As Drones Grow More Precise, Their Targets Become Increasingly Vague

At the New York Times blog Opinionator on July 22, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps wrote a post titled The Moral Hazard of Drones. Using a passage from Plato’s Republic they concluded: “To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that, we ought to.” Meanwhile, this jumped out of the piece.

… the impressive expediency and accuracy in drone targeting may also allow policymakers and strategists to become lax in their moral decision-making about who exactly should be targeted. Consider the stark contrast between the ambiguous language used to define legitimate targets and the specific technical means a military uses to neutralize these targets. The terms “terrorist,” “enemy combatant,” and “contingent threat” are extremely vague and do very little to articulate the legitimacy of military targets. In contrast, the technical capabilities of weapon systems define and “paint” these targets with ever-greater definition. As weaponry becomes more precise, the language of warfare has become more ambiguous.

Then, of course, as first publicized by Daniel Klaidman at Newsweek, there’s the signature strike*: “the targeting of groups of men who bear characteristics associated with terrorism, but whose identities aren’t known.” In other words, while drone strikes grow more accurate, defining a target is relegated to the realm of inexact science. It’s as if a zero sum relationship exists between the accuracy of targeting and those targeted.

*In this context, “signature” is an unfortunate choice or words: it suggests that ill-defined targeting is the defining strike of the drone force.