Who Goes There? Issues of identity in ‘Drone Wars’

In conflict situations it is important, even essential, to know who it is you are fighting against. First to consider is the issue of the identity of the individual targeted by the drone strike, their status as civilian or combatant, and how that distinction is understood. Then there is the identity of the individual conducting the strike, whether they are military, CIA, or Private Military Contractor (PMC) and what this means legally and ethically. Finally, there is the identity of the drone itself, the way it creates a relationship between the individual conducting the strike and the target. The issue of identity is important because how we construct our understanding of the enemy, of the other, impacts on how we understand their death and the foreign policy decisions which follow.

Firstly then, the identity of the individual who is being targeted: the legal distinction between a combatant and civilian is one source of contention in the current debate on the use of drones. The identity of targeted individuals, whether the assessment is based on patterns of behaviour or direct intelligence, is widely counter-claimed by commentators. The US may claim its strikes have resulted in minimal civilian deaths, but others contend that ‘insurgents’ have been misidentified (see: http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2013/07/22/exclusive-leaked-pakistani-report-confirms-high-civilian-death-toll-in-cia-drone-strikes/). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates  407-926 civilian deaths in Pakistan from drone strikes, similarly 21-58 in Yemen (confirmed strikes only), and in Somalia 0-15 (http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/). The complexity of accurately assessing the situation is increased by the difficulty of correctly identifying combatants. Insurgents, members of non-official armed forces, and non-state actors do not (generally) wear an identifiable uniform. Indeed, it is part of the tactics utilised by these individuals and groups, as espoused by Mao, to ensure that they can perform acts of war and then blend back into the general population. To this ‘fog’ the US targeting applies another filter by aiming to take out individuals and groups before they commit acts of war, acting pre-emptively.

The paucity of reliable information, both from the US in terms of rationale for targeting, and from those on the ground experiencing the strikes, makes making judgements about the identity of those killed complicated. The US is aware of the international importance of being seen to undertake ‘precision’ strikes and to avoid civilian ‘collateral’, whilst the groups and individuals (al Qaeda etc) which the US aims to take out are aware of the power of mobilising international horror at the killing of innocents, particularly women and children. Therefore it is in the interests of both parties to make conflicting claims about the identities of those killed in drone strikes.

If understanding the identity of the targeted individual is complex the situation is confused further by the multiple possible identities of the individual undertaking the strike: US military, CIA operative, member of a private military contractor (PMC). The laws of war allow for individuals in the military to kill without being prosecuted for their actions, within certain constraints. However, there is concern about the legality of strikes undertaken by either the CIA or PMCs. For example the strikes undertaken by the CIA “[b]y law, institutional culture, and customary practice… cannot reach the minimum thresholds of transparency and accountability required…”  (Zenko, 2013). The use of PMCs to undertake drone missions is even more controversial, particularly after the Blackwater scandal (Glanz 2007), and the CIA denies that the PMCs are involved in any targeting/lethal action which is deemed to be a job suitable only for government officials (Zenko, 2013 and Isenberg, 2012). With the multiplicity of actors involved in drone strikes the issue of ‘identity’ unravels further as individuals who are involved in the killing of others may not be bound by the laws of war in the way that the international community expects and this could result in a wide range of injustices and war crimes occurring. It is clear that further clarity is required to ensure an accurate debate on the topic, but the closed nature of the organisations involved and of US policy-makers on this issue make this difficult.

Finally then, and perhaps most interestingly, the identity of the drones themselves. This might seem like a strange issue to raise. After all, a drone is a machine, can it have an “identity”? However, despite its lack of a pulse the ‘drone’ seems to have developed a ‘personality’ of its own, with a wide range of “Who am I” questions attached. For example, is a drone simply another form of airpower? Is it a “disruptive technology” (Hastings Dunn, 2013)? Does it represent a revolution in military affairs or a revolution in gender military affairs (Bayard de volo)?  Is it morally neutral and misidentified with warfare? Is it a means of providing security or a threat to international stability and international law (Ludford, 2013)? Does this technology itself have a ‘gender’ (Masters, 2005)? Is it masculine in the way it projects power or feminine in the way it reduces risk to the soldier/operator? Or is the gender simply transcribed upon it as a result of the way it is used? I have written before on the contentious use of language in relations to drones- the way that the UK military shudders at the word ‘drones’ and insists on the use of ‘remotely piloted aerial systems’, indeed to such an extent that this has become an ‘in’ joke. Whilst the answers to these questions are not yet apparent (although many are under investigation) it is important that we ask them. Whilst they may appear superfluous to policy debates this is not, in fact, the case. The way that drones are identified, both by those populations doing the targeting and those being targeted, has an impact on the strategic effectiveness of the missions. If a drone is considered a symbol of American omnipotence then this will have one impact, if it is considered a symbol of American cowardice (due to a lack of risk to the pilots) then this will result in another. The perception of whether or not drone technology is ‘new’ or ‘disruptive’ will have an impact on the seriousness with which the debate regarding their use is addressed, and any considerations about the need for expanding or amending the laws of armed conflict. The impact of the perceived gender of drones is important for what it means for military culture, a culture which has historically demonstrated, and prized, the strongest forms of masculinity. Clearly, the perceived identity of the drone is, perhaps surprisingly, important.

Many of the issues raised in the debate around drones are not exclusively applicable to drones. Regardless of the weapons platform you are using it is important to know who you are targeting, and that that targeting fits within existing legal and ethical frameworks. It is important that the identity of those undertaking the targeting also fits within the law, both domestic and international, and it is essential that the complexities of outsourcing the use of lethal force are fully understood before being undertaken. And finally, the wide range of opinions on the use of drones demonstrates the importance of the identity of the drone itself, the symbolism, the strategic implications and the potential cultural impact. I have not been able to answer all of these questions, but I hope to have provoked a conversation that considers the importance of identity in the debate around the use of drones.

Lindsay Murch is a doctoral researcher in the ICCS and POLSIS and a research assistant in the developing field of drone warfare.

Image source: RAF Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System. Flickr / UK Ministry of Defence


Zenko (2013): http://www.cfr.org/drones/transferring-cia-drone-strikes-pentagon/p30434

Risen & Mazzetti: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/us/21intel.html?_r=0

Glanz (2007): http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/03/world/middleeast/03firefight.html

Isenberg (2012): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-isenberg/contractors-privatizing-the-drones_b_1976650.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s