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Moral questions dog drone warfare and the drones who drive them

MARYKNOLL (SE): What is being described as a “radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force” has become a major bullet in the arsenal of the United States of America (US), journalist Jane Mayer claims in an article posted on the Website of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Although the technology dates back to shortly after World War II, during the Vietnam War the use of drones was modified from collecting intelligence to dropping bombs. 

However, during the presidency of George W. Bush, it expanded into a double-edged operation, one run by the military and the other by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The CIA has also promoted it to being a weapon not limited to wartime, as it is aimed at terror suspects around the world, even in countries where US troops are not based, including the Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, The Philippines, Nigeria and Syria, according to an article published in the Washington Post on September 2.

The article also notes that the current president, Barack Obama, has not limited this scope and, rare presidential approval has been given to the military operation, Joint Special Operations Command, to kill rather than capture suspects.

Critics argue that this is assassination, which is prohibited by US law.

In the Psychology of Killer Drones: Action against our foes; reaction affecting us, G. I Wilson writes that drones are a gateway to moral disengagement, dehumanization and de-individuation.”

The author adds that more disengagement mitigates, justifies, neutralises and eliminates inhibitions and moral constraints connected to acts of violence.

It also enhances the use of sanitising language and relieves the operators of any sense of personal accountability by diffusing responsibility.

The article adds that a distant operator staring only at a screen showing often shadowy images of targets, often on the other side of the world, lacks a sense of human feeling, hope or concern. It calls it a form of moral disengagement and limits the role played by the operator to functionary.

However, a television documentary filmed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation shows drone operators in a different light. 

Filmed on location in the US, it portrays them dressed in their full pilot gear taking up their positions in simulated cockpits, to give the feel of flying a plane in wartime.

However, the operators themselves have their own worries about the programme. One said that up until now, all the operators have flown live missions and as a result, understand what it feels like to be exposed to danger while attacking an enemy.

Many of them are opposing a move to begin using pilots who have never flown a live mission and been exposed to the danger of losing their own lives in combat, for precisely the same reason Wilson objects to the whole programme.

They argued on Australian television that without the feeling of being in danger yourself, there may not be the same feeling of responsibility in identifying a possible target and making the decision as to whether to fire or not.

Several admitted suffering from guilt feelings after a shift where they had taken life.

Some spoke of sleepless nights, while one related that on two afternoons a week, he heads off after work to Church to teach religion to children, which at times seems horribly contradictory.

Others related that unlike wartime, when pilots returned to barracks, they are now returning home to their families, and this also prompts reflections on whose family life you may have destroyed today.

Mayer argues that significant questions about the use of drones have to date not been answered or even asked, and that further necessary questions have yet to be formulated.

She suggests that rather than expanding the drone programme, it should rather be a time of retraction, at least until significant questions have been clarified and role of people in the process better understood.

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