Morality and The Distance Effect in War

Recently, the NY York times, in a validation of the work of Maguen, Litz et Al starting in 2009 validated the emergent term of moral injury.  They framed it in the example of a civilian drone operator sub-contracting for the CIA drone program.  There are a couple of aspects of this story, and in general, that have always struck me as moral questions when it comes to war.  Let’s start with this quote from the beginning of the NYT article:

“Initially, the good days outnumbered the bad ones for Aaron. He wasn’t bothered by the long shifts, the high-pressure decisions or the strangeness of being able to stalk — and potentially kill — targets from thousands of miles away.”

This brings up the first moral question I have — namely, if you are engaged in killing without offering combat (i.e. the chance to fight back) are you a warrior/knight or are you a murderer.  In the historical sense, when one took to the field, one was acting under some sort of moral sense of defense.  However, when you are operating a drone 6,000 miles away, are you ‘taking the field’ in this sense.  One could argue, I suppose, that someone that far away is connected to someone who is connected to someone who at one time tried to mount an attack on America, but realistically, is it true?

The second moral problem, is the problem of valid target identification.  This sensor operator also alludes to this very real problem of killing an individual with a Hellfire missile thousands of miles away.

“On good days, when a host of environmental, human and technological factors came together, we had a strong sense that who we were looking at was the person we were looking for,” Aaron said. “On bad days, we were literally guessing.”

So what happens when you guess wrong?  Innocent people die.  Even if one guesses “right” and hits the right target, it brings up a third moral problem.  The CIA habit of a double strike.  Kill the target, then kill those who respond…those who respond are more often than not completely innocent.  They are merely responding with their humanity and end up dead themselves.  This type of drone warfare was covered in the very short-lived theater movie Good Kill.  It also very effectively covered the toll on the drone pilots involved, much like the NY Times article.

Lastly, I want to bring up a fourth moral question of drone strikes.  These strikes have a patent disregard for the moral implications of killing innocents in order to kill one wanted person.  Who gets to decide what that trade off is?  How many innocent people are too many?  This moral dilemma was dramatized in the movie Eye in the Sky.

In conclusion, it is easy to believe that drone strikes are antiseptic, clean ways to solve the problem of bad actors.  The long stand-off distance between the weapons operators and the targets initially help overcome the natural objection to killing (See Grossman and Slater references below).  However, eventually the moral questions begin to invade the conscious and unconscious of those involved resulting in this article in the NYT.   Currently, the US is involved in drone strikes all over SW Asia and Africa.  Setting aside the potential blowback of these types of operations, my very real question returns: if you participate in drone warfare are you a warrior or a cowardly murderer?

Further reading/references:

Grossman, D. L. (1995). On killing.  Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company.

Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P., Silva, C. & Maguen, S. (2009).  Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans:  A preliminary model and intervention strategy.  Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 696-706.

Maguen, S. & Litz, B. T. (n.d.). Moral injury in the context of war.  US Department of Veterans Affairs, retrieved from

Slater, G. (2009). A mythology of bullets. Spring, 23-36.

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