This is no joke, and it just might change your perspective on clean war.
Because drone operators (those who fly drones by remote control) target and kill enemies, they are targetable as participants in combat. But American drone operators are not normal combatants. They live with their families. Their civilian and military worlds are intertwined.
For example, a drone operator sitting in a base in Nevada may control a drone buzzing over Afghanistan. Though the operation may be conducted within a military compound, far removed from civilian populations, the problem arises when a drone operator completes a shift and goes home.
As combatants, drone operators are targetable at any time. On the battlefield, a combatant does not acquire immunity when he (and now, she) is eating, sleeping, or picking up children from school. And that is the key, because on traditional battlefields, there are no children, and there are no schools. International law does not allow combatants to kill in the morning and then enjoy immunity later in the evening. It is not a light switch. War has never worked that way.
If you don’t think this is shocking, click on Pitch Interactive’s graphic depicting deaths in Pakistan from drone strikes since 2004. It’s a riot.
The data is legit; it comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, but as Emma Roller at Slate notes, the designers present it weirdly, claiming at the beginning of the interactive that fewer than 2 percent of drone deaths have been “high profile targets,” and “the rest are civilians, children and alleged combatants.”
But the “legal gray zone” itself is alarming enough—highlighting the lack of transparency surrounding the administration’s drone program—as are the discrepancies in total numbers killed. It’s between 2,537 and 3,581 (including 411 to 884 civilians) killed since 2004, if you want to go with the BIJ. Or it’s between 1,965 and 3,295 people since 2004 (and 261 to 305 civilians), if you want to believe the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Or perhaps it’s 2,651 since 2006 (including 153 civilians), according to Long War Journal. (The NAF and Long War Journal base estimates on press reports. BIJ also includes deaths reported to the US or Pakistani governments, military and intelligence officials, and other academic sources.)
Still, considering how many children are killed because they are in the blast zone, I don’t know why Homer Simpson the Drone Pilot would be morally more compelling an argument against drones than vaporizing innocents. Self-interest can be a potent motivator.