US drone strikes: data analysis
December 19, 2014 9:29 PM   Subscribe

41 men targeted, but 1,147 people killed: New analysis of data conducted by the human rights group Reprieve raises questions about the accuracy of intelligence guiding 'precise' drone strikes.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (84 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well they're precise in that they only kill people Americans don't care about, thus staying out of the news.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:43 PM on December 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


That's some seriously bad aim.
posted by monospace at 9:50 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


We don't torture (anymore); we kill (a lot more than are on our lists).
posted by el io at 9:53 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


41 men targeted, but 1,147 people killed

Great. We're competing with Israel for highest rates "collateral damage". I wonder if my taxes go to killing foreign kids?
posted by hal_c_on at 10:06 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder how these rates of "collateral damage" compare to alternate methods – say, for example, sending people in on the ground.
posted by koeselitz at 10:10 PM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


An estimated 142 children were killed in the course of pursuing those 24 men, only six of whom died in the course of drone strikes that killed their intended targets.

So the intelligence isn't even accurate. We shouldn't be using the drones in the first place.

MY guess is that we use drones in situations where the threshold for intelligence would be WAY higher if we were to send in real humans.

"So yeah, we don't have enough info for this...so send in the drones instead. No biggie."
posted by hal_c_on at 10:12 PM on December 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


An estimated 142 children were killed in the course of pursuing those 24 men, only six of whom died in the course of drone strikes that killed their intended targets.

Probably the same, if there are nasty reservists who are cops back home.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:13 PM on December 19, 2014


Yeah, but we got the 41 men targeted.
posted by 724A at 10:22 PM on December 19, 2014


Some of the time! :)
posted by Drinky Die at 10:29 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder how these rates of "collateral damage" compare to alternate methods – say, for example, sending people in on the ground.

Pictures of flag draped coffins coming of the plane in Maine cause a lot more trouble back home than dead women and children halfway across the world. So even if the collateral damage rates were lower, "American Boots on the Ground" plays very bad in the media, even on such enlightened places as this very website.
posted by sideshow at 11:07 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Call it what is
Assassination with aerial robotics.
At the very least, take off the hellfires and look instead of seeing.
posted by clavdivs at 11:16 PM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Look, we destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities of negligible military value, killing something like a quarter of a million civilians in the process, and even today Americans have no clue what the problem with that was. They don't even understand what the controversy is about, and will call you stupid, or un-patriotic, for pointing out that this was one of the most heinous war crimes ever committed in human history, on the same scale as the Mongol Sacking of Baghdad or the Rape of Nanjing.

I live in a country so ignorant of the laws of war that even the most basic concepts, things like proportionality ("don't bomb the shit out of an entire town to kill one person who isn't himself even a legitimate military target to begin with") are a total mystery. For f's sake, I was at a talk once where a student from Pakistan asked Harold Koh, to his face, what possible legal justification American could have for murdering Pakistanis from the air via remote control, and Harold Koh laughed at him.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:39 PM on December 19, 2014 [59 favorites]


We'll be fine when we can turn it over to AI and robotic deployment and maintenance.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 11:44 PM on December 19, 2014


We should be good Samaritans.
posted by clavdivs at 11:50 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's shit like this that makes me want to move back to Costa Rica and renounce my US citizenship. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 12:01 AM on December 20, 2014


We should be good Samaritans.

Not a huge fan of Northern Lights ver. 2, to be honest.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:03 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Bad Robot!
posted by clavdivs at 12:05 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


clavdivs - is that a PoI reference I spy from you?
posted by longbaugh at 12:12 AM on December 20, 2014


For the death of a man whom practically no American can name

Because that's a meaningful measure of a legitimate military target. Dear DoD: please only kill Kardashians from now on, or American Idol contestants.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:15 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


I almost never get off my ass to write to my Congressional representatives about anything but this pissed me off so much I just did. For all the good it will do. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 12:17 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Look, we destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities of negligible military value, killing something like a quarter of a million civilians in the process, and even today Americans have no clue what the problem with that was.

Eh, no. People understand it was an atrocity. The defense for it is simple, the idea that it saved millions of lives because the alternative was an inevitable bloody invasion. A lot of US media portrays the Japanese as insanely devoted to defending to the death every inch of the islands the US invaded. My Dad has always taken the opposite outlook. How fucking crazy are these fanatical idiots who keep charging up the beach into the machine guns? Well, an invasion would be pitting those two against each other on the homeland of one of them. It would have been ugly.

I don't know if it is 100% true than invasion was the only alternative, there may have been another way, but at the time I don't think the US leadership could have found it and war had dragged on far too long. My Dad was a marine at the time and could very well have died in that kind of invasion and I wouldn't be here.

