Review: Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military edited by Bradley Jay Strawser

Killing by Remote Control: Ethics of an Unmanned Military is a new collection of academic essays edited by Bradley Jay Strawser, a philosophy professor at the US Navy Postgraduate School in California.  Strawser, as readers of this blog may remember, was interviewed by The Guardian last year and quoted as saying in relation to unmanned drones: “It’s all upside. There’s no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there’s a tremendous value.”  Famously, Strawser argues that the US has a moral duty to use drones.

Most, but not all, of the authors writing in this collection are coming from a military perspective, either as former serving officers or currently employed within military teaching institutions. As Strawser notes in his introduction “none of the contributors hold that there is an absolute moral prohibition against UAV use… however many have principled issues with their use [and] some argue that there is something about this form of remote warfare in general which should cause us to be morally dubious of it, even if it is not absolutely prohibited in principle.” (p9)  Strawser also notes that “the speed of technological change brought by these vehicles and the haste of their military deployment are quickly outpacing thorough ethical and policy analysis.” (p4)

From the outset, the book insists there is much more to the ethical issues surrounding the use of drones than that of targeted killing. Indeed Strawser makes a plea that the moral questions surrounding drone warfare be separated into discussing their use in principle and, what he euphemistically calls, “the moral questions over current use in practice.” (p7)  While I disagree with what much of Strawser says in relation to drones, I agree with him (as I have argued before) that there are many more ethical issues associated with the use of drones than simply targeted killing. Strawser himself  raises:

  • Discrimination/proportionality issues in regard to civilian casualties
  • Asymmetry
  • Lack of risk to pilots/operators of drones
  • How drones are  undermining counter-insurgency operation
  • Lowering the threshold when it comes to the use of lethal forces
  • Growing autonomy of drones

I should emphasize that Strawser (as a supporter of the use of armed drones) does not suggest these are insurmountable moral problems but he does agree there are issues to be investigated.

Like most collections of essays, some are better than others.  In his essay ‘Just War Theory and Remote Military Technology: A Primer’, Matthew Hallgarth a former US Air Force major who, his biography tells us, taught ethical theory for many years, obviously comes from the ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ school of thought.  Hallgarth comes to the rather shallow conclusion  that there is no moral difference between an armed Reaper drone and a kitchen knife.  Time, I think for him to quit the moral philosophy business.

Other essays are more mendacious.  Asa Kasher, former Israeli Defence Force major, now teaching, amongst other things, military ethics as Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University argues in relation to civilian casualties from drone strikes that “neighbors of the terrorists”  are not ‘defenceless’ (meaning innocent) as they have “rendered themselves human shields of the terrorists.”  In other words it’s their fault for the fact they have been killed as they happened to be living near “a terrorist”.  Kasher goes on to argue that those who object to use of drones without taking into account the fact that “drones diminish casualties among their operators”  are showing “disrespect for the human life and dignity of people in military uniform” and such people “ought to be regarded as having failed one of our fundamental moral tests.” (p65)

Zack Beauchamp and Julian Savulescu, argue that more warfare through drones  is in fact a good thing claiming that the “wars that states don’t fight are the ones they most ought too.”  (p114)  The authors contend that ‘casualty aversion’ and lack of public support means that certain countries are reluctant to get involved in humanitarian wars.  The advent of remote drones, the ‘risk free’ nature of this type of warfare, and that fact that states will not need popular support to get involved may mean we will see more ‘humanitarian wars’, which they contend would be a good thing.  This is nonsense and the idea that drones can be used to monitor or prevent serious human rights abuses has rightly been challenged before.

In my opinion Robert Sparrow’s ‘War without Virtue?’ and Rebecca Johnson’s ‘The Wizard of Oz Goes to War: Unmanned Systems in Counterinsurgency’ are the two best essays in this collection.   Sparrow, who is a Fellow at Monash University in Australia and a founding member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control writes powerfully about how the use of unmanned systems has a negative impact on the required  military virtues of courage, loyalty, honour and mercy.  This is an unusual critique of remote warfare and one that deserves more attention.

Rebecca Johnson,  an associate professor at the Marine Corp University, lays out clearly the legal and moral issues in relation to counter-insurgency (in particular who may or may not be targeted) and investigates how the use of unmanned systems should be able to improve our ability to distinguish between civilians and combatants.  While I ultimately disagree with Johnson  – for example there is little evidence in the public domain that shows drones make it easier to distinguish between civilian and combatants,  indeed a recent study has shown that ten times number of civilian are killed in drone strikes than manned aircraft strikes – she makes many interesting points, not least pointing out that in today’s wars civilians are always part of the battle space and always threatened but war fighters can remove themselves and be safe either through use of drones or crude remotely triggered improvised explosive devices. (p155)

Counting the Dead: The Proportionality of Predators in Pakistan, by Avery Plaw of the University of Massachusetts examines the on-going dispute around the amount of  civilian casualties caused by drone strikes in Pakistan.  After examining various datasets Plaw concludes that drone strikes in Pakistan are not killing ‘a disproportionate number of civilians in violation of the standards of Just War Theory and International Laws of Armed Conflict.’   Shockingly Plaw completely omits throughout the whole of his essay that the laws of war (International Humanitarian Law) do not apply to the situation in Pakistan, rather International Human Rights Law applies.  It is astonishing and, in my view, completely undermines any of his conclusions, that he fails to even mention this basic fact over twenty-five pages.

The two final essays in this collection focus on the growing autonomy of drones, to which there is now a growing challenge.  I shall examine them as part of a separate post about this specific aspect of the future use of drones in the near future.

Overall Killing by Remote Control gives an interesting insight into the ‘pro-drone’ side of the moral arguments surrounding the growing use of drones.  The most common line in the book –  one that occurs in some form or other in almost all of the essays –  is the constant argument  that ‘X’ moral problem is not new or exclusive to the use of drones.  The reality is that drones and remote warfare do incorporate a large number of moral problems and no matter how many times proponents protest that this particular issue is not just a moral problem for drones, the fact that drone warfare bring these various moral problems together, makes drone warfare a real moral problem.



Categories: Book Review, Challenging 'pro-drone' arguments, Ethics of drone war

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