By Graham Dumas (J.D. Candidate 2011)
Philip Alston famously described the use of drones by the U.S. military and the CIA as potentially leading to a “playstation mentality,” in which the human and capital costs of strikes are so decreased from the perspective of the striking force that fewer precautions are taken in conducting such strikes. The criticism is valid, although it has been refuted by government lawyers from Harold Koh on down.
Yet reduced costs may not have universally negative results. Michael Walzer, in his seminal work Just and Unjust Wars, wrote about the moral duty on combatants to expose themselves to further risk in order to save the lives of civilians caught in combat zones. With drones, however, especially the land-based models described recently in the New York Times, the reduction or even elimination of risk to the human operator could make it easier for the military to warn effectively the civilian population ahead of or during operations. What is more, the moral ambiguity of using human soldiers as tools for the aim of reducing civilian casualties, which arises from the government’s duty to ensure (as far as possible) the right to life of its own forces, all but disappears with the use of drones.
One of the most effective uses of robotic vehicles in combat, then, may not be to kill the enemy, but to warn the innocent. The “playstation mentality” may thus reduce the apparent costs of giving effective advance warning to non-combatants–forces will be more willing to go farther to warn, just as they have been in executing strikes. Taking it a step further, there could be a legitimate argument that, as militaries acquire drone technology, they could become bound by article 57 of Additional Protocol I to use those drones to ascertain the status of potential targets and to ensure that civilians are not threatened during operations.
This is, of course, not to exonerate or justify the use of drones in warfare; the position I take is neutral and without prejudice to, for example, the U.S. military’s campaign of Predator strikes in the Af-Pak region.