It was still an atrocity. The United States has not used a nuclear weapon since because nobody in the world thinks using them can be justified for any other reason than that your nation is already being destroyed by them. That is an admission of sorts that preventing casualties from a conventional invasion is not a good enough reason.

A lot of times when we talk about drones it's pointed out that they aren't that distinct from the impact of a cruise missile strike or a jet fighter strike. That's a legitimate point. But, what I fear is the end result of remote controlled or automated warfare. The more you remove human beings from the equation and instead resort to technological terror, the more the dehumanization of the enemy can occur. I oppose armed drones because I fear the technology will encourage atrocities in the future because of that depersonalization. I think they should be viewed like chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as methods civilized countries do not generally use because the potential for crimes against humanity and mass casualties is too great no matter who is pressing the button.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:19 AM on December 20, 2014 [18 favorites]


Drinky Die: “A lot of times when we talk about drones it's pointed out that they aren't that distinct from the impact of a cruise missile strike or a jet fighter strike. That's a legitimate point. But, what I fear is the end result of remote controlled or automated warfare. The more you remove human beings from the equation and instead resort to technological terror, the more the dehumanization of the enemy can occur. I oppose armed drones because I fear the technology will encourage atrocities in the future because of that depersonalization. I think they should be viewed like chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as methods civilized countries do not generally use because the potential for crimes against humanity and mass casualties is too great no matter who is pressing the button.”

I'm aware that you said at the beginning of your comment that I'd point this out, but – well, I think the implications go beyond what you've said about it.

This argument is true of every single technology we've ever created for fighting wars. And I don't mean that lightly. When we built bombs, we had discovered a way to kill more people while reducing our own risk. When we built airplanes to drop those bombs, we had discovered a way to kill more people while reducing our own risk. When we built guns, we had discovered a way to kill more people while reducing our own risk. And on down the line – missiles, tanks, body armor, assault rifles, etc. All of these crafty little devices were invented for a sole purpose: to kill more people in war, or to protect us while we kill more people in war, while removing us from the danger and making it easier on us. And there is a distinct possibility that all of those measures really are wrong – that working hard to create ways to kill people is a nasty business that isn't really right in any circumstance, no matter how justified we may feel we are in killing other people.

This isn't a road we started going down with drones. It's not a road we started going down with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a road we started going down when Francis Bacon promised in The Great Instauration that the creation and acquisition of extraordinarily powerful technologies of warfare would lead directly to world peace.
posted by koeselitz at 12:33 AM on December 20, 2014 [18 favorites]


It was still an atrocity. The United States has not used a nuclear weapon since because nobody in the world thinks using them can be justified for any other reason than that your nation is already being destroyed by them.

(After another look, I would amend that to, "any other reason than that your nation is already being destroyed." It is viewed as a legitimate response to conventional invasion.)

This argument is true of every single technology we've ever created for fighting wars.

True more for some than others, thus the taboo against chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare. Sometimes the risks are too great. I think drones belong in that category. I think it's reasonable to disagree, but I also fear a future in which drones are deployed to exterminate rather than to specifically target. I know it sounds like ridiculous freaking out about Skynet, so I'll take my lumps on that, but I'm still pretty convinced it's an inevitability because of the capabilities of modern computing technology.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:38 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't know if it is 100% true than invasion was the only alternative, there may have been another way, but at the time I don't think the US leadership could have found it and war had dragged on far too long. My Dad was a marine at the time and could very well have died in that kind of invasion and I wouldn't be here.

I'm pretty sure some (real) historians would back me up in saying those moro Germans were losing the war, and eventually lost the war because of a lack of resources. I'm SURE we could have won over Japan that way. I'm not saying we should or should not have; but it should be understood that we did have a siege-like non-nuclear alternative back then. I don't have the data, and who knows what would have happened. I'm just saying it wasn't our ONLY option.

Also, your dad will always be a 'M'arine, its just that he "was" in the Marine Corps during the war. Sorry. Had to say it.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:51 AM on December 20, 2014


Always with the bombs you two.
posted by clavdivs at 12:53 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


My Dad was a marine at the time and could very well have died in that kind of invasion and I wouldn't be here.

It was still an atrocity.


my dad (Canadian) was in Germany when WW2 ended in Europe. He was immediately given the option of A. staying there to deal with the aftermath, or B. getting a quick trip home for a month's leave and then having to go to Oklahoma for "Pacific Theater training". Because the Americans' experience of taking Okinawa had been so dire that they knew that taking on the rest of Japan was going to be one long and brutal campaign with pretty much unprecedented casualties. They would need reinforcements. Very many of them.

Not that my dad was aware of any of this. He just felt that the war couldn't go on forever. So he rolled the dice and took the quick trip home. He was still in Oklahoma for his training when news came in of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "The best news I'd ever heard in my life," is how he described it.
posted by philip-random at 12:54 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Also, your dad will always be a 'M'arine, its just that he "was" in the Marine Corps during the war. Sorry. Had to say it.

