Today’s Guardian includes an interesting and thoughtful piece on the impact and morality of drone attacks in Afghanistan. Clive Stafford Smith is obviously a brave and committed man, and his eyewitness experiences in Afghanistan would probably reduce lesser men to a state of paralytic cynicism. But when I read his article I get the impression that the big problem he is discussing here is not military drones, but the US military’s casual approach to the laws of war. In this post I’m going to argue that drones are not a moral concern per se, and that we should be encouraging increased use of drones. I’m no expert on the laws of war or morality, so my arguments may be completely wrong, but my theory is that the big problem with any kind of aerial warfare is target selection, and this is a problem of “military intelligence,” not the type of object doing the killing. It’s a case of “drones don’t kill people, people do.”

Stafford Smith tells the sad story of the boy he met at a tribal meeting in Waziristan:

During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated “four militants”. In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt’s house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other “militants” – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

This is pretty much exactly the same process by which large numbers of alleged militants ended up at Guantanamo Bay in the early years of the war: unscrupulous soldiers in the Northern Alliance picked up ordinary Taliban members and sold them to US or Pakistani interrogators for a fee. As we know from the case of Australian victims Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks, Americans don’t need to be 8000 km away behind a joystick to inflict cruelty on people: Habib was tortured in Guantanamo Bay, and Hicks is bound not to tell what happened to him by a confidentiality agreement signed as part of his release deal. Drones enable American soldiers to deliver death from afar, but the evidence Stafford Smith presents doesn’t indict the drone pilots: it indicts their political masters and their intelligence agents on the ground in Afghanistan. The same thing would happen if the pilots were in aircraft 5000m above the battlefield, or using artillery 1000m from their target, or snipers 50m from their target.

Other articles in the Guardian from previous eras show a similar fixation on the moral implications of drone combat. But they fall for the same problem of failing to separate the instrument of war – drones – from the morality of war, which defines such things as who pilots can drop bombs on, the chain of command by which targets are determined, and the laws under which these things happen. Those are the key factors in what happens when a drone drops its weapons, and whether the pilot is riding on top of the missiles or 8000 km away in Nevada is largely irrelevant to whether or not he or she is allowed to blow up wedding parties. It’s not as if egregious human rights abuses are a phenomenon unique to the drone age: it was done in the 1920s in Iraq by British pilots[1], and the firebombing of German and Japanese cities was clearly planned with no respect for even the most basic of the modern laws of war. When considering those firebombings, it’s worth recognizing the enormous number of individual human beings who had to cooperate to make them happen. The chain of events that led to German civilians boiling alive in reservoirs in central Dresden started with a group of scientists consciously planning how to destroy a city with fire, and ended with a very large number of men flying rattling tin cans across two countries at great personal risk to drop incendiaries on a city in a way they knew would kill thousands of innocents. Does it really matter whether they were sitting in the plane or on a couch in London? The problem was the policy, not the degree of computerization involved in its application.

Of course, some will complain that the computerization of war is itself a bad thing, but I think that’s bullshit. A man who bombs a wedding party is a bad person, but if that man is replaced by a computer then one less person is put at risk of a hideous death. Better still would be if someone higher up the chain decided not to bomb wedding parties, or better still if everyone involved would decide not to bomb anyone at all; but the guy who bombed the wedding party, though he should not have done it, has no say over those matters (especially since, from 5000m, he probably doesn’t know that it’s a wedding party at all). I guess the question that opponents of drone warfare should be considering is: would it be better if a group of soldiers – people you know, preferably, since you can remonstrate personally with them after the deed is done – walked into the wedding party and killed everyone there with some kind of melee weapon? Would that change anything about what happened? We know from events last week in Syria – and events in Afghanistan and Iraq, where British and US soldiers are being investigated for war crimes – and in Vietnam and in WW2 that personal proximity doesn’t necessarily reduce the risk that horrific things will happen to civilians. Whether or not men in planes or tanks or on foot are willing to kill civilians horribly is a matter of propaganda and its effectiveness, not computerization.

The article linked to above suggests that the rate of civilian deaths in drone attacks is about 1/3rd, but this is neither remarkable in war nor particularly scandalous. Civilian deaths in Dresden and Hiroshima far exceeded 1/3 of the total, and it’s likely that deaths in Iraq after the invasion had a much higher civilian-to-military ratio (of the million killed, probably 2/3rds were civilians). Death tolls in Vietnam and WW2 were so fantabulous as to be barely calculable, but it appears that the vast majority of deaths in WW2 were civilian – according to Wikipedia out of about 73 million dead, 24 million were soldiers. Of the civilian dead, the vast majority were murdered by individual men killing human beings at close range execution style. So it’s not as if drone warfare is doing a pretty bad job, from either a historic or a modern perspective.

So, the problem is not the “computerization of war” or the use of drones per se – it’s the decision to go to war, the use of cluster weapons, the employment of untrustworthy and partisan local agents,  a policy of targeting civilian areas, and the refusal of western powers to field enough troops to properly fight national liberation movements (though our experience in Vietnam suggests that the best and most humane way to deal with national liberation movements is to let them have their nation!) There are fears that further automization will lead to the implementation of machine learning algorithms for target acquisition (thus preventing the enemy from jamming radio communications). This could truly be a disaster if the algorithm is bad, but one thing’s for sure: a fully computer-driven targeting algorithm won’t suddenly go wild and decide to rampage through a Vietnamese village, raping and murdering everyone it can get its hands on until a group of unheralded soldiers risk a court martial to stop it.

The ultimate endpoint of drone warfare is something we should all be hoping comes as soon as possible: war fought on computer consoles between nations fielding only non-sentient robots. No civilian deaths, no young men and women dying horribly in distant lands. Just metal blowing up metal, until one side can’t fight anymore and has to surrender or face the prospect of the drones being unleashed on its own citizens. It opens up the prospect of wars without victims. And beyond that, the realization that the metal is just a waste of money, and a shift to entirely computer-game based, virtual wars, where issues of national sovereignty are resolved on a series of networked playstations. We should be ushering in that era as soon as we possibly can, because even the interim stage – of drones blowing up robot tanks far away from civilization – is a vast improvement on the kinds of things we were shown by wikileaks.

So I suppose the final point of this post is: if you’re worried about people being killed in a war, your concern should be with the war[2], and the moral code by which it is waged, rather than whether the bombers are controlled by a keyboard jockey in Nevada or a top gun in Waziristan. It’s not drone warfare that is wrong, but warfare.

fn1: how did Patrick Cockburn get a legitimate gig on the BBC? That’s dodgy, that is. But I can’t find a better link about this seedy aspect of British colonial history, so Cockburn it will have to be.

fn2: This is no criticism of Collin Stafford Smith, whose concern for the people of Waziristan and disgust with the war is clear and obvious.