NEW YORK — Captain Ferguson (a fictitious name) gets up early in the morning, and has breakfast with his wife and children. At the office, he sits in front of a computer off and on for almost eight hours. At the end of the day he heads back home. Ferguson’s wife is glad to see him as they discuss the events of the day. He does so, with one omission.
By most measures it has been a beautiful day — beautiful if you don’t consider Captain Ferguson’s omission. While sitting in front of his computer, he was directing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to unleash powerful bombs in distant countries.
Today he presumes, but is not certain, that his bombs hit the right target. After they exploded, four suspected terrorists were killed. That’s four fewer criminals the United States has to deal with.
Subsequent investigation will reveal that they were not terrorists but rather parents and children at a birthday party. As a result of the attack, four adults and eight children were killed, and several more seriously injured.
Captain Ferguson, of course, was unaware of the consequences of his actions. He thinks of his job as somewhat tedious but rewarding since he is an important piece in the fight against terror. Only later will he learn the truth, when the outcry of the victims’ relatives cannot be silenced any longer. The predictable apologies will not bring the dead back to life or heal those injured.
Now compare this fictional scenario with reality.
During the first year of the Obama administration, there were 51 drone attacks, compared to 45 drone attacks during the full two terms of President George W. Bush’s presidency, according to “The Year of the Drone,” a report by the Washington-based New America Foundation. The report also cites a 32 percent civilian fatality rate in drone attacks since 2004.
“Drones are currently killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It should be noted that the United States is not at war with any of those countries, which should mean that in a sane world the killing is illegal under both international law and the U.S. Constitution,” states Philip Girald, a former CIA officer and fellow of the American Conservative Defense Alliance.
Girald’s observation is seconded by Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School. In a research paper titled “Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones,” professor O’Connell writes: “The CIA’s intention in using drones is to target and kill individual leaders of al-Qaida or Taliban militant groups. Drones have rarely, if ever, killed just the intended target. By October 2009, the ratio has been about 20 leaders killed for 750 to 1,000 unintended victims.
“Drones are having a counterproductive impact in Pakistan’s attempt to repress militancy and violence. The use of the drone is, therefore, violating the war-fighting principles of distinction, necessity, proportionality, humanity.”
The U.S. military plans to more than triple its inventory of high-altitude drones capable of 24-hour patrols by 2020. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes both Afghanistan and Iraq, declared in a speech last January, “We can’t get enough drones.”
War, we should sadly acknowledge, is not a Nintendo game, and innocent people’s lives are not expendable. If we don’t acknowledge this tragic dimension of war, we will be cursed by its consequences.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is a contributing editor to The Globalist.