I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:56 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Battle of Okinawa
posted by philip-random at 12:57 AM on December 20, 2014


Here's your mothetfucking non killing Japanese image of the atomic bomb. You take Old ships and put a bunch of cameras on them, place them in a reasonably safe area and invite some military and civilian to watch an atom bomb ignited right at the moment the sunsets.
Symbolism and force.
It would have worked. Any you geniuses have a better idea concerning the demonstration solution on using atomic weapons because I'm all ears.
posted by clavdivs at 1:02 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Drinky Die: "True more for some than others, thus the taboo against chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare."

No - I disagree. Those particular methods of warfare aren't taboo because they're extraordinarily effective at killing people. They're taboo because they kill people in hideous ways. But killing massive numbers of people in "clean" ways is not something the logic of modern warfare has a problem with. We have repudiated dropping pathogens on people, but we haven't repudiated dropping plain old bombs or firing plain old missiles or shooting plain old guns.

So it's not likely you can rely on the common taboos against these forms of warfare to convince people of the problems with drones, because by the logic of these taboos drones are the optimal and ideal method of warfare: more precise, more targeted, and "clean" by the standard we hold ourselves to.

The argument you're espousing - that technological advances which make killing more convenient dehumanize both the killers and the killed - is utterly foreign to modern theories of warfare. That is not how we think in war, for better or for worse. I guess above I was trying to point this out: trying to stop at drones is a mistake; the whole system is the problem and needs to be dismantled. Because if it isn't drones, it will be some other advanced method of targeted killing.
posted by koeselitz at 1:07 AM on December 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


142 children were killed in the course of pursuing those 24 men

And yet they insist its the 'terrorists' who are cowards.

Coming soon: the US military's next ass-whupping at the hands of a bunch of guys with 25 year-old Kalashnikovs.
posted by colie at 1:13 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


No - I disagree. Those particular methods of warfare aren't taboo because they're extraordinarily effective at killing people. They're taboo because they kill people in hideous ways.

The other aspect of these weapons' "hideousness" is their indiscriminate nature. They can kill "us" as well as a racially or culturally defined other. The "hideousness" of gas warfare in WWI was that the Germans had the capability to unleash it on the Entente. There's also a low barrier of entry to manufacturing these kinds of weapons and "we" know "we" are vulnerable. Similarly, the "hideousness" of nuclear warfare manifested itself, I'd argue, not with Hiroshima or Nagasaki but when the USSR started to aim warheads at American and European cities. Hideousness comes when we can imagine ourselves vulnerable to the injuries these weapons inflict. So I don't imagine drone warfare will start to acquire the same sort of taboo until an "other" gains the ability to use them on "us."
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:24 AM on December 20, 2014 [17 favorites]


No - I disagree. Those particular methods of warfare aren't taboo because they're extraordinarily effective at killing people. They're taboo because they kill people in hideous ways.

Yes, what I am saying is that death by impersonal robot swarm is uniquely hideous in that same way. As I said, it's totally legitimate to disagree. It's an emerging issue and we don't have our minds totally wrapped around it.

I don't imagine drone warfare will start to acquire the same sort of taboo until an "other" gains the ability to use them on "us."

Yes, that's a part of it. Even the first American military causality to be killed by an enemy drone is going to be major news. This is not a technology that is going to remain out of the hands of non-state actors as the 21st century moves on.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:35 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Has been for 16 years and most likely will be for another there goes a quarter of your non- state drone acquisition theory. Do you just pull these conflations from a proscribed list or do you have an actual point,
Drinkydie
posted by clavdivs at 1:42 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Clavdivs as always makes a compelling point, but I was talking more about armed drones. I don't think a non-state actor has fielded anything comparable to a hellfire equipped American military drone.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:49 AM on December 20, 2014


142 children were killed in the course of pursuing those 24 men

Don't forget that the US military classifies children as young children. Any child of age sufficient to hold and shoot an AK is considered to be a "militant" and therefore a valid target. If we consider anyone <18 to be a child, those figures would increase significantly.
posted by longbaugh at 2:11 AM on December 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


Any child of age sufficient to hold and shoot an AK is considered to be a "militant" and therefore a valid target.

Any male child. In our magnanimity, teenage girls are still presumed innocent.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:29 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised that you folks are discussing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki vs. a U.S. ground invasion of Japan. The U.S. didn't drop the bombs to prevent an invasion. That wasn't the main reason, anyway.

