Call of Duty: Reality Edition—Is It Easier to Kill with Drones?

Morality and ethics have always played a major role in human history, especially when it comes to fighting for survival. How far would you go to survive—what actions are justified? The questions remain the same over time, but the emergence of new technologies, such as drones, leads to new ethical considerations in warfare. In medieval times the use of crossbows was banned (against Christians), because it was not considered to be knightly or honourable to kill that easily from a distance. A similar discussion emerged in recent years over the use of drones. An independent researcher and wing commander for the Indian Air Force, Dr. U.C. Jha wrote in his book Drone Wars –The Ethical, Legal and Strategic Implications that,  “[the] killing of a selected individual or a group through the use of drones while sitting in a safe zone […] is against the principle of chivalry”.


Multiple Critics of Drones

Drones are seen not only as a big technological step, but also as big change for legal and ethical considerations, as the British academic in security questions, Shima D. Keene, describes in Michelle Holloway’s edited book Drone Warfare: Ethical Explorations. From an ethical perspective, there exist many critical aspects on the use of drones in warfare. Dr. Jha discusses a plenitude of them, including the physical and emotional separation of the operator and the battlefield, the question of responsibility and collateral damage, and the peculiar aspect of drones; the target will never be able to see the operator of the weapon.

Keene describes, how some people make their judgement depending on whether the consequences of using drones are better or worse than with conventional weapons. Others see them as generally bad. One of the main criticisms  asserts that the use of drones is morally reprehensible because of the (emotional) distance between the operator and the battlefield. This issue which is surrounded by an international moral and legal debate will be the target of this article and most likely, of many more discussions to come.

Warfare as Video Game?

According to Keene, the critical point is the so-called “push button warfare” or “PlayStation mentality”. It relates to the psychological consideration on how the physical distance from the battlefield influences the operators’ psyche and behaviour. That includes the willingness to take risks but also the making use of the weapons. Some even say, that the mutual threat to the lives of combatants gives them some equality in the use violence. However, this does not exist with drone pilots, as Dr. Jha points out.

The main problem that this article looks at (and that Keene and Dr. Jha dealt with) is how war becomes impersonal: the distance of the operator makes them target an enemy quicker, as it is easier to see the opponents not as humans but only as targets. The drone pilots do not experience the real situation, but rather only have a digital image of it, which can desensitise and physically and emotionally disconnect the pilots from the full impact of their actions.

This disconnection can  make violence and moral misjudgements more likely. The operator is in a situation that is too similar to playing a war-themed computer game which is why it is feared that they would also kill as easily as people do in video games. A drone pilot admitted, as cited in Holloway’s book, that hunting of a target with a drone “can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s … cool.” Other pilots deny strongly that flying a drone would feel like playing a game and say that they are very aware of the impact of their actions.

Dr. Jha mentions another aspect of the problem, in terms of employment: since the most important thing for operating a drone is technical proficiency, it is feared that civilians who are not trained according to the military code which involves moral guidelines, get increasingly employed. They could act in a “PlayStation mentality” manner, as they would not have a soldier’s experience when it comes to the possible impact they may have.


Deadly Consequences

In Pakistan, a giant art installation in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa [see the artwork here] attracted attention. The installation portrays a girl from the region, who became an orphan when her parents were killed in a drone attack. It lays on a field to be best seen from an aerial perspective—a perspective through which drone operators see the land, too. The intention behind the artwork is to raise the awareness and empathy of the operators towards all the victims, survivors and the attacked regions. Drone strikes lead to a variety of civilian casualties, many of them avoidable. In Pakistan alone, more than 1000 civilians were killed by drone strikes, over 300 of them were children.

A common critique of drones regarding the morality of their use in warfare is that through the physical distance the drone pilot also develops an emotional distance to the events, as if he or she played a real-life computer game. This  affects the pilot’s moral judgement and decision-making. By looking at the long history of warfare, drones can be said to still be a new practice. We will have to see how the discussion develops in time. Some drones are already flying without an operator—not armed ones, but who knows when that time will come. To push this problem off from the wrong course, we need to participate in the moral discussion from today onwards.

By Nina Kolarzik


Photo Credits

Photo 1: Soldiers learning how to operate the Skylark drone, by Cpl. Zev Marmorstein, CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo 2: “Predator Drone”, by Marc Buehler, CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo 3: “Drone-007”, by Ville de Nevers, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0