward warfare in the future.

In the current context, military drones are almost exclusively used by rich western nations against local targets in less developed regions. Just on face value there are strong human rights and social justice concerns in play. Step back for a moment and contemplate the fact that rich nations are using armed robots to kill targets in poor countries, often identifying their targets based on behavior patterns resulting in widespread collateral damage. This dynamic shifts the social and human cost of war dramatically onto the targets.

As an American, I am concerned with the impact that drones will have on my nation’s norms and attitudes toward warfare. Americans have a habit of thinking that the value of our lives are vastly higher than those of our opposition. Bold claims that “one American life is worth one hundred of theirs” are not uncommon in our political discourse. This might be a common sentiment for countries with strong national identities, but no other country has yet used that rationale to justify the offensive use of atomic weapons as with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My country does not have a good track record of restraint in using vastly superior military technologies. If we can preserve American lives through technology, we will, but with little concern for our targets.

How will our decision making paradigms change as a result of these new and rapidly evolving drone technologies? The policy choices that we make now will set precedent for decades of military and international relations decisions. We have already seen the increased reliance on drones reaffirmed and increased by the Obama administration and will serve as the baseline for future administrations. There are many costs involved in warfare, but by far the most critical is the human cost: The real suffering, death, and destruction of armed conflict.

By relying more heavily on drones, the United States and other western nations are removing their own human cost from the equation, thereby placing that burden solely on their targets. For us, the cost of potential future warfare becomes much simpler. Instead of asking “Is it worth it to put American soldier’s lives at risk?” we will be asking “How much will it cost us to build and deploy the necessary drones?”
At that point, our costs of war become largely financial. And American taxpayers have shown a wide tolerance for spending vast sums of money on military expenditures. As America becomes increasingly reliant on drones, we will be even more open to military action as we will become increasingly isolated from the human costs of war. Germany has taken a strong ethical stance on this issue by rejecting the use of drones in targeted killings. The United States and other western nations ought to follow that lead. The decisions to use military force must receive the highest scrutiny, but that scrutiny and domestic public pressure against war will be dramatically lessened as drones are substituted for human combatants.

Clark Ruper is a Young Voices Advocate and serves as Vice President of a student-focused non-profit which in just under five years has grown to assist over 900 student groups and features full-time operations on every continent. Clark has appeared on PBS’s NewsHour, Huckabee, and the STOSSEL Show and has been interviewed in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

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