The Hidden Costs of Drone Warfare

“To stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person. So, I contacted an investigative reporter…”– from Daniel Hale’s letter to Judge Liam O’Grady

Daniel Hale* recalled a moment pivotal to the reawakening of his conscience. At a peace conference in Washington DC, Hale listened as Fazil, a Yemeni man, recounted the day Hellfire missiles screeched across the sky above his village in Yemen. Fazil’s brother, an imam known for dissuading youths away from violent jihad, and his police officer cousin were called over to a car driven by local members of Al Qaeda. Fazil and the other villagers watched as the imam and the police officer cautiously approached the car. From above, a Reaper drone was watching too. 

Fazil wept, recounting the carnage wrecked by the Hellfire missiles. As Hale listened to Fazil’s story, he was transported back in time to a base in Afghanistan, where he worked as a signals intelligence officer for the National Security Agency (NSA). He, too, had seen that attack in real-time. At the time, instead of shedding tears, he and other analysts clapped their hands, cheering.

“With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of ten people killed are innocent.” – Daniel Hale at his sentencing hearing.

On August 29, 2021, a US military drone tracked a white Toyota Corolla through the streets of Kabul, contemplating targeting it for a preemptive strike. In the aftermath of the ISIS suicide bombing at an entrance to the Kabul airport, the US military suspected the Toyota Corolla to be an ISIS car full of explosives. In reality, the white car held ten Afghan people, including seven children. 

According to the US Rules of Engagement, military planners permit civilian casualties, including children, if the military advantage gained is proportionately far greater than the assumed civilian casualties. US precision bombs are precise; they hit their targets with almost perfect accuracy.  The problem is how targets are defined. Due to intelligence and surveillance failures, civilians are mistaken for enemy combatants or they are not identified by those planning, ordering, or executing the strikes. The result is mass suffering or death. The targeting process does not improve because there is a failure of accountability. Sometimes, officials deny civilian casualties exist, or people are erroneously counted as combatants (the US military counts all those killed in drone strikes as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise), or the people who die are drastically undercounted. 

Civilians are not identified for many reasons. Studying the pattern of life (when people leave their homes to go to work or when children come out to play for example) is essential to predicting civilian collateral damage, but intelligence officers do not always understand what they observe. For example, they may assume a building is empty if they do not see activity during the daytime. However, if analysts are observing a building in a Muslim country during Ramadan, a time of fasting in Islam, families usually sleep during daylight hours. In this way, a targeted building is cleared for a strike even though whole families may live in, near, or around it. 

A rush to confirm targets contributes to civilians being killed. For example, Basim Razzo’s East Mosul home was confirmed as a target after 95 minutes of surveillance conducted over several weeks. One of the reasons his home was deemed a target was the apparent absence of women, which analysts understood to mean the home was an ISIS facility. In reality, because Mosul was under ISIS control at the time, women in many families rarely went outside. 

Additional factors contributing to the high number of civilian deaths from air strikes include flawed intelligence, confirmation bias, poor video surveillance quality, secondary explosions reaching beyond the expected blast radius, and civilians unexpectedly entering the target frame after an operator fires a weapon but before the weapon makes impact. The estimated minimum number of civilians killed in US airstrikes in the last 20 years is 22,000 while the maximum number is 48,000

In Afghanistan alone, 40% of all civilian casualties in the last five years were children.

In late January 2022, the Pentagon announced there would be an overhaul to military procedures to improve protection for civilians during military campaigns. A standardized reporting process to document civilian harm will be implemented, addressing failures in the military’s process of evaluating injuries and deaths of innocent people and identifying lessons learned. Previously, witnesses who reported civilian casualties rarely received a response, and airstrike teams seldom discussed procedural changes to avoid future accidents. A Pentagon Center focused on preventing, lessening, and responding to civilian harm will also be created.

June, 2021. Supporters of Daniel Hale used spotlights to project images of Daniel and messages calling for President Biden to “Pardon Daniel Hale” in Washington, DC. Photo by Backbone Campaign.

“Your Honor, the truest truism that I’ve come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma.” – from Daniel Hale’s letter to Judge Liam O’Grady

An Air Force study found that analysts in the kill chain, people who watch enemy combatants through drone video feed and instant message chat what they see to jet fighter pilots, drone operators, and ground troops, are exposed to more graphic violence than most Special Forces troops fighting on the ground. One analyst told researchers, “Some of us have seen, read, listened to extremely graphic events hundreds and thousands of times.” As drone technology improves, what analysts see becomes even more intense and vivid. Analysts report seeing images that can’t be unseen in their dreams. The drone program has one of the highest burnout rates in the military.

