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Drones make killing cheap, risk-free


Have drones made it too easy for the U.S. military to commit murder from thousands of miles away?

Earlier this month, U.S. Central Command issued a tweet announcing that an Al Qaeda leader had been killed by a drone strike in Northeast Syria.

“This operation reaffirms CENTCOM’s steadfast commitment to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda,” CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla said.

The tweet promised that more information about the strike would be released, “as operational details become available.” That never happened. And now the military acknowledges that the person killed wasn’t an Al Qaeda leader. He was a shepherd.

Mohammad Mesto told CNN that his brother, Loutfi Hassan Mesto, was tending to his sheep in the village of Qurqaniya when he and six of his flock were killed by the strike. He leaves 10 children.

CENTCOM says the strike, “may have unintentionally resulted in harm to civilians,” and promised to conduct an investigation. That will do little to reassure those living in the region who undoubtedly see our vow of “steadfast commitment” as a threat, not a reassurance.

This isn’t the first time a drone strike has gone wrong. In 2021, the Pentagon announced that it had killed two ISIS fighters planning attacks against U.S. forces. In fact, the attack killed 10 Afghan civilians, seven of them children.

I understand that mistakes get made during times of war, and innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were getting killed long before the invention of drones.

Is there a moral difference between killing an innocent with a drone and killing an innocent with a missile fired by a fighter jet? Ken Mayers of the Santa Fe Chapter of Veterans for Peace argued during a recent interview on community radio that there is. He said our use of drones has an impact far beyond the people killed.

“When we have drones flying over these countries all the people are terrorized, whether they’re good guys or bad guys,” he said. “The new form of Imperialism doesn’t rely on occupying a territory. It relies on controlling the resources of the territory through political and military manipulation.” 

Mayers and others are protesting at Holloman Air Force Base, which they said is the largest training facility for drone operators.

There is a video game-like quality to drone strikes that can make it seem like they aren’t real. Protester Toby Blome of CODEPINK said drone operators often have to follow their target for days before the strike, watching them interact with friends and family. They know it’s real. Not surprisingly, that has led to numerous mental health problems for operators, she said.

Drones allow us to conduct strikes with far less cost or risk. The benefits of that from a military perspective are obvious. The question is, has it become so cheap and easy that we’ve lost our humanity.

We all share responsibility for the actions of our government. If it is using new military technology in a way that shows a basic disrespect for human life, that is a stain on all of us and something that we must work to end.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com. Walt Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.