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Brian Glyn Williams has written an excellent article in defense of the killer drone program. He makes some good arguments against the most popular criticisms of the program. For example, he points out that drones are actually able to target more specifically and accurately than guided missile systems from conventional bombers, and use ordinance with a smaller explosion radius further limiting the so-called “collateral damage” (a term I despise).

MQ-1 Predator

He makes one interesting argument. He’s responding to the claim by critics that drone pilots are just fancy video gamers who can kill with no more compunction of conscience than when they were blowing up fantasy figures on their video games as kids. He says,

On the contrary, the hours spent surreptitiously spying on their targets through the lenses of high-resolution cameras allow the pilots to get to know their targets intimately in ways bomber pilots in the past could not. Killing their targets in this fashion is far more intimate and personal than traditional bombings by high-flying, supersonic bombers.

I wonder if this might not be construed as a weakness. From a military viewpoint, the more intimate and personal a “target” becomes, the more difficult the kill becomes. There’s a reason the military is overloaded with non-personal objective terms, such as: “target”, “asset”, and “collateral damage.”

However, while I buy his argument in general, my biggest problem is with a statement he makes while arguing that the drones are more efficient than traditional methods, thus resulting in fewer civilian casualties. He says:

…there have been 2,706 Taliban and al-Qaeda militants killed in the drone campaign in Pakistan, at a cost of just 156 civilians.

Just?  One-hundred fifty-six innocent people died! I understand he’s arguing that the ratio is lower than it would be with conventional warfare, but it’s not “just” 156 innocent people. And the term “cost” bothers me–as though it’s an acceptable price to pay. And, yes, I know he says he found the pilots to be

incredibly thoughtful, introspective and deeply concerned about the notion of killing even one civilian bystander.

I’m glad they are thoughtful and concerned, but that’s not strong enough language for me. It is not acceptable to suggest that there is a certain civilian casualty rate that we are willing to accept as the “cost” of war. I want to hear language accepting responsibility for civilian casualties and what we can do better to eliminate them, that any civilian casualties are unacceptable and how we are continually working to improve our techniques so we can always be moving close to a zero civilian casualty rate.

It might just be semantics, but these are important semantics to me. I would like us to at least pretend that we think killing innocent people is as horrible a thing as it actually is.

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