Botched Surgeries: The Real Costs of Drone Warfare

By Noah Schwartz

An MQ-9 Reaper drone during a practice flight in 2015.
Image Credit: Christian Clausen/DVIDS

Recent reporting by Azmat Khan of the New York Times has shed new light on the famously opaque American drone warfare program.

The revelations in Khan’s Civilian Casualty Files paint a picture of a drone program that ignores protocol and has little value for civilian life. According to the military’s own figures, 1,417 civilians were killed by drones during operations against ISIL across Iraq and Syria. 

Ten civilians, including seven children, were killed in a strike during the withdrawal from Afghanistan that the Pentagon claimed hit an ISIS target. 

The military officials never actually identified the man, Zemerai Ahmadi, they claimed was an ISIS asset. Instead, they “deemed him suspicious because of how they determined his activities that day, saying that he possibly visited an ISIS safe house and, at one point, loaded what they thought could be explosives in the car.” 

Ahmadi was an aid-worker loading jugs of his water into his car. Ahmadi was described as hard-working and a breadwinner for his family. No one has been punished for his murder. 

This careless view of human life is the result of a rotten defense establishment that seems to believe it can maintain its imperial reach through a lower troop footprint and therefore less American casualties. 

Primacy comes at a human cost and drones are only the latest lie sold to the public that America can project force in far-away places in a precise and surgical fashion that limits civilian casualties. 

The introduction of the all-volunteer force was the end of massive forward extended counterinsurgency operations fueled by a draft. Weapons of precision that could kill a target with no risk of an American casualty became fashionable. 

The introduction of so-called precision ‘smart bombs’ into the Gulf War received rave reviews from a jingoistic press enthralled by the spectacle. A 1991 Los Angles Times piece on smart bombs compared the weapons to weapons used in Star Wars and raved over the ‘pinpoint accuracy’ of the weapons. 

By making smart bombs the face of the Gulf War media coverage, the military establishment seemed to sell the narrative that the United States could project strength and limit civilian casualties in a chaotic post-Soviet world where the United States lacked immediate justifications for its continued empire. 

In reality, much-acclaimed smart bombs made up a mere 8.8% of all munitions that were dropped during Operation Desert Storm. Even when they were used, the targets selected for destruction were still faulty, often making for disastrous consequences.

The Air Force mistook Ameriyah Air Raid Shelter for an Iraqi Central Command in a raid where they dropped two laser-guided smart bombs through the concrete shelter, killing 408 Iraqi civilians. 

Desert Storm proved to be the ultimate exhibition for the military technology fetishist. The flashes and explosions happening in Baghdad were broadcasted to a massive television audience in America.

This spectacle of military dominance presented as ‘clean’ and ‘surgical’ led French intellectual Jean Baudrillard to provocatively claim that the “Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” 

Baudrillard may have been overstating his claim. However, the sentiment of war as something that happens to them while we maintain a minimal presence of boots on the ground is definitely recognizable in the post-Iraq War era.

Drones make up the tip of the spear in this new form of warfare. President Obama popularized the drone program during his presidency as an alternative to the massive counterinsurgency operations of the Bush presidency. 

President Obama launched 563 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during his time in office. By comparison, President Bush launched 57 drone strikes in the same countries. This is not to paint Bush as a peace-nik, but to put the drone era into context. 

In A Promised Land, President Obama defended his record on drone strikes by insisting that he had to resort to drone strikes as a “more targeted, non-traditional warfare.” This is the typical line of defense when it comes to the Obama-era popularization of the drone program. Sure drones might make one squeamish, but would anyone rather have American troops at risk? 

A policy of restraint and withdrawal from the Middle East is never seen as an option. However, the data runs counter to President Obama’s suggestion that drone strikes are ‘more targeted.’ Leaked documents relating to the drone program show that, during one five-month period in northeastern Afghanistan, nearly 90% of people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. 

Daniel Hale, the man who leaked the documents which revealed the true depravity of the drone program, was sentenced to 45 months in prison. No American has ever been sentenced to prison for a drone strike that has killed a civilian.

President Trump dramatically increased the use of the drone program, most notably to assassinate Iranian military leader Qassim Solemani. So far, President Biden has shown some interest in dialing down the program. Furthermore, there does seem to be congressional movement for drone reform. 

These reformers need to come to accept the grim truth that from smart bombs to Reaper drones, there is no such thing as a ‘precision’ or ‘surgical’ strike. America has become far too comfortable with mass death in the periphery due to an unaccountable air war apparatus.  

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese grand strategy and Left Realism.

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