As the New York Times has reported, the Obama administration’s drone policy assumes that women, children, and the elderly are civilians but “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” This standard is what allowed John O. Brennan to claim in June 2011 that for almost a year “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal and a supporter of drone warfare, found these claims wholly unsupportable:
The Taliban don’t go to a military base to build bombs or do training. . . There are families and neighbors around. I believe the people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties. They could be 20 percent. They could be 5 percent. But I think the C.I.A.’s claim of zero civilian casualties in a year is absurd.
Absurd, and very problematic for the legitimacy of the U.S. drone strikes. Within the past year, some Jewish and Christian writers have argued on remarkably similar lines that while drones strikes are not intrinsically immoral, their side effects may rule out their use. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper offers the most recent statement of this argument in a new article in the Tablet:
The availability of drones makes certain forms of problematic policy choices more likely and that, in the absence of proactive regulation, drone warfare will have more pernicious consequences as the technology becomes more widely available. . . .
Judaism can contribute to the conversation by insisting that the conversation include long-term and indirect as well as short-term and direct effects. As Rabbi Shimon says in Pirkei Avot 2:9: “Which is the straight path to which human beings should cleave? The one that considers consequences.”
Klapper’s conclusion—based on halakha and drawing on Talmudic sources—that drone warfare is not intrinsically immoral is seconded by Catholic thinker Robert P. George. Last year, George wrote in this space that “The use of drones is not, in my opinion, inherently immoral in otherwise justifiable military operations.”
Yet George, like Klapper, goes on to warn that “Sometimes considerations of justice to noncombatants forbid their use . . . The wholesale and indiscriminate use of drones cannot be justified, and should be criticized.”
Of course, there will always be collateral damage, citizens killed: that is the horror of war. Yet the Obama administration denies this reality, presenting drone warfare as sanitary and surgical while systematically undercounting civilian casualties. Perhaps the administration’s policy is justified (the question of how many civilian deaths can be tolerated is a difficult one). What is certain is that it cannot be justified by the present bogus accounting.