The 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing is a unit of 6,000 deployed-in-place cyber warriors. Members of ISR have talked about how changed they are by seeing more blood and death than normal life. One analyst talked about seeing ten men in orange jumpsuits beheaded by ISIS. He saw their blood; he saw their heads roll. What bothered him most, though, was seeing the fatal consequences of the decisions he had made. Distance didn’t lessen the feeling because he could see the consequences through the screen, magnified in high resolution. It didn’t matter if the person being targeted was a terrorist because “it’s still weird taking another life.”

Watching a person being targeted over time, a drone operator develops a kind of intimacy, not unlike a soldier guarding a prisoner of war. Researchers found that Vietnam vets who killed prisoners of war suffered high trauma afterward because the victims were not strangers to them. Similarly, drone operators develop relationships with the subjects they surveil. The operators see their subjects in their daily lives, getting dressed or playing with their children, which breeds intimacy. 

“You have to kill a part of your conscience to do your job.” – Daniel Hale at his sentencing hearing.

Unlike enhanced interrogation (the use of torture) and indefinite detention (being held in prison for an unspecified time without a trial), drone warfare has not faced much congressional debate or public attention. The use of sanitized language such as “pinpoint” or “surgical” makes drone usage seem costless in terms of civilian people being killed. “Drone strikes create the illusion that there’s some sort of high tech, antiseptic, risk-free way to use force, but no matter how fancy the technology is, such strikes are only as accurate as the targeting intelligence,”  argues Rosa Brooks, a professor of law and policy at Georgetown University. This mild language also creates the illusion that terrorism can be fought with the push of a button. Critics of drone programs have sometimes emphasized this illusion, warning that drone programs could create a “PlayStation mentality to killing.” However, the experiences of drone operators are intensely traumatic. Drone operators suffer moral injury caused by constant exposure to the gut-wrenching violence they watch on screen, which results from the split-second decisions they make or from their inability to act.  For someone suffering from moral injury, what matters is how a person understands his own actions and their consequences, not how close or far he was to the enemy. 

Within a military context, moral injury is the psychological, emotional, behavioral, social, and spiritual impacts of doing something that violates a person’s moral core. When a person does, witnesses, or fails to prevent an action that violates his own ethics, he suffers moral injury. This definition was formulated in 2009, a time in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when the rules of engagement were unclear and shifting. It was a time of chaotic conflicts when telling the difference between a civilian and the enemy was difficult. 

In conventional war, soldiers fire at an enemy who is able to fire back. Both sides risk being killed. This is called the warrior ethic. Both sides assume some amount of reciprocal risk. Lawrence Wilkerson, retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, argues that drone warfare erodes the warrior ethic because the use of drones removes reciprocal risk. For the drone operator, there is no risk of being killed in combat. Without reciprocal risk, the person who doesn’t face any risk becomes a murderer because he kills people he isn’t sure are trying to kill him, and he kills them without having to face the consequences. 

Not everyone supports the concept of moral injury. Believing that war is morally injurious reflects negatively on people in the military. One marine commander found the term insulting, arguing the term “moral injury” implies that the problems soldiers face are caused by their own immorality. As a result, the US Marine Corps uses the term “inner conflict” instead of “moral injury.”  

Also, believing in the concept of moral injury emphasizes the ethical issues of going to war. Just war theory states that although going to war may be justified, it is still evil. For war to be justifiably permissible, fighting must be conducted ethically. Specifically, the weapons used must be able to distinguish between combatants and civilians, which drones can’t. Society needs to recognize how US military campaigns, especially those that center drone warfare, have harmed civilians in other countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Society asks soldiers to use force when necessary to guard their way of life so society does not have to. At the same time, society shapes a soldier’s viewpoints on violence and killing. The more society views violence as disturbing, the more it wants to classify that violence as right or wrong. As a result, a soldier or veteran suffering from moral injury struggles with two conflicts: his personal conflict over his actions which have broken his ethical code, and a public conflict over how society judges violence. Society needs to accept its share of the ethical burden of wartime actions. Doing so will help those suffering from moral injury heal. 

*Daniel Hale is a former intelligence analyst who leaked classified information about drone warfare and how the US government places citizens on its watch lists. He was sentenced in 2021 to 45 months in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.