There have been incidents in America’s wars about which we all feel remorse: the fire-bombing of Dresden at the close of World War II, which killed about 25,000 German civilians; the My Lai massacre, in which approximately 400 women, children, and elderly civilians were murdered in South Vietnam; or, closer to home, the Bad Axe Massacre, 180 years ago last week, at which more than 400 members of the Sauk and Fox tribes were killed trying to cross the Mississippi River near Victory, Wis.

No reasonable person can defend the intentional killing of civilians. But how do we feel about the unintended but foreseeable civilian deaths that occur routinely in military actions?

Collateral damage — the unintentional killing of civilians — has always been an inextricable part of warfare, and that has always been the chief reason why war is considered a last resort. But the situation is changing with the advent of robotic warfare.

Administration insiders say the use of drone strikes to assassinate terrorists is driven in large part by President Barack Obama’s commitment to the “just war theory,” an ethical tradition dating from the middle ages that considers the use of force to be justified only in self-defense and only when taking every measure to insure that innocent people are not killed. Obama personally reviews potential targets and authorizes every name on the “kill list.”

The number of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes seems to be about 20 percent. That is a relatively low figure compared to collateral damage percentages in traditional military conflicts, which, according to a recent New York Times report, has ranged from 33 to 80 percent during the past 20 years.

Since Obama came into office nearly four years ago, the percentage of civilians killed in military strikes has decreased dramatically due to the effectiveness of drones in identifying and selecting intended targets.

But that doesn’t mean fewer civilians are being killed. Precisely because the drones are so effective at reducing collateral damage, they are being used more frequently.

There are 57 drone combat air patrols in operation overseas, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia. Drone strikes now take place in Pakistan about once every four days.

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U. S. has carried out about 350 drone strikes since 2004, killing an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people, including about 800 civilians.

These numbers are educated guesses, because neither the White House nor the Pentagon will provide statistics, and terrorist groups grossly exaggerate the number of civilian casualties.   

In June, a Pentagon spokesperson disputed estimates reported in Newsweek, but refused to provide an official number, saying only, “I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low.”  

Paradoxically, the very effectiveness of drone strikes is what makes them morally problematic. Because the only people directly involved in the attacks are the victims, there is no way for the rest of us to witness the cost of the suffering that is being inflicted on our behalf. Because we do not share the risk, we can easily ignore the harm.

Do drone strikes make the world safer, or do they make the world more dangerous while making Americans safer? Would even more civilians die at the hands of terrorists if we were to discontinue drone attacks?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but what distresses me most is that even in an election year, I don’t hear anyone asking them.

The use of force without consequences to the user is a dangerous thing. In this new age of robotic warfare, we need to pause and reflect not only on what the technology allow us to do to others, but also on what it is doing to us. Is it leading us into complacent acceptance of what ought to be a last resort?

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

(9) comments

Michael Welch

I don't agree with "Buggs" about a number of things but I believe he's absolutely correct re drone strikes -- NPR (yes NPR) recently had a correspondent in Yemen who discovered exactly that: there were more casualties from these "strikes" than oft reported by the pentagon. What a surprise hmm.

Also the atomic bombings WOULD have "saved lives" (American and Japanese) if it hadn't been so obvious that thoroughly licked Japan would be a matter of days or weeks at the most from surrender. As Eisenhower (deeply depressed about the bombings, to his son John) said: "They didn't have to use those terrible things." Other high ranking officers, even Curtis LeMay (hardly a soft hearted "peacenik" type eh), disparaged the attacks.

LeMay of course wanted simply to BURN Japan done to the nubs and HE and "his" boys were to do it but still he recognized they weren't "necessary" either.

Yes the bombings were to "impress" the Russkies, i. e., Stalin, but he already had his spies and knew all about "the bomb" after all...

Buggs Raplin

Seriously, in August 1945, the Japanese were totally surrounded by US forces; they were helpless and facing mass starvation. Having cracked their code, we knew they would surrender once the Soviets entered the war. Stalin told Truman at Potsdam the Soviets would enter mid-August. Instead of waiting, Truman dropped atomic bombs on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in one of the great war crimes of human history. Key to remember when those unfamiliar with history start talking about how many soldiers' lives Truman saved is the FACT that the US invasion of Japan wasn't slated until November. The US Strategic Survey in 1946 concluded that it was the Russian entry into the war that caused the Japanese surrender. The bombs had nothing to do with the surrender, but to hide his war crimes, US propagandists and faux historians have maintained the lie over the years. Truman actually caused more Americans to be killed by not assuring the Japanese the survival of the emperor, a Christ-like figure to the Japanese. Truman finally did that at Potsdam, but then he learned the bomb had been successfully tested in New Mexico, and he withdrew the assurance from the Potsdam Declaration. His bombing was essentially a message to the Soviets that the US had this weapon and wasn't hesitant to use it.

Seriously Now
Seriously Now

Every decade of war has a new horror. What is the morale difference between a drone and splashing napalm on a road of fleeing civilians? What is the difference between a drone and the fire-bombing of Dresden, where civilians in shelters were literally roasted and their human fat became tallow on the floors a foot deep? Better to be asking why our war budget is greater than the next 20 countries COMBINED.

Buggs Raplin

Because we have become the policemen for the New World Order. It has nothing to do with US security.

Seriously Now
Seriously Now

Buggs, the atomic bombing of Japan spared an invasion that would have cost 1000's of American lives. "and did not cause Japan to surrender" is just flat wrong. But the dirty little secret was also that we wanted to show the Russians we had a working bomb and were willing to use it.


But one thing the "bombs" did was help keep Russia at bay. Because we were on their list for WWIII.

Buggs Raplin

I imagine the civilian deaths from drones is greatly under-estimated. The military just labels the civilians as militants and the gullible public buys it.

Buggs Raplin

Richard, you left out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were unnecessary, saved no American lives, and did not cause Japan to surrender. Source: "The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz


The A-bombs were "useful" in the surrendering of Japan but they feared the Soviet's invasion more. If The Ruskies took over Japan all of the Japanese Gov. would have been executed whereas America let them live. And by the time of the A-bombs the Japanese were hurting. The Japanese morale was terrible and their mighty Navy and Air force were all but decimated. The Bombs probably did not need to be dropped to end the war. But. They were.

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