BRUSSELS – “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come,” the American poet Carl Sandburg wrote hopefully in 1936. His sentiment seems more apt than ever nowadays, but not because humanity has turned pacifistic. Rather, wars are increasingly fought remotely, with drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – doing the killing.
Under President Barack Obama, the number of drone strikes carried out by the United States has soared, with more than 300 UAV attacks reported in Pakistan alone. In March 2011, the US Air Force for the first time trained more pilots for drones than for any other purpose.
This raises serious ethical questions. With no military personnel risking their lives, UAVs make it easier to kill, and to justify war operations to the public at home. Moreover, a human being’s reticence to kill is inversely related to the distance between attacker and target. In the case of a pilot flying drones over Yemen by operating a joystick in Nevada, the threshold to pulling the trigger is dangerously low. Killing is just a part of the job, to be followed by bowling, perhaps, or a quiet evening at home.
Meanwhile, the mere sound of drones terrorizes whole populations, indicating to enemies and civilians alike that they are being watched and might be attacked at any moment – which could well play into the hands of terrorist recruiters.