The following comes from a story by Lt Col. Douglas Pryer in the Mar-Apr. 2013 edition of the Military Review. Pryer served in command and staff positions in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, most recently, Afghanistan. He is the author of The Fight for the High Ground: the U.S. Army and Interrogation.

At the start of 2004, when I was the commander of a military intelligence company in Baghdad, my company received five of the first Raven unmanned aerial vehicles deployed to Iraq. The Raven is a small, hand-launched reconnaissance plane that has probably never figured prominently in any discussion about the ethics of waging war via remote-controlled robots. This drone is not armed, nor can it range more than a few miles from its controller. It looks more like a large toy plane than a weapon of war. To my troops, I seemed quite enthused about this capability. Not all of this excitement was for show. I actually did find the technology and the fact that my troops were among the first to employ these drones in Iraq to be exciting. I had fully bought into the fantasy that such technology would make my country safe from terrorist attack and invincible in war.

I also felt, however, a sense of unease. One thing I worried about was so- called “collateral damage.” I knew that, because of the small, gray viewing screens that came with these drones as well as their limited loiter time, it might prove too easy to misinterpret the situation on the ground and relay false information to combat troops with big guns. I suspected that, if we did contribute to civilian deaths, my troops and I would not handle it well. But at the same time, I worried that we might cope quite well. Since we were physically removed from the action, maybe such an event would not affect us much. Would it look and feel, I wondered, like sitting at home, a can of Coke in hand, watching a war movie? Would we feel no more than a passing pang that the show that day had been a particularly hard one to watch? And, if that is how we felt, what would that say about us? Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

It did not take long for a vivid nightmare to bring my fears to the surface. In this dream, I saw a little Iraqi girl and her family in a car, frightened, caught in the middle of a major U.S. military operation, trying to escape both insurgents and encircling U.S. forces. Believing the car to be filled with insurgents, my troops followed this car with one of our Ravens and alerted a checkpoint to the approaching threat. When a Bradley destroyed the car with a TOW missile, the officers in our command post cheered, clapping each other on the back.

I awoke filled with dread. I now recognize this dream as a symptom of cognitive dissonance, the psychological result of holding two or more conflicting cognitions. In this instance, my identity as a U.S. Army officer and all this identity’s attendant values (duty to follow legal orders, loyalty to my fellow soldiers, and so on) clashed with my fear of harming innocents. It also clashed with a growing feeling that there was something fundamentally troubling about how we were choosing to wage war. ….

I do not argue in this essay that waging war via armed robot proxies is unethical. Instead, my thesis is that the way we use them is deeply unwise because it seems unethical to the very populations abroad we most need to approve of our actions—the populations our enemies hide among, the wider Muslim world, and the home populations of coalition allies. The negative moral blowback that armed drones generate when used as a transnational weapon, I contend, is helping to fuel perpetual war. ….

Enemies who show us no quarter, we say, are inhuman, cruel, and violate the laws of war (which they do). Why would our enemies feel any differently about us, when we wage war in such a fashion that it offers them no quarter? Sadly, a barbaric medieval enemy prone to beheading captured prisoners actually holds a moral advantage over America in those places where America’s drone strikes are not coordinated with ground forces who can receive surrenders. The United States is the only country of 21 surveyed in which a majority of the population supports America’s use of armed drones against designated terrorists,,,,

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