The main reason we dropped the bomb was to show Russia that we could and would, and to let them know that the U.S. could turn Moscow into scorched earth. That tension set the stage for the world we still live in now. Sure, the U.S. could've dropped a bomb in Tokyo Bay and shown the terror without (really) killing anyone. Personally, I think that would've been enough. But it wasn't scary enough. It wasn't ruthless enough. To the Japanese military and especially to the Russians.
posted by zardoz at 2:31 AM on December 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Yeah, but we got the 41 men targeted.
posted by 724A


From the article 8 of the 41 targeted are still alive, so that works out to just under 35 innocent victims for each kill.

Applying the same 1:35 ratio to 911: if there were 86 'legitimate targets' in the twin towers, the other 2891 victims would be acceptable collateral damage?
posted by Lanark at 2:38 AM on December 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Well, at least we didn't put the East India Company in charge... Shit, we basically did, didn't we?
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:41 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


A lot of times when we talk about drones it's pointed out that they aren't that distinct from the impact of a cruise missile strike or a jet fighter strike.

Thing is, we don't tend to think of cruise missile strikes as precision targeted assassinations, we think of them as what they are - bombings. Wiping out 'merely' one building's worth of people is not really a precision strike.
posted by Dysk at 3:34 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Collateral damage? Let's call it what it is: Collective punishment.
posted by yonega at 3:47 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


The whole notion of "collateral damage" is the fallout of the attempt at justifying World War II and its aftermath. The hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the firebombings of Germany and Japan, and by the atomic weapons dropped on Japan, had to be explained away somehow. By claiming – however spuriously – that the bombings had military targets, the Allies excused their own war crimes while basically making war open season to kill civilians from the air.

Nuclear weapons are the primary reason this has not substantially come back to bite the US in the ass. Effectively, they escalated it another step, with the Cold War making the civilian populations of both the US and the USSR hostages against a condition of war between the two superpowers. 9/11 was the only time that the US has felt substantial blowback inside its own borders, and look at how devastating it was; the attacks literally shaped the last decade and a half.

The idea that UAVs will not eventually be used against civilian targets in the US seems shockingly naïve to me. The sudden popularity of toy drones and the desire of companies to use commercial drones will make it very easy as an attack vector for people who've been looking for one.
posted by graymouser at 4:22 AM on December 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


The idea that UAVs will not eventually be used against civilian targets in the US seems shockingly naïve to me.

Yes. And again I know it makes me look like I'm ranting about skynet. But this is going to happen in this century.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:35 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
posted by univac at 4:43 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:52 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


The dehumanization isn't due to bombs and drones, it's because the elite send the poor to die. Cheney dodged service five times: he has never experienced war or risked his life in any way. He sent thousands of kids to die in a fraudulent war, he ground them into paste for his own sick profit. To folk like Cheney, soldiers are not humams: they're disposable tools, to be used to secure his wealth and power.

Start drafting the children of the elite and powerful, and we will find that they suddenly have a change in attitude.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:09 AM on December 20, 2014 [13 favorites]



Start drafting the children of the elite and powerful, and we will find that they suddenly have a change in attitude.


Another problem that drones solve nicely.

A couple of months back an article in I think the New Yorker looked at drone effectiveness; the best numbers they could get at that point showed drone attacks having far less "collateral damage" (a Newspeak term I absolutely despise) than alternatives such as bombings or sending in the special forces on night raids, and with the number of civilian casualties dropping significantly over time. My own opinion is that drone attacks are counterproductive in terms of lowering risk for the US (because of how much people resent them; I agree with those above saying that drones will join the list of not-ok weapons eventually) while also being more precise than the alternatives -- which isn't an endorsement of drones as much as an acknowledgement of how awful all of our approaches have been.

For f's sake, I was at a talk once where a student from Pakistan asked Harold Koh, to his face, what possible legal justification American could have for murdering Pakistanis from the air via remote control, and Harold Koh laughed at him.

It will stay funny right for those guys up until drones start getting used in the US to kill people here. Random people on the other side of the world don't count and never will in that kind of thinking.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:21 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Don't forget that the US military classifies children as young children. Any child of age sufficient to hold and shoot an AK is considered to be a "militant" and therefore a valid target.

The U.S. military classifies them as "military age males," and they are not necessarily valid targets.
posted by Etrigan at 5:46 AM on December 20, 2014


It will stay funny right for those guys up until drones start getting used in the US to kill people here. Random people on the other side of the world don't count and never will in that kind of thinking.

Whereas they *would* count if someone attached a pipe-bomb to a RC helicopter in Ohio? Or, even better, if a squad of brown people attacked a school full of white kids?

There are a couple of things going wrong here, but at the core there is this persistent delusion that somehow computer/information technology is an equalizing force, rather than exactly the opposite. And that's the thing with "drones," the power isn't in attaching a warhead to a radio controlled aircraft, it's that, from across vast oceans, we see you when you're sleeping, we know when you go out for a drive, we know when you've been bad or good and we'll kill you or your kids if you've been bad. Drone's are as much of about knowledge (information technology) and being able to act from afar (global high tech command and control) as about killing.

