Foreign Perspectives: Imperfect Drones, Imperfect Rhetoric

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User thierry ehrmann
Written by Shefali Dhar

Shefali Dhar is a senior in international relations, coming to BU from Bangalore, India. “Foreign Perspectives” will offer the views of an international student on American politics and culture.

By Shefali Dhar
BU News Service

A sure-fire way to start a heated debate in any classroom is by mentioning the word “Drones.” No, the argument is not exactly about the ethical dilemma posed by the role of drones in Amazon deliveries. The United States has taken the lead in major technological advancements in the past century. Since creating the world’s first atom bomb, the American military has been at the forefront of technological innovation. However, sitting in a college classroom listening to some of my peers venerate the use of drone warfare is alarming.

In the U.S., there appears to be plenty of misinformation surrounding drone warfare. From what I have gathered in conversations with fellow international relations and political science students, people seem to be under the impression that a military drone is like a flying sniper rifle. This is a terrifying assumption to make. According to The Guardian, 1,147 people were killed in the pursuit of 41 men due to drone strike mishaps. That ratio of collateral death does not exactly scream precision to me.

Collateral damage rises as precautions fail – failures that can be linked to a lack of transparency and accountability. In a 2013 UN report titled “Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions,” the Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyns, explains that the influence of public concern can easily be avoided by withholding details about drone targeting from the public. Without this awareness, the public remains blithely ignorant, and cannot push for regulatory methods that might lessen the collateral.  This makes the use of drones more terrifying than anything Oppenheimer invented – at least people are aware of the magnitude of destruction caused by an atom bomb.

The connection between a student at a private university promoting the accuracy of drone strikes, and thousands of collateral deaths, is rhetoric. Specifically, the rhetoric that, “Drones are accurate! Drones are safer! Drones save lives!” As technology advances, the power to inflict more damage increases. This is why misinformation, in the pursuit of democratic policymaking, is dangerous. In an era where information is available at our fingertips, it came as a surprise that the comparison between a drone and a bomb is given more weight than the death toll statistics. Shouldn’t a drone’s precision be measured by the number of collateral deaths it causes, rather than comparing the total deaths caused by a bomb?  

Another element missing from the rhetoric on drone strikes is human involvement.  The term “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)” gives the impression that there is no room for human error. In a PBS documentary titled “Rise of Drones,” we see the extent to which human error can play a part in operating UAVs — and I must say, it’s a pretty big part. A UAV is essentially a drone that is armed (usually with missiles) that is operated remotely. This means that there is an actual person who is calling the shots, and removing that presence does not necessarily mean more lives are being saved.

I do not expect people to be experts on the matter – I am hardly one myself. However, if students of policy are not informed enough to understand the magnitude of weapons such as drones, what kind of change can be brought about by the country?

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