What Drones Say About Us

The Irrationality, Immorality, and Excessiveness of Drone Warfare

by Brian Kogelmann:

A few weeks ago a bipartisan panel of senators discussed both the legality and wisdom of our use of drones in our efforts to combat terrorism. The discussion offered a sobering look at the effects our use of drones has on the Yemeni people. Not only do drones foster resentment and hatred toward the U.S., but, as native Yemeni Farea al-Muslimi claims, children in the country so greatly fear drones that parents now convince their children to behave appropriately by threatening to “call the planes.”

President ObamaAs someone who dislikes our reliance on drones, I have examined several arguments put forward for why we ought not use such weapons. There is one type of argument, though, that I have not seen offered yet. Such an argument would detail what our current reliance on drones says about us as a people. If we dislike what is said about ourselves, then maybe we ought to change our behavior. In this brief essay I offer such an argument.

First, the fact that we still rely on drones says that we are irrational. Why irrational? Because while our use of drones might eliminate enemy combatants that pose a legitimate threat to the U.S., they create just as many, if not more, threats. As Muslimi said during the bipartisan panel: “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

This is of course nothing new. It has long been known that U.S. foreign policy often causes what the C.I.A. calls blowback, a technical term referring to the unintended consequences of our actions. As such, our use of drones is akin to Hercules fighting the hydra: while we may kill one threat (cut off one of the hydra’s heads), we, in the process, have created several more threats (for every head of the hydra Hercules cuts off, three grow in its place).

Furthermore, our use of drones displays a disappointing degradation of our moral sensibilities. Winning the war on terror is important, but not so important that it must be completed at all costs. When carrying out military combat operations, then, we must weigh the positives against the negatives. One positive to the use of drones might be that drones do eliminate enemy combatants that pose a threat to the U.S. One negative – and it is a big negative – remains the enormous civilian death toll these devices incur.

Recent reports suggest that for every one alleged terrorist killed in a drone strike, 49 civilians are killed in the process. This shocking statistic should offend any reasonable person’s moral sensibilities. Even so, we still continue our use of drones even though they have been shown to slaughter unacceptably high amounts of innocent civilians across the Middle East – civilians, it should be reminded, who have as much to do with 9/11 as civilians in Switzerland or Poland or even the U.S. do.

Finally, our use of drones shows that we have failed to recognize what’s off-limits. If there are any rules to war, surely it is true that children are not to be harmed at all. But as Muslimi’s testimony shows, children have been harmed, and continually are being harmed. Besides the fact that children have been killed directly in drone strikes, the fact that a whole country of adolescents live in constant fear of “the planes” should strike us as unacceptable.

True, inculcating fear into children might not be as bad as killing or maiming them, and it was certainly not our goal to instill such dispositions when carrying out targeted killings. Nonetheless, a whole country of children does live in fear, and we – unintentionally, of course – caused it. Intentionally or not, actual physical injury or not, what is being done to Yemeni children constitutes a harm. As such, we have crossed a line that should never be

Here is what has been established in this essay: the fact that we, as a country, make use of drones says that we are irrational, that our moral sensibilities have degraded, and that we have failed to recognize what is off-limits when waging war. These three character traits, I believe, are undesirable, and most people would not want to have them. In order to change who we are as a people we need to change how we fight the war on terror. A good first step in this transition would be to stop, or at least greatly reduce, our reliance on drones and targeted killings.


Brian Kogelmann recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in political science. In the fall he will be starting his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arizona where he will be a Charles G. Koch fellow at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. 


  1. Evan Bernick says:


    I’m glad to see that you’re continuing to be produce thoughtful, challenging essays on this subject. I’d like to offer some substantive criticism.

    Al-Muslimi’s reporting is worth taking seriously. I’ve no reason to doubt its veracity. However, in order to convincingly argue that it is “irrational” to undertake drone strikes because they are cited as grounds for hatred of America, you must consider alternative military measures and demonstrate that they would engender less hatred. Unless, that is, we are prepared to withdraw from the region entirely– and you do not argue that we should. If not drones, then bombs and small-troop contingents might be cited as reasons to hate America.

    Of course, you expressly acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy often causes blowback. So, that begs the question: why is it that our reliance on drones specifically is problematic? You offer two potential answers: (1) We should not be doing things that kill civilians, or, at least, not 49 for every terrorist killed and (2) we should never kill children.

    As to the first answer, you state that, in any military action, “we must weigh the positives against the negatives.” In order to support the claim that 49 deaths for every terrorist killed “should offend any reasonable persons’s sensibilities,” you must demonstrate that there is an alternative means of killing terrorists who hide among civilians than drone strikes, or b) argue that we should simply not be seeking to kill these terrorists at all. Respectfully, you have done neither. If the alternatives to killing 49 for every terrorist are (a) killing 65 through bombing and small troop contingent raids, or (b) simply withdrawing and allowing terrorists to continue to train and plan acts of bloody terror against Americans in isolated regions, I would submit that the positives would outweigh the negatives. You do not engage either possibility.

    As to the second answer, you acknowledge that we are not targeting children or any civilian targets as such. We are not killing these people intentionally. We are targeting enemy combatants against whom we have declared war, who have taken and continue to take refuge amongst civilians. In some cases the combatants are being harbored because the civilians sympathize with their cause. In some cases, the combatants are taking advantage of ancient tribal customs of hospitality. In some cases, the combatants are simply pushing their way in and threatening reprisal.

    Given these conditions, it is not possible to fight Al-Qaeda and its affiliates –who, significantly, are being targeted precisely because they have killed and seek to kill civilians– without civilians dying, even children. To say that this is a line that should not be crossed is to express a wish that evil men who do not respect human life should simply not exist. We cannot conduct foreign policy on the basis of a wish that is unlikely to be fulfilled within anyone’s lifetime.

    In sum, your essay does not establish that drone warfare is irrational, immoral, or excessive, because you have not considered what, if any alternatives exist to drone strikes if we are to effectively prosecute war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the regions in question, and how they are comparable in respect of their costs and benefits– nor do you argue that we should not be prosecuting war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

    • The Guy Who Leveled Dresden says:

      “As to the second answer, you acknowledge that we are not targeting children or any civilian targets as such. We are not killing these people intentionally. We are targeting enemy combatants against whom we have declared war, who have taken and continue to take refuge amongst civilians.”

      Both of you are wrong. In war you can and certainly will target and destroy civilians so as to cripple the enemy’s warmaking capacity and sap its will. Why do you think American presidents and generals have refused to prosecute GIs who engage in civilian massacres and the like? Do you think terrorism itself is useless in warfare?

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