It's ironic, because we are testing this weapon on people who believe that there is someone with a much better surveillance system and much much more powerful weapons who is watching over everyone, minutely. But, that's because the people who developed this weapon, developed it as something that would scare and intimidate people, don't have an easy time with the idea that other people might think about the world differently from a society of rugged individuals, who imagine themselves supremely safe at home, yet within which power is concentrated among a small select group of powerful individuals, whose removal, it's imagined, would be catastrophic.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:10 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Drone attacks are bad because they are cheap (and getting cheaper) and don't directly risk American lives. Because of this the military doesn't feel the need to do as much planning to make sure they get the right person and not kill to many other people at the same time.

In contrast to a drone attack you have the kind of op that killed Osama Bin Laden. It took months of planning, lots of equipment and required the actual soldiers to be reclassified as CIA so that they could operate. But there were only 5 casualties including OBL, none of whom were American soldiers. This was a successful op. You have the op that radiation poisoned the Russian dissident in London. No bystanders were killed in that one. If the target isn't worth the effort to do something like this, then the target is not worth assassinating.

As a leader in drone-assassination America is also setting a really bad example for the rest of the world. Drone technology is not particularly expensive so other countries can make their own if they want and use them for their own assassinations. America has set the norm for drone-assassination and it is a shockingly lax one. Do you really want Russia, North Korea, Iran, or whoever else the enemy of the day happens to be to not only have access to drones but also American legal justifications for why this kind of assassination is OK? There will be blowback on this and it will get American civilians killed by foreign states (I'm not going to speak to non-state actors because they're expected to do this kind of thing). It won't just be American civilians either. If I, in Canada, happen to be at the same wedding or restaurant as someone Iran has a beef with, well maybe a drone will get me and I'll be part of that wonderful 95% inaccuracy rate.

Thanks Obama!
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:42 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Sure, the U.S. could've dropped a bomb in Tokyo Bay and shown the terror without (really) killing anyone.

The US had cracked Japanese codes and intercepted messages telling us exactly what terms they would accept for the surrender the emperor was increasingly inclined to offer -- basically, the continued mostly ceremonial reign of the Emperor and the continuance of Japan as a sovereign nation. After Trinity, the Potsdam Declaration was very carefully crafted to deny any assurance that those terms would be considered.

Before Trinity Secretary of War Stimson was advising that we should seriously consider offering Japan the terms they wanted for surrender. And in the end, after the bombings, we gave them what they had wanted anyway.

There never was going to be an invasion and anybody who thinks there was is a fool. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were science fair experiments and dick-waving on the grandest scale ever.
posted by localroger at 6:42 AM on December 20, 2014 [12 favorites]


This segment on drones by John Oliver is amazing - "Maybe if we've made people fear blue sky, we've gone too far..."
posted by 445supermag at 6:51 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Apologies for continuing the WWII derail, but on an important though perhaps slightly technical point, the US has arguably used nuclear weapons many, many times since then. Not the sort of atomic bombs that create giant, uncontrolled fission or fission/fusion reactions, but bombs and missiles containing depleted uranium which combusts when the bomb or missile hits something. Though not as immediately horrific as a giant atomic bomb explosion, the fallout from the cumulative use of DU weaponry by US forces in Iraq seems to have had equally significant severe long term health effects to date.
posted by eviemath at 7:36 AM on December 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


The U.S. military classifies them as "military age males," and they are not necessarily valid targets.

They may not be considered valid targets but they are certainly not classified as "civilian children" either.

From the NYT May, 2012

"Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program"

posted by longbaugh at 7:42 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Bringing it back to drones: as I understand it, sometimes drones fire depleted uranium-containing missiles - so we have flying killer robots that deliver radioactive payloads that cause long-term harm in the manner of a chemical weapon(*)!

(* In the sense that the uranium is a persistent toxin in exposed people and in the environment, eg. like dioxins from agent orange use; not in terms of the actual mechanics/chemistry of how it works.)
posted by eviemath at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2014


No DU. The AGM114 Hellfire missile uses a copper (iirc) MAC (Metal Augmented Charge) in the variant fired from UAVs. It has a fragmentation sleeve over a dual-shaped charge warhead. It was designed to f*ck T72s up during the cold war and is a wholly inappropriate weapon for antipersonnel use. Before UAVs they'd have just dropped a 2000lb dumb bomb or fired a Tomahawk at the site. It's an improvement, if you care to look at it in that respect.
posted by longbaugh at 7:55 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are taboo because they operate on such a scale that civilians will inevitably be harmed, and because even their users can only barely control the consequences of their deployment. For nukes, its difficult to say where the radioactive fallout will blow on the wind, or even quite how much of it will be or how long it will linger in the environment. Chemical weapons are often delivered as gasses, and so have the same problems with control, and can also persist in the environment. Biological weapons like anthrax can persist in the environment as spores, and again, you can't really control just how far a biological plague will spread once it starts, or how many people it will kill.

