Drone warfare’s deadly civilian toll: a very personal view
I was minutes from ordering a drone strike on a Taliban insurgent – until I realised I was watching an Afghan child at play.
A US Predator drone in Afghanistan. The strike in Somalia means armed drones are operating in six countries. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
I find myself caught between the need to follow the drone debate and the need to avoid unpleasant memories it stirs. I used drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – during the nadir of my military career that was an operational tour in Afghanistan. I remember cuing up a US Predator strike before deciding the computer screen wasn’t depicting a Talibaninsurgent burying an improvised explosive device in the road; rather, a child playing in the dirt.
After returning from Afghanistan at the end of 2009, I left the British army in 2010. I wanted to put as much distance as I could between myself and the UK, leaving to study in America (where I still reside). By doing so, I inadvertently placed myself in the country that is spearheadingdevelopment in drone technology and use, highlighted by each report of a drone strike and the usual attendant civilian casualties.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt described the history of warfare in the 20th century as the growing incapacity of the army to fulfil its basic function: defending the civilian population. My experiences in Afghanistan brought this issue to a head, leaving me unable to avoid the realization that my role as a soldier had changed, in Arendt’s words, from “that of protector into that of a belated and essentially futile avenger”. Our collective actions in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 were, and remain, futile vengeance – with drones the latest technological advance to empower that flawed strategy.
Drones are becoming the preferred instruments of vengeance, and their core purpose is analogous to the changing relationship between civil society and warfare, in which the latter is conducted remotely and at a safe distance so that implementing death and murder becomes increasingly palatable.