The Human Cost of Using Unmanned Drones to Wage Wars


CIA nominee John Brennan said during Senate confirmation hearings that the U.S. had no evidence of drone strike collateral killings.

Noor Behram, a Pakistani photojournalist who lives in North Waziristan, has a different story to tell. He has been documenting the human cost of U.S. drone policy for several years stating that he “wants people to know” what the weapons have wrought. The photographer provided photos to documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald in Pakistan doing research and interviews for his forthcoming documentary, “UNMANNED: America’s Drone Wars,” in the fall 2012.

I am always stunned to see the extent to which people seriously seem to think that engaging in war does not carry with itself a real human cost – drones or not. So to be clear: war always has a human cost and that cost is, more often than not, carried by innocent people. You know, that term “collateral damage” that everyone likes to throw around to casually dismiss or minimize the real human cost associated with war; a term that trivializes the devastation wrought by war as something that just unfortunately happens and cannot be controlled, like a hiccup, and thus is not all that important. This, however, is an assertion that is deeply problematic at best, not to mention untrue.

To be bombed in your sleep is not American, nor can such attacks be casually dismissed as “collateral damage” as if they were irrelevant or unavoidable, because they are relevant and avoidable.

Civilian casualties are central to the debate over the use of drones, because public support hinges on the false belief that the weapons kill with surgical precision. If the public were aware of the human toll of the policy, opposition would be widespread. Or would they?

Even sadder than the Obama administration lying about the human cost of drones and seeking to set a precedent for an authority no administration should ever have, is the public perception and support of drones as the following survey’s indicate:

Poll I

It is certainly interesting that George W. Bush did get the bad rep as a war criminal (which he is) when up-stand guy Obama’s administration currently takes the position that it can essentially disappear U.S. citizens, not ever being under any legal obligation to admit, even after the deed is done, that it has assassinated anyone. The policy remains secret in most aspects, involves no judicial review, has resulted in

Poll IIthe deaths of innocent civilians, has been employed far from any battlefield and has sparked deep anti-American resentment in countries where we can ill afford it.

There may be extraordinary occasions when killing a citizen is permissible, but it should never be acceptable for the government to refuse to acknowledge such an act. How can call ourselves a free nation and a free peoples if our government has the power to kill us in secret and not be accountable to anyone? And how can a sovereign authority be accountable to the people if the sovereign can refuse to own up to its actions?

Poll III

Finally, one of the most important aspects of this issue is that when you send in drones instead of manned aircraft and machines to carry out your wars,  you  – as the entity executing  the plan and also as the public – are getting a very distorted and unrealistic picture of war and its consequences. In fact, you don’t feel the consequences.

More importantly, you do not experience the human cost of war, which is one of the biggest consequences of and deterrents to war, because you are so removed from your action.

Sending in a machine to carry out the terrible deed of murdering people for a political cause creates awful detachment to the deed. Or why else do people think the press is not allowed to photograph all the body-bags filled with the remains of soldiers being returned. After all, the visual presentation of those countless bags being delivered back to our shores was one of the reasons helping end the Vietnam war.

The government is fully aware that people putting a human face to war will most likely result in them not wanting to support the war.

Poll IV

Similarly, sending in anonymous, unmanned drones to carry out war removes the human from the equation and makes the act very mechanic, efficient and most importantly it turns those people into nothing but dots in on a game board.

When you are not having anything at stake here and the cost of war, by humans, is carried by the “enemy” only and not you, you will have no respect for the act. There will also not be anything holding you back from engaging in more of the same because hey, there is no real cost in it for you. You are not using any people, the collateral damage isn’t on your end.

There is Nothing Worse than Being Psychologically Removed From This Horrific Act of War and Killing

There is nothing worse than the act just becoming far removed from its consequences because there is, literally, no one sitting at the other end witnessing the maimed and torn bodies as a result of the fall out from an attack. The more you are removed from your actions, the more you are removed from the consequences of those actions and thus the less likely to actually care about your actions.

That is why guns in civilian hands, in the debate on gun control, are so problematic because by pulling the trigger from afar one is removed from the act of killing; from the psychological involvement associated with killing. Because remember, having to actually get hands-on with someone you are going to kill requires more psychological involvement and commitment than just standing far away and pulling the trigger.

Finally, while the war on terrorism is legitimate, collateral damage as a fall out and to this extent is not. Our actions should not match, in cruelty and inhumanity, that of terrorists – who also do not have any regard for human life and probably view those they kill as collateral damage. Just like Obama and his war criminal-in-the-making Brennan.

No matter how you look at it, the Obama administration is setting a precedent for an authority no administration should ever have, and the use of drones specifically takes the human out of the equation turning war and killing, and with it its victims, into targets on a game board rather than real human beings – innocent civilians – who are being murdered.  

Maybe war is a necessary evil but we should never get to the point of trivializing its consequences, or worse, not recognizing its consequences, while sitting in some building miles away programming our avatars to carry out the act while we quietly sit back in our offices sipping our coffees or eating our lunches.


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  1. The Rule of Law, Obama and Drones | Walking Upright Citizen's Brigade


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