By Madison McHugh
Technological warfare has gone through many phases in recent history, but the most heinous are drone airstrikes — killing machines that possess neither a physical pilot nor human discretion.
In 2002, the CIA released its first unmanned Predator drone in Afghanistan to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. At the time, the drone possessed an operator who covertly piloted and located three individuals at a former mujahedeen base. Not only was the mission unsuccessful, but journalists soon learned from Afghan civilians that the three individuals caught and killed by the Hellfire Missile were innocents searching for scrap metal, according to The Nation.
Military officials immediately acknowledged that bin Laden was not eliminated but insisted the targets were “legitimate” because there was “no initial indications that these were innocent locals,” according to Pentagon spokesman John Stufflebeem. The military evasion of fault was not only poor and uncaring, but presumptuous that as long as U.S. lives were not at risk, Afghan civilian deaths were merely a neutral occurrence with little cost.
In 2014, there were 2,400 reported dead via drone airstrikes after five years of campaigns, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with 250 civilians reported killed at a minimum. Yet Barack Obama reassessed the death toll of civilians this year, claiming that drone strikes have only killed up to 116 civilians during his administration, according to The Guardian, which also leaves out casualties in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
Certainly, civilian casualties are considered a common occurrence in war, a form of “collateral damage” counted after the fact. Yet the continued evolution of drone airstrikes advances such casualties rather than reduces them, and responsibility further becomes a separate entity from even the military who orders the drones that fly into foreign territories. Algorithms determine a target and, whether it is right or wrong, someone dies.
That target, of course, should be a terrorist, according to the algorithm known as Skynet. The NSA program sifts through mobile phone metadata to locate patterns much in the way a spam filter looks for patterns to determine which messages are junk mail. The Guardian’s John Naughton describes the programs’ similarities as a novelty, until Skynet gets it wrong and you “find yourself on the receiving end of a Hellfire missile dispatched by a Predator or a Reaper drone.”
Furthermore, when a target is located, it doesn’t matter where they are, whether they are holding a gun or a child. NPR interviewed a Pakistani family who lost their grandmother during a drone attack. Nabila and Zubair Rehman say they were picking okra with their grandmother when “the clear, blue skies darkened overhead.” The first missile shook the ground, and the children, though wounded, ran before the second missile hit. Their grandmother never got up. Zubair no longer plays outside because he is afraid of the drones coming back for him. Rafiq ur Rehman says, “As a teacher, my job is to educate. But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I, in good faith, reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too?”
Drone airstrikes are a guilty project with no justification and no humanity. The U.S. has been able to disregard its mistakes because they are not mistakes which have a direct effect on American military casualties – only the casualties of the enemy, a long list of men, women, and children who did not ask for war, though their lives are inextricably changed forever by the possibility of death from above.