Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.


  1. NL7:

    What's bizarre is how little notice and understanding there is among Americans that this is even happening. When an independent journalist confronted Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Democratic convention about the Kill List, she acted like it was a conspiracy theorist's ramblings, making clear that the chair of the DNC had not read the New York Times reporting on the Kill List. Her job was to shill for the party platform and the party's elected officials, but she was unable to differentiate her party's foreign policy from dystopian conspiracies.

  2. Titan28:

    I'm not happy with the drone war, although I like the alternatives even less. But I would not take at face value what a left wing British advocacy group had to say about it. Where did they get their numbers? Hamas?

  3. Jim Clay:

    I agree on all points. That bullshit Lancet journal article on the deaths in Iraq really soured me on the credibility of British NGO's. I suppose that it's not fair to paint all of them with the same brush, but there it is.

  4. Brennan:

    Here's an area where Libertarians and the Left could actually find common ground, if the Left had any credibility. I remember the anti-war protests at Pearl Harbor in the early 2000s after 9/11. After 2009? Not a peep from Code Pink or their ilk. Instead of protesting war, they went to occupy Wall Street and protest Capitalism. Never trust a Leftist, as they are not interested in improving the human condition, only in supporting their tribe.

  5. sjutte350:

    I am regularly confused by the assertion that firing an explosive warhead into populated areas is "precision" anything.

    Yeah, you can aim that hellfire missile right into the ventilation shaft of a building from 200 miles away. yes, that's precision.

    But the warhead on that hellfire is going to level the building, whether you hit the ventilation shaft, or miss by ten feet. So you can send your missile into a situation with insane accuracy, but you can't control how much damage the explosion will do once it hits it's target. You can score a direct hit on the top of the terrorist's head, but when the blast radius of a hellfire is 100 feet, you aren't exactly benefitting from that accuracy.

    Taken to the extreme, it would be like bragging about the 3-meter accuracy of a nuclear warhead. Sure, you'll hit your intended target right on the money, and then kill everything else in a 5 mile radius.

    The only way to "precision" kill one single person without high risk of collateral damage with current technology revolves around "boots on the ground." Snipers or seal teams. But then you're taking a huge "blackhawk down" type risk, aren't you?

    The drone war isn't about precision. it isn't about reducing collateral damage. It is about blowing people up at the push of a button without risking anything in return.

    From a strictly tactical standpoint, that's really, really good policy. if you've got peopleto blow up, you might as well do it in as risk-free a manner aspossible.

    But from a practical standpoint, it becomes far too easy to forget the magnitude of a power so easy to use From a foreign policy, ethical, and legal standpoint, the drone war is a nightmare.

  6. BobSykes:

    The Brits may have gotten the exact numbers wrong, but they are right that drones kill many bystanders. The bigger issue for me is that the US government asserts it has the right to kill American citizens without any kind of trial. A mere Star Chamber suffices. And of course the did kill Al Awlaki and his teen age son and at least two other people in Yemen.

    These drone strikes are mere murders and should be treated as such. The fact that the Congress and the Courts are fully onboard with these murders demonstrates that the US government as a whole is illegitimate, lawless, violent and corrupt. It is beyond reform and redemption.

  7. skhpcola:

    Reprieve is a far-left organization of terrorist sympathizers and zealots. Citing anything from them is research malfeasance. But Warren does love him some Kevin Dumb and Paul Krooogman, so sopping up leftist propaganda masquerading as facts is comfy for him.

  8. irandom419:

    The question is did the collateral damage have guns on them at the time of the strike?

  9. HenryBowman419:

    Americans will begin to have a less-than-rosy view of drone strikes when the U.S. government starts killing U.S. citizens on U. S. soil, with of course the accompanying "collateral damage".

  10. Incunabulum:

    There going to have an even worse view of drone strikes once these people figure out how to strap *working* IED's to RC craft and start retaliating that way. Or worse, manage to get hold of some of our hardware that we tend to carelessly give to anyone its politically beneficial to deem 'friendly'.

  11. Incunabulum:


    They live in a war zone - wouldn't you have a gun?

    I live in Arizona - if a cop shoots me while I have a gun, is that automatically a good shoot?

  12. Scott:

    There is a time to kill, and I figured you would know that Coyote. While I tend to hold similar views to those expressed on the blog, on this one I think you are dead wrong. The theatre of war is constantly evolving. I realize the statistics are fuzzy, but I'd still guess the ratio of enemy/non-combatant killed is better now than past American war strategies, such as the Firebombing of Dresden. War is an evil thing, there will always terrible consequences - but we are, in fact, at war. And the enemy must be destroyed. Wars today are fought by Intelligence Agencies, a warfare ruled by probabilities and public relations.

  13. Canvasback:

    That makes Mr. Obama a murderer. No way to dodge that. Shake his hand next time you see him why don'tcha?

  14. markm:

    It's precision compared to what the military had before - which was often carpet-bombing a square mile in an attempt to get a small target. I recall a study of the WWII bombing of factories in Hamburg, where records showed an increase in the targeted plants' workforce and production starting a few days after the bombing. A few bombs had hit the factories, but large machine tools are pretty sturdy and usually just needed the power connections and material feeds restored. Stray bombs wiped out many stores, hotels, and other non-war-industry employers, and the clerks and bellhops hired on at the war industries. (Note: a similar strike at an American city might have produced different results. We had already pulled as many workers as possible out of non-critical jobs. Hitler's policy was different, he tried to disguise how deep of a hole he had put Germany into by keeping a semblance of normal life.)

    B52's were not much more accurate than B17's, until the iron bombs were replaced with guided missiles. Later aircraft were more accurate in theory; e.g., the airplane I worked on, the F111D, could drop an iron bomb in a dumpster using radar as the bombsight, and that's considerably more accurate than the bomb blast. Or it could drop the bomb +/- a few feet at an offset from a radar reference. But that's only precise when they find the _correct_ dumpster or other metal mass for the reference, and the F111 pilot is coming in at 500 feet altitude and 600 knots so he does not have much time to survey the area... Drones give you more time to view the target area and see if it's correct as described by your intelligence, so there's much better chance of putting it into the intended target.

    None of which solves the last two problems: faulty intelligence (it's the Chinese embassy, not the armory, or it's the right building but the guy you're after has left), and collateral damage. War is hell. Bombers and long-range artillery made it more hellish than Sherman's rifled muskets, and drones and other precision munitions have only rolled that back partway.

  15. obloodyhell:

    }}} Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones

    OK, have you SERIOUSLY vetted this group? Do you KNOW they aren't a part and parcel with the same Lancet assholes who claimed Iraqi deaths of 10x that reported? And which numbers no one has ever taken seriously outside of the ultra-left and Lew Rockwell?

    I'm no fan of the drone bullshit, but when I see claims like this, my bogon flux detector pegs immediately.

  16. obloodyhell:

    Agreed, that was my own take on this, as iterated above.