Arguably, land mines fit this pattern as well.

I agree, however, with the "moral hazard" of drones. The people who use them, can at least turn them off when they want to. The problem is in human nature, not in the nature of drones. Politicians and civilians will favor deploying drones over troops, because of the cost, speed, and risk advantages drones have over soldiers.
posted by rustcrumb at 8:11 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Accuracy and precision. Drones strikes are precise-ish, but accurate, I dunno...
posted by BungaDunga at 8:18 AM on December 20, 2014


No DU. The AGM114 Hellfire missile uses a copper (iirc) MAC (Metal Augmented Charge) in the variant fired from UAVs. It has a fragmentation sleeve over a dual-shaped charge warhead. It was designed to f*ck T72s up during the cold war and is a wholly inappropriate weapon for antipersonnel use.

You're describing the AGM114N there, yes? The missile designed to fuck up T72s was the AGM114A, not the AGM114N (which is a thermobaric weapon - basically a fuel air bomb designed to fuck up hard structures like bunkers and kill people - and somewhat controversial as a result). It's also not the anti-armour warhead of this generation of Hellfires - that'd be the AGM114K. Drones can also be equipped with the AGM114M (a blast fragmentation warhead) or AGM114K (an anti-tank HEAT warhead - this is the type that uses a shaped charge to throw a slug of metal through the target) which, along with the AGM114N, were developed in the 90s, not during the cold war. At any rate, the US is currently phasing all of these out in favour of the AGM114R, which has a more tightly integrated fragmentation sleeve warhead (i.e. not modular like the other Hellfire IIs discussed in this comment).
posted by Dysk at 8:39 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


In Pakistan the US has attempte to use drones as a substitute for military and police operations, and it has been an utter failure. The slaughter of civilians and children is unreal. I still can't believe the US would use double-tap air strikes on homes in residential neighborhoods. I would have thought the US would care more about avoiding killing children. It shows that our military and intelligence community is truly sick. Drones have had little impact on the Taliban and have not been an effective replacement for the state's police and military. Though, when the Pakistani military does move into Waziristan, it causes far more destruction than the drones, and the Taliban are able to escape into Afghanistan. There is no easy answer, I guess. And it is also still not clear that whatever government institutions actually exist in Pakistan are actually against terrorism. They support the Afghan Taliban because they supposedly cause less trouble on the border thanvthe alternatives. They are happy to harbor terrorists that massacre civilians in Mumbai. It's only when Pakistani children are killed that they sort of seem to care, but they still basically blame it all on the US.

It seems that to use drones for assassination you still need to have someone directly on the ground that can confirm the target area is free of civilians, assuming you've already removed the psychopaths intentionally targeting children and rescue workers, or who just don't care about civilians. It makes drones marginally useful as part of a failed tactic.

Leaked CIA report: Targeting Taliban leaders 'ineffective'.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:37 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Localroger is correct. At Potsdam, Truman told Stalin, in his folksy way, that we had the bomb.
Stalin knew of the bomb, Truman just confirmed it. Also, great take on Purple.
Drinkydie. During the war, Japanese sent balloons designed to start fires to the east coast. It was not effective but it killed some picnic going folk if I recall.With drones, electronic tracking and jamming replaces wind as an analogy for counter measures.
I find your belief in determinism...disturbing.

...Biggest dick wave in history. Dam straight.
posted by clavdivs at 9:54 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


There never was going to be an invasion and anybody who thinks there was is a fool.

There were a great many fools in the US military preparing for an invasion, even going so far as to manufacture 500,000 Purple Hearts in anticipation of mass casualties.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:38 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


[Guys, for realsies, it's a post about contemporary drone strikes and intelligence. Please consider solving once and for all the question of the ethics and efficacy of WWII nuclear strikes somewhere else.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


The author of the Reprieve report was on Democracy Now a couple of weeks ago: A "Precise" U.S. Drone War? Report Says 28 Unidentified Victims Killed for Every 1 Target
posted by homunculus at 11:13 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'll say it again, maybe more emphatically:

The problem is not with drones. The problem is with war. If war is an okay thing that we can live with morally, then drones are probably the best choice. But if it isn't - and it probably isn't - then drones are a bad idea.
posted by koeselitz at 11:25 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Are you assuming that the use of drones will not or does not have an effect on how people view war? Because surely that's what many people are arguing here.
posted by tychotesla at 11:37 AM on December 20, 2014


war is bad. drone killing is bad. water boarding etc is bad. Let's just not do much of anything but be nice and moral and in return expect that we too will be treated this way.
Drone killings are a polite way to kill so-called bad guys rather than assassinations, which require close gun to the head meet ups. We dislike the CIA torture but then Obama uses drones to get rid of the bad guys, and, that, we assume is ok, but now we find that "collateral damage" makes it not so good.
First I have to ask: are there bad peop0le out there that would, given the chance, attack us? Then, if so, what shouldbe done about this?

