Is killing a drone operator a legitimate act of war?

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

Here’s a tricky modern conundrum for you, via Cheryl Morgan. Over at Crooked Timber, people are discussing a recent BBC radio program about the increasing use of remote-controlled drones and UAVs by Western military forces, specifically in theatres of the “War on Terror”; I’ve not had the chance to sit down and listen to the re-run of the program, but the post at CT raises the titular question:

Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve always found the notion of “legal warfare” to be more than a little ludicrous (as surely the laws of war are set by whoever won the last one, designed to maintain the geopolitical status quo, and hence inherently partisan), it’s an interesting question. The line between combatant and non-combatant has become increasingly blurred over the course of the last century, and the remote operations afforded by drone technology (not to mention guided missiles, and arguably any technology superior in accurate range to that of the opposition) are firmly planted in a sort of moral no-man’s-land. Is there a quantifiable difference between pulling a trigger to kill a man who you can see through your rifle sight, and pressing a button that kills a man who you can see on your computer monitor, thousands of miles away in a country you’ve never even been to?

It seems perfectly clear to me that there’s no moral difference whatsoever: to kill is to kill, no matter how it is accomplished or mediated. So the final question stands – is the drone operator a legitimate military target for the faction or nation he is deployed against? If not, why not? And where does that legitimacy spring from? Is it a genuine ethical construct, or is it a sort of retrospective justification after the fact? “Kill ’em all – let God the lawyers sort ’em out.”

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5 Responses to “Is killing a drone operator a legitimate act of war?”

  1. swadeshine says:

    This reminds me a bit of Avatar & brings up some interesting questions:

    1) Is there a big difference from sitting behind a screen killing & sitting behind a screen making tax $ to pay others to kill?

    2) What’s the legal & technical difference between plotting a terror attack behind a cave & plotting a drone strike behind a screen – simply accuracy & less collateral damage?

  2. jon says:

    Most countries consider the organizers of terrorist attacks legitimate targets no matter where they live, so yes, someone with their finger even more directly on the trigger would be as well. If not with a direct strike then with more covert means.

  3. George Ou says:

    Even if a soldier who kills an enemy combatant on the battle field with his bare hands, it is not legal to go after (to try and kill) that soldier in civilian life just like you can’t try to kill him in a POW camp. It is an act of murder to kill a defenseless prisoner or civilian.

    This is no different than the legality of MMA or boxing where you can legally try to decapitate the other person’s head with punch or kick. But the loser of the match who was unconscious can’t cry foul and then go after the other fighter on the streets with a weapon to beat him unconscious.

    The main difference is that when you’re in a war zone or in a fight ring/cage, the two opponents agreed to fight each other under certain terms. They’re prepared to “stop” their opponent under the rules of engagement and they’re both prepared for the risks. Fighting on the street is outside of the rules.

  4. Alex W says:

    The Taliban is the wrong question, since few would consider Taliban insurgents privileged combatants – and Britain and America and the NATO-backed Afghan government certainly wouldn’t. (Although an argument could be made under Additional Protocol I I suppose on “resistance to alien occupation”).

    An Iranian Revolutionary Guard hit squad in uniform (or wearing some kind of distinguishing mark) assassinating a drone operator in Arizona or Sussex would be a more clear-cut example, since we were then be talking about members of the armed forces of a near-universally recognised state.

    Commuting would be a grey area relating to when someone is hors de combat etc – though little different from US justifications for assassinating militants when driving or sleeping in their beds. A drone operator actually controlling a weaponised drone over Iran in a hypothetical US-Iran war is certainly a combatant (whether or not they are privileged, regardless of whether they work for the Army, the CIA or a private security contractor), and therefore subject to lawful (proportionate) attack by the enemy.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    So some combatants are more equal than others, huh? Figures; do what you like to a non-state actor. Puts the Palestine thing into sharp focus.