Armchair assassins enter ethical minefield

Modern warfare: The UK launched 172 drone strikes on Iraq and Syria in the first half of 2017.

Are drone pilots morally indefensible? With a click of a button, they can kill dozens. Now, the British Army is training ethicists to teach them about the morality of remote-control killing.

In many ways it is a normal life.

You live in the English countryside in Lincolnshire. You drive to work. You sit down at your desk.

But your job is to kill people.

This is RAF Waddington, one of two places where Britain’s Reaper drone squadrons are based. Their operators drop 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles on Raqqa and Mosul.

The British Army has announced that it is training ethicists to teach all soldiers about the complex morality of remote-control killing.

In 2011, a Ministry of Defence statement said: “It is essential that… by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

Most people can sympathise with the act of physically shooting and killing an enemy combatant on a battlefield.

But there is widespread unease about the use of drones in warfare. In 2010, the UN’s Philip Alston warned that they could create a “PlayStation mentality to killing” that strips war of its moral gravity.

However, the evidence shows that operators are deeply affected. In the US, three quarters reported feeling grief, remorse and sadness.

Are drone pilots morally defensible?

Drone rangers

As American General Robert E. Lee once said: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” This, say critics, is what makes drone use wrong. By removing the terror and the danger of war, they make it a clinical exercise at best — and at worst, a game. How do they sleep at night?

It is clear that they do not see their job as a video game, reply others. And there is no moral difference between various ways of killing people. In fact drones might even be more humane: most atrocities are fuelled by battlefield emotions like fear and bloodlust, not precise calculation.

You Decide

  1. Is there a moral difference between killing someone in person and killing them via a drone strike?


  1. Write a diary entry of an ordinary day’s work for a drone pilot.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Drones are effective in war. A study by the Long War Journal found that drone strikes in Pakistan between 2006 and 2011 had killed 2,018 militants and 138 civilians. The UK are currently using drone strikes to target Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
What do we not know?
Whether, one day, drones will entirely replace ground forces.

Word Watch

One of two places
The other is the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, US.
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is the main drone used by both the British and American armed forces. Reapers have a maximum speed of about 300 miles per hour.
Raqqa and Mosul
Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq were Islamic State’s two key strongholds before they were retaken.
Robert E. Lee
The commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. The removal of several statues of Lee has been a cause of huge controversy in the US in the last few years.

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