in passing: Germany blitzed London, killing as many civvies as they could; We did the same to Dresden...and yes, Japan would not have surrendered and so we used the A Bomb. And when they did not take the "hint,: we did it again. And that saved American lives, which, for me, is important. But then I had family involved in that war and in that arena, so perhaps I am a bit selfish in my view.
posted by Postroad at 11:45 AM on December 20, 2014




tychotesla: “Are you assuming that the use of drones will not or does not have an effect on how people view war? Because surely that's what many people are arguing here.”

On the contrary, I am tacitly admitting that it does by arguing that it shouldn't. People think drones are this fantabulous new method of warfare. They aren't. They're the same damned thing: killing people.

Drinky Die: “Yes, what I am saying is that death by impersonal robot swarm is uniquely hideous in that same way. As I said, it's totally legitimate to disagree. It's an emerging issue and we don't have our minds totally wrapped around it.”

It's only an emerging issue or an "impersonal robot swarm" if we misunderstand how robots work. The issue here is that people believe that robots have volition. They don't – not in any sense. If I get in a car and turn the key and push the gas and turn the wheel in such a way that the car hits and kills a person, then I'm guilty of manslaughter – the car didn't do it. The same is true if I set a bomb to go off at the exact moment when a certain person turns on their car. It doesn't matter if I was a thousand miles away when it happened – I am guilty of murder. Likewise, if a person builds a complicated computer and programs it to kill other people, then that person is guilty of murder – not the computers, not the robots – and that is exactly what a drone is.

I think you know that it's impossible for an actual SkyNet to happen – that's why you've been saying you know it sounds silly. But the difference between what's likely to happen and an actual SkyNet are instructive. SkyNet was supposed to be the emerging intelligence of a machine with volition but no conscience. It's a science fiction nightmare about robots that come to life. It is silly precisely because robots don't come to life. When killer drones become ubiquitous in the United States, we won't be facing a world where impersonal, faceless robots are able to kill us. We'll be facing a world where actual people sitting in rooms somewhere can push buttons and kill other people.

And that isn't any more or less impersonal than the killing of people with guns or tanks or bombs. It's killing all the same. I think that should be underlined: someone is always guilty, some actual human being.

Making killing easier is not the same thing as making it more hideous. They are different things. Making killing easier has problems of its own, but it's still killing, and to say that killing is more hideous the easier it is is to say that killing someone with a knife is more humane than killing them with a bullet; it doesn't make sense.
posted by koeselitz at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


The problem is not with drones. The problem is with war. If war is an okay thing that we can live with morally, then drones are probably the best choice. But if it isn't - and it probably isn't - then drones are a bad idea.

yes to this. the problem is war which I'm pretty sure is the absolute worst things that we humans do. And yet we keep doing it. So my issue with those who are particularly critical of drones (beyond them being amoral means of killing human beings -- just like any other weapon) is the inevitable question: assuming that the war must be fought, do you honestly think there's a less devastating means toward achieving "our" ends?

the site Iraq Body Count is a grimly interesting resource in this regard.

Iraq Body Count (IBC) records the violent civilian deaths that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention in Iraq. Its public database includes deaths caused by US-led coalition forces and paramilitary or criminal attacks by others.

IBC’s documentary evidence is drawn from crosschecked media reports of violent events leading to the death of civilians, or of bodies being found, and is supplemented by the careful review and integration of hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures.

Systematically extracted details about deadly incidents and the individuals killed in them are stored with every entry in the database. The minimum details always extracted are the number killed, where, and when.


Their current count (not including combatants) is somewhere in the 133,381 – 150,357 range. And trust that the vast majority of those had nothing to do with drones. Drones, for all their inaccuracy, are magnitudes more efficient in terms of actually achieving their intended ends (killing specific people) than a full-on invasion etc could ever be. Please correct me if I'm wrong here.

Are you assuming that the use of drones will not or does not have an effect on how people view war? Because surely that's what many people are arguing here.

And I'm glad that they are. I encourage all efforts to disabuse me of any notions I may have that they are anything more/less than comparatively accurate amoral means of killing people.
posted by philip-random at 1:38 PM on December 20, 2014


The issue here is that people believe that robots have volition.

No, I don't believe that. I don't believe nukes do either. This is part of what I was trying to preempt when I pointed out people say the weapons aren't really different than a cruise missile strike or fighter bombing.

