How Many Drone Deaths are we Cool With?

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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29 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Personally, my answer is: as many deathes as it takes to get the job done. Better a drone strike than a dead American soldier.Report

    • Russell Saunders in reply to Scott says:

      I realize I’m just asking for a headache by engaging this question, but I’m curious — how many deaths is one living American soldier worth? How much more valuable is his life than the lives of whoever might be killed by an errant drone strike? I’m curious how you work your calculations.Report

      • Scott in reply to Russell Saunders says:


        I don’t have a specific number like 100-1 but I am not aware that the US is currently killing innocents in such large numbers that it is a problem. Drone strikes are carefully targeted to avoid civilian deaths. I don’t want the US to kill anymore folks than must be killed to get the job done.

        Do you really expect the US to conduct a war without any civilian deaths?Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Scott says:

      That begs the question then of what the job is and whether it’s worth doing (I’m sure non-Americans have some non-zero value in this equation).Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

      How many deaths do you think it will take to do the job?

      Have a Pashtun friend, a reporter for BBC. Chatting with him the other day. He says, “When do you think the Americans will ramp up the war again? Bush ordered a lot of strikes but Obama’s ramped it up considerably. It might be time for some more, don’t you think?”

      He’s a sick dude. Black humour is one way of coping.

      I replied. “Yeah. If we really wanted to eliminate the problem, once and for all, we should just send in thousands of little robots to kill every living thing, men, women, children, goats, chickens. Just eliminate everything. Maybe save a few leopards and give it all back to them. Robo-shuhada.”

      It was a bit much, even for him. “You are an evil man” he shot back.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    The larger question is: given any arbitrary tactic, it wouldn’t matter if it was drone strikes or packs of dingoes or dirty nuclear weapons — will this technique serve to defeat the enemy? Not merely kill a few of them, actually defeat them, eliminate a threat to our nation.

    Put aside the ethics for a moment. Dispense with all these sob stories. Even if they were all lies or all true, it just doesn’t matter. Does it serve to defeat the enemy, bring an end to the threat?

    Sadly, no. Drones fail this test. They do not eliminate the threat any more than popping a few antibiotics will completely eliminate an infection. Dr. Blaise here, he’s telling you not to start wars where you can’t conclusively defeat the enemy. If you start one of these things you’d better be ready to apply enough solution for long enough to eliminate the problem completely. If you’re too squeamish to do the needful, that geopolitical infection is only going to acquire immunity to your half-ass solution. And then, folks, you have a real problem.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Is America prepared to win wars?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

        Simple answer: No. We have no geopolitical horse sense. I once had a Jordanian friend tell me, “Americans are schizophrenic. You build with one hand and destroy with the other. We love you guys, but we’re also afraid of you.”

        It’s not hard to figure out why. We’re raised on Ackshun Films and Vidiot Games, where some James Bond figure whips out his pistol and shoots a half-dozen bad guys and they fall out of the frame, dead as so many mackerels. Problem solved. On to Level 2!

        For us, it’s about the Big Kaboom. Nice sanitary wars, complete with negative FLIR video, the enemy reduced to a little black blip moving across the frame. In the soundtrack, controllers issue final commands, a blossom of black flame and the good guys hi-5 each other.

        That’s not where the story ends for the guys on the ground. After the drone flies off, they bury their dead and swear revenge on their graves. Problem gets worse. Want to really enrage a population? Bomb it from the air. Makes ’em feel helpless and afraid. Before the Blitz, there was talk of rapprochement with the Nazis at some level. Once bombs started falling on London, all such talk ceased. It was on to total victory.

        And that’s our problem, now. We don’t have a clue what total victory might mean. Our current conflict with Islamic jihad might go on for a century. Maybe more. Israel, for all its military prowess, defeated a few state entities in six days but they haven’t won the war on Islamic jihad in sixty years. When you’re in a hole that deep, stop digging. We won’t win this war, not this way, anyway. They’re still an enemy, still out to get us, maybe drones have a role to play in attenuating that threat, but this isn’t a shooting war any more. It’s a war of ideologies, a war for hearts and minds, a war where plinking a few gophers only makes things worse.Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    If you assume there is A Risk, and that Risk is great enough that Something Must Be Done, I actually don’t see an option other than flying killer robots – though I do see ways of bringing more transparency and accountability to that process.

    What’s an easier sell is that there is a Risk, but really nothing needs to be done about it. Your post implies that Something Must Be Done, but what we are currently doing is not the right Something. Am I misreading you? And if not, what are the alternatives to flying killer robots or invasion. (Please don’t say ‘More Diplomacy’. Please don’t say ‘Foreign Aid’.)Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

      Depends on your definition of Diplomacy I suppose. We might start by taking our enemies seriously. That would start with talking to them. The guys who are fighting us are also fighting the Pakistani government. Nobody’s ever defeated these guys in open warfare. Empires come and go, this tinhorn dictator sets up shop in the wreckage of his predecessor. The Pashtun outlast them all.

      Maybe we’re fighting the wrong enemy. These guys change sides more often than their underwear. If American promised the Pashtun their independence, they’d stop fighting us tomorrow. Neither Afghanistan or Pakistan would like it much. But they’ve both proven to be complete military morons, completely incapable of mustering up enough spinal calcium and gonads to fight. The Pashtuns, they fight.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

        We’ve tilted at this ferris wheel before, but to add to what we’ve already said, not everyone’s on the Durand line anymore (or really ever was). Ya got the Yemenemies, al Shabab, and AQIM (who’s having the Best Week Ever with the Taureg declaring independence from Mali). Plus old favorites in Asia Pacific like JI, Abu Sayef, and MILF. And that’s only the “we want to Restore the Caliphate” enemies. Whole lot of other people just like to be ornery for ornery’s sake.

        But like I said, maybe we can just accept the moderate risk that somebody will do something bad and simply get out of not only Game of Drones, but any other Great Game.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

          Oh sure. You weren’t around for Nefarious Commies hiding in every untrimmed hedge. Mais, alors, eet eez the same een evaray age, mon ami.

          I’m writing something about the growing irrelevance of the nation state. Sorta like how the Divine Right of Kings sorta fell from its pedestal after a few horrid centuries. The batting roster for the wars of those times featured a whole lot of designated savages, proxy warriors.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

      Send them cultural weapons of mass destruction.

      Dallas. Drakkar Noir. Twisted Sister. Titanic. Glee. Lady Gaga. Levis. Beiber.Report

  4. Jeff says:

    You might enjoy reading the Slacktivist posts on this, with the tag YNATKC: “You’re not allowed to kill civilians”.

    His answer: “If there is any possible way to achieve the intended effect without producing the unintended effect”, you’re not allowed to kill civilians. (Emphasis mine)Report