The Damage Done By Drones, Ctd

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Responding to two new reports on America’s drone war, Benjamin Wittes admits that “it is impossible for a modestly-moral person to read these reports without something approaching nausea” and that “they thus raise serious questions about the way at least those drone strikes they cover took place.” But he still criticizes various aspects of the reports:

[T]he reports—particularly the Amnesty report—have a way of conflating legitimate targeting which may produce civilian collateral damage with horrible errors that simply should not happen. The most glaring example of this is Amnesty’s treatment of the June 4, 2012 strike that killed Abu Yahya Al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader. According to the Amnesty report, an initial drone strike killed five people and injured four others (the report does not say whether any were civilians). A group of 12 people, including both local residents and foreigners “whom villagers said were Arabs and Central Asians who were likely to be members of al-Qa’ida” showed up “to assist victims.” Al-Libi was “overseeing the rescue efforts” and was killed in the second strike, along with between 9 and 15 other people, including six local tribesman who “as far as Amnesty International could determine, had come only to assist victims.” In other words, six tribesman were killed working alongside a group of Al Qaeda operatives under a senior Al Qaeda official were killed.

Amnesty considers this strike a potential “war crime” both because it constituted an attack on civilian rescuers and, quite amazingly, because Al-Libi may not have been directly participating in hostilities at the time of the strike. (I’m really not making this up. See pp. 29-30.) In other words, Amnesty’s position is that it may be a war crime to target a senior Al Qaeda leader when he’s doing something other than plotting attacks—if, that is, it’s lawful to target him at all. There are many serious issues these reports raise; this kind of overreach undermines them all.

I agree. Unintended collateral civilian casualties are not war crimes, and never have been. But the moral equation shifts, it seems to me, when the belligerent stops truly seeing these casualties as morally deeply troubling. This is particularly true when it comes to the anti-septic feel of drone warfare, where human beings can be seen simply as distant statistics. There comes a point at which indifference to civilian casualties veers toward a war crime. That was my problem with the Israelis’ pulverization of Gaza in 2009. They did not seem particularly agonized by it at all, despite the huge imbalance of fatalities on each side of that conflict. With that kind of technological power, restraint is even more essential if we are not to lose our soul.

The way in which the Obama administration began to scale down drone warfare in the growing evidence of such casualties suggests to me a mindset attempting to avoid the worst aspects of such a war – not surrendering to it. But it’s a blurry line, and we need to remain extremely vigilant about it for moral and strategic reasons. Multiple civilian deaths do not, after all, help the case against al Qaeda in Pakistan.

(Photo by Getty)