I fear automated and remote warfare technology because of what those capabilities can present to the human controlling them. Like with nukes, it can be a button press for mass extermination of human beings. When you look at cold war history, there were several moments when those buttons were incredibly close to being pressed. When you look at all of human history, you know people will find justifications for anything. The more of these buttons we create, the more of an edge we're going to live on as a species.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:23 PM on December 20, 2014


A lot of the commentators on this report conflate "unnamed and unknown" casualties with civilians. I think it's important to distinguish between them, because someone defending the drone program will (rightly!) say that the 27-1 ratio includes a lot of bad guys. The real figure to concentrate on is the combatant-civilian ratio, because civilian deaths are intrinsically indefensible. This is, IMO, why the USA has gone to such effort to disguise the identity of the collateral casualties.

I think the proper questions to ask, in order of significance are:
1) Should the USA be fighting this war?
2) Should the USA be fighting this war in this way?
3) Should the USA be targeting these specific people?
4) Is the collateral damage of these attacks acceptable?

My answers to these questions is "probably not", and the only reason I can't say "certainly not" is that the whole thing has been conducted with so much secrecy.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:47 PM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was wondering if the Taliban had said anything about why they shot up that school. There seem to be some reports saying that' A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said the army-run school had been targeted because “we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed".
Whether or not they restrict the focus of their ire to the Pakistani army, I don't know.
posted by asok at 6:25 PM on December 20, 2014


Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Freedman, most Ted Talks and the Done program are all related cultural phenomena. Folk tales, bullshit, and bullet points packaged with technology and psuedoscience resulting in failure and incompetence.
We have killed enough enemy leaders to be able to assess the efficacy of this program. For all the talk of degrading our enemies, we appear no closer to victory. The council of Freedman and Gladwell has not made us wiser. Nor has anything important ever been solved with a PowerPoint.
posted by humanfont at 6:36 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


And that isn't any more or less impersonal than the killing of people with guns or tanks or bombs.

I have to totally disagree with this. The further away you get from the actual person you're killing, the more abstracted you make it, the more impersonal it gets. When it gets to the point of targeting little blips on a grainy screen, you're at a level of abstraction that's almost indistinguishable from a video game. (And, yeah, bombs aren't much different.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:22 AM on December 21, 2014


You're describing the AGM114N there, yes?

No, hence me not montioning the letter code. I hope you can forgive me for assuming the average MeFite has no interest in me regurgitating the FAS website at them when the discussion is more closely geared to the moral side of drone warfare.
posted by longbaugh at 2:52 AM on December 21, 2014


I wasn't regurgitating the FAS website, I was providing a run-down of the currently used Hellfire warheads. What you were describing was inaccurate - the MAC warhead IS the AGM114N, which is not the one designed to fuck up T72s, and is in fact not an anti-armour warhead at all, it's more a bunker-buster/anti-personnel warhead. You gave the mistaken impression that current Hellfire warheads are not really designed to be effective people-killing tools - addressing that is absolutely germane to a discussion about the use of these weapons for supposedly precision-targeted killings. Most Hellfire warheads (including the ones currently being phased in to replace all the other variants) are absolutely designed to be very effective at killing large numbers of people in the vicinity of the explosion, not just at destroying the target they actually hit.
posted by Dysk at 8:10 AM on December 21, 2014


On the hellfire wikipedia page right now they have a liveleak cockpit video of a drone pilot taking out a pedestrian in a populated area and singing "bye bye miss american pie" on the audio two seconds before the explosion.

It's pretty ghastly and unless that drone pilot is a total sociopath he is setting himself up for a nasty case of post traumatic stress disorder.
posted by bukvich at 8:59 AM on December 21, 2014


unless that drone pilot is a total sociopath he is setting himself up for a nasty case of post traumatic stress disorder.

More likely he is doing the job exactly how he's been trained to do it and perfectly within the culture and atmosphere of the military... it's that structure which is responsible for his possible future PTSD.
posted by colie at 10:27 AM on December 21, 2014


Dysk, I never accused you of regurgitating FAS, merely pointed out that *I* was uninterested in doing so. I'm well aware of the differing warhead types and guidance packages. None of them are effective weapons for targeteting and killing specific individuals in my opinion.

Most members of MeFi are uninterested in debating the exact means by which innocents are killed and so I provided a level of detail I believed appropriate for the readership. If this has in some way offended your sensiblities then I offer you my unreserved apologies.

I'm not looking for an argument otherwise so if you've a response otherwise please just memail me so we keep any clutter out of the thread, cheers.
posted by longbaugh at 2:44 AM on December 22, 2014


None of them are effective weapons for targeteting and killing specific individuals in my opinion.

Fully agreed. A lot of them ARE incredibly effective for killing large groups of individuals fairly indiscriminately (unlike the particular warhead you described).

Again, I see that as completely relevant to the broader discussion, so you'll have to forgive this in-thread reply.
posted by Dysk at 2:59 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]






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