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.”