“The debate is that we’ve been doing this so long we’re now bombing low-level guys who don’t deserve a Hellfire missile up their ass.” Roger Cressey, former US National Security Council official.

That quote is from Jane Mayer’s excellent and provocative piece, “The Predator War”, which appeared in last week’s (Oct 26, 2009) issue the The New Yorker magazine. As it turns out, Cressey is a proponent of using the remotely controlled Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drones to reach out and kill militants on either side of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Some facts that might surprise you from the article include:

1) The Obama administration, which has been accused by some of dithering on Afghanistan, has in fact launched more Predator attacks in its first nine and a half months in office than the George W. Bush administration launched in its final three years. Many of these attacks occured in Pakistan.

2) The US runs two Predator drone vehicles. The American military operates nearly two hundred Predator drones. An unknown number are operated by the CIA.

3) In 2009, Predator drone strikes have killed between 326 and 538 people. An unknown number of these were civilians, so-called collateral damage.

The ethical questions raised by the article are important. Targetted killings have been used before by Britain and Israel to preempt terrorist organizations, but the Predator program raises of accountability and convenience. As the program expands, which targets are deemed legitimate, how are the costs of collateral damage assessed, and what is the impact on local populations?

These questions became very real for me and some fellow Canadian Forces chaplains today when an infantry lieutenant-colonel who had been in theatre showed us some Predator footage taken very recently in Afghanistan. In these eerily clear videos, taken at night, human bodies show up in the thermal imaging as busy black dots. For the commander viewing this imagery in a command post, it is vital intelligence – those black dots could be insurgents planting roadside improvised explosive devices, or moving into or away from an ambush position. However, the commander seeing these images may only have a brief window of time to order an airstrike that will obliterate those little black dots.

Watching these videos in class, I was reminded of what counter-insurgency expert Andrew Exum was quoted as saying in Mayer’s article about the impact of this technology on the warrior ethos: “As a military person, I put myself in the shoes of someone in FATA (Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas “and there’s something about pilotless drones that doesn’t strike me as an honorable way of warfare. As a classics major, I have a classical sense of what it means to be a warrior. There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment iof we go too far down this road.” Which sounds good for Exum, perhaps, but for the young Lt.Col who showed us that footage, the chance to blow up the dudes who killed some of his men the previous day with an IED is too good to pass up, and a legitimate way to pursue his goals.

You can read an interview with Mayer here, and there is also a transcript of Mayer’s Oct 22 interview with Rachel Maddow here.