• Valentina Koumoulou

The Ethics of RemoteWarfare


Photo credit: https://www.mcdonaldcentre.org.uk/events/colloquium-ethics-remote-warfare



“From a distance, I can deny your humanity, and from a distance, I cannot hear you scream”

- Dave Grossman[1]


Ethics has been taunting the human mind ever since people took care of the first instincts of survival, bearing in mind that after the major issues were resolved in the first civilizations, it was time for more complex thinking.


A look at the article’s title indicates a paradox with the words, ‘ethics,’ and ‘warfare’ in the same sentence. Given that war came long before that, though in a different sense during the early ages, it appears quite a dilemma to either support or oppose a seemingly bloodless and ‘clean’ type of warfare. As discussed in another research piece, remote warfare is a game-changer for modern warfare, with its supporters arguing for more efficient and safer interference, while sparing collateral damage [2]. Major technological advancements such as drones or bots have altered the modes of waging a war. Moreover joining the “War on Terror” remote warfare has gained wide support. While political leaders along with government officials reassure the public of the limited risks and collateral damage ensued by contrast to the traditional ‘boots on the ground’ tactics which is to send soldiers to the theatre of war endangering their lives, a war whatever it looks like remains a war as destructive action on every level of life. It is rather perplexing to question such a cleverly constructed narrative, asking for the ethics of remote warfare, as it will be done in the following review.

Asymmetrical Nature

The asymmetrical nature of remote warfare is one of the major debates on ethics[3]. The technological advancements that have led to the remote warfare arsenal are not available to every state, rather they remain in the hands of those who possess the power and wealth to provide them, thus making every enemy without the respective equipment unable to respond on an equal level or obligated to make financial deals with more wealthy countries in order to be able to afford this type of weapons. While nuclear weapons, if used, could mean the end of the world, those who possess them are very reluctant to actually use them, as it was witnessed during the Cold War between two major nuclear powers, namely the USA and Russia. By contrast, remote warfare weapons have been in use for decades, triggering forever wars in states who are not capable of responding due to their fragile status as well as lack of resources, such as Somalia, or Afghanistan.


To be more specific, when using drones to conduct warfare, there is no need to urge the public of a country for the support to enter a conflict, no need to justify shared sacrifice, and no need for continuous debates in Congress or Parliament, given that in the minds of civilians it will be mostly machines that will be involved in the battle, eliminating significantly the human factor from the danger of the theatre of war. The public does not feel as opposed to remote warfare tactics as to those of traditional warfare. In the end, it becomes a matter of perspective and different views of reality. On the one hand, for some people, it might be ethically acceptable for their state to be involved in a proxy war, though without sending troops on the ground, thus eliminating the physical danger of their fellow compatriots. On the other hand, others believe that no matter the means of war, it remains an unethical act at its core, bearing in mind that one way or another human lives will be lost.


The Narrative of Less Cost

Since the early days, wars have always served as destructive forces unleashing social dilemmas on various levels. Appealing to that, Mandel wonders, “if indeed remote technologies help to overcome democracies’ casualty-sensitivity, and if ‘bloodless war’ becomes a reality, will these democracies then not become less ‘cautious’ in commencing the ‘poor game’ of war?”[4]. What he ponders is what happens when the choice to engage in a war without having suffered an immediate attack becomes easier and perhaps less costly from the public’s point of view. More importantly though, the question of who would stop a government that has the support it needs to conduct remote warfare is born. The line between taking a part in a war due to imminent threat and due to power accumulation is very thin in the mind of every state leader even in the 21st century, something that is witnessed at the time of writing this piece bearing witness to an ongoing war in Ukraine.


The narrative of using remote warfare weapons to avoid havoc and disaster is one that falsely creates the image of a war with no casualties making it appear more ethical. That is never the case with any type of war. The very nature of warfare is aggressive, the goal is to win no matter the cost, which most of the time brings light to new ways of destruction on either side. Therefore, presenting remote warfare weapons as surgically precise does not make them more ethical nor their operators and defenders, as they remain a type of weapon created to harm another human being. The main idea behind their production was to cause damage to the enemy, thus not respecting human rights since the beginning. As the next section will show, deploying machines on the battlefield does not exempt human decision makers from waging ethical questions.


The Ethics of Targeted Killings


“People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one, but mechanised killing is still killing”

- Vicki Divoll[5]


One of the most critical remote warfare weapons, namely drones, is considered to be a type of “bureaucratic killing machine”[6]. However, they are built and defended by motivated human actors who use rhetorical techniques that compile politics and technology, military planning, and cultural assumptions about honor and sacrifice, thus resulting in convincing the public of the nobility as well as the necessity of the cause, rather than the reality of human suffering. The fact that targeted killing is done with drones instead of soldiers on the ground does not mean that it can be characterised as more ethical, especially considering that there is always someone watching, analysing, and in the end, making the decision to strike a target no matter the cost.

What is noteworthy is that in order to succeed in a mission and eliminate a high-ranked terrorist in the fight against terrorism, for instance, more than one attempts are likely to happen, not only ending up terrorizing and traumatizing the local population but also causing collateral damage that might remain unreported. To be more specific, in 2013 Amnesty International reported that “between 2004 and 2013, the US had launched approximately between 330 and 374 drone strikes that sent missiles into the frontier regions of Pakistan, while also estimated that as many as 900 civilians were killed in those attacks”[7].


Moreover, according to another report, Baitullah Mehsud, a leading member of the Taliban, had been at the home of his father-in law receiving an intravenous treatment for diabetes when a missile fired from a Predator drone killed him