Unintended collateral civilian casualties are not war crimes, and never have been. But the moral equation shifts, it seems to me, when the belligerent stops truly seeing these casualties as morally deeply troubling. This is particularly true when it comes to the anti-septic feel of drone warfare, where human beings can be seen simply as distant statistics. There comes a point at which indifference to civilian casualties veers toward a war crime. That was my problem with the Israelis’ pulverization of Gaza in 2009. They did not seem particularly agonized by it at all, despite the huge imbalance of fatalities on each side of that conflict. With that kind of technological power, restraint is even more essential if we are not to lose our soul.
But the technology actually facilitates restraint. If the Royal Air Force had been offered the chance to target German munitions factories with drones and precision-guided munitions in 1940, do you think they would have said 'no thanks' and continued with their campaign of flattening entire German cities with fleets of bombers? As for the 'antiseptic' feel of modern warfare, drones are really just a culmination of humanity's efforts, which date from the dawn of warfare, to invent 'stand-off' weapons that can be used from a position of safety. So in terms of turning people into 'distant statistics', it's hard to see a moral difference between a drone and a crossbow.
It's also worth noting the positive impact drones can have on international security. For one thing, the ability to conduct constant surveillance can help facilitate ceasefires and arms control agreements, because it will be so much harder to cheat. Drones might even be a factor in controlling tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea.
Lastly, it's worth noting that opinion about drone warfare in Pakistan is more nuanced than we might be led to believe by groups such as Amnesty. As the Christian Science Monitor reports:
Polls about levels of support for drone strikes within the tribal region are notoriously difficult to carry out, but most analyses highlight their deep unpopularity. Mr. Sharif’s US visit coincided with a widely-publicized Amnesty International report on drone strikes in Pakistan, in which the organization highlighted the deaths of at least 29 noncombatants since 2012, and the possibility that more civilians have been killed or injured.
Yet the situation on the ground is much more complex, according to locals and security experts. They say that while the drone attacks are a legal issue for Pakistan and the global community, those residing in the tribal belt do not consider them as unpopular as Pakistani officials portray them to be.
“The locals in Waziristan, where most of the drone strikes happen, actually see them as the only thing saving them from the terrorists since the government has not been taking any action against the elements operating there,” says Nizam Dawar, chairman of the Tribal Development Network, an independent organization that works on peace projects in the tribal belt.