Captain Ferguson (not his real name) gets up early in the morning, and has breakfast with his wife and children. At the office, Captain Ferguson sits in front of the computer on and off for almost eight hours every day. At the end of the day he heads back home. Captain Ferguson's wife is glad to see him back to discuss the events of her day. He does the same, with one omission. By most measures, it has been a beautiful day.
Beautiful, that is, if you don't consider Captain Ferguson's omission. While sitting in front of his computer, he was directing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, carrying powerful bombs to land in distant countries. He presumes, but he is not totally sure, that he has hit the right target. After the bombs exploded four suspected terrorists were killed. Four fewer criminals the U.S. will have to deal with.
A later investigation will later reveal that they were not terrorists but rather they were parents and children on a birthday party. As a result of the attack, four adults and eight children were killed, and several more seriously injured.
Captain Ferguson, of course, was unaware of the consequences of his actions. He only thinks that he has a somewhat tedious but rewarding job, since he is an important piece in the fight against terror. Only later he will know the truth, when the outcry of the victims' relatives cannot be silenced any longer. The predictable apologies will not bring back the dead to life, nor heal those injured.
Let's compare this made-up scenario with reality.
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During the first year of the Obama administration, there were 51 drone attacks, compared to 45 drone attacks during President Bush's two terms in office, according to The Year of the Drone, a report by the Washington-based New America Foundation. The report also states that the civilian fatality rate has been 32 percent in drone attacks since 2004.
"Drones are currently killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It should be noted that the United States is not at war with any of those countries, which should mean in a sane world that the killing is illegal under both international law and the US Constitution," states Philip Girald, a former CIA officer and fellow of the American Conservative Defense Alliance.
Girald's observation is confirmed by Mary Ellen O'Connell, a Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. In a research paper entitled "Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones" Professor O'Connell says, "The CIA's intention in using drones is to target and kill individual leaders of al-Qaeda or Taliban militant groups. Drones have rarely, if ever, killed just the intended target. By October 2009, the ratio has been about 20 leaders killed for 750-1000 unintended victims. Drones are having a counter-productive impact in Pakistan's attempt to repress militancy and violence. The use of the drone is, therefore, violating the war-fighting principles of distinction, necessity, proportionality, humanity."
In the meantime, the U.S. military plans to more than triple its inventory of high-altitude drones capable of 24-hour patrols by 2020. General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes both Afghanistan and Iraq, declared in a speech last January, "We can't get enough drones."
War, we should sadly acknowledge, is not a Nintendo game. And innocent people's lives are not expendable. If we don't admit the tragic dimension of war we will be cursed by its consequences.