“Drone Ethics” and the Civil-Military Gap


Those who knew all were not talking much, and those who knew only a little were talking a great deal

Jon Meacham, American Lion

The discussion of “the drones” is pervasive. It has permeated popular culture from Helen Mirren in Hollywood to Anne Hathaway on Broadway and has been given not just column inches, but yards and maybe even miles in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and peer-reviewed journals. Philosophers, theologians, strategists, historians, psychologists, playwrights, film directors, poets, musicians, and anthropologists have, each according to the norms of his or her own discipline, engaged in important (and sometimes unimportant) questions about the Predator and Reaper (MQ-1/9). And, regardless of the discipline, the discussion is almost always about ethics.

It is certainly worth talking about the ethics of killing and war and these conversations should surely include both civilians and military personnel. This is the case with any military activity that involves taking life, no matter the distance between combatants. But the discussion of remote weapons to this point has yielded little fruit. For so many words written and pages published, very little has actually been said. In many cases, the conversation has devolved such that it is no longer about drones — what the Air Force calls remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) — at all, but is instead about what people are saying about drones. With so few first-hand accounts available — descriptions of the crews’ lifestyles, the stresses they face, and the missions they fly — the references in the literature have become circular. One scholar cites another, who cites another, who cites, at best, a former MQ-1/9 crew member’s interview or memoir, and at worst, the first scholar in the chain. And round and round we go.

There are downsides even to citing interviews and memoirs. Few from the MQ-1/9 community have told their stories. I can nearly count them with one hand. And yet, they have become the voice for an entire enterprise. The MQ-1/9 community now has more pilot billets than any other aircraft in the Air Force. How is such a large group of people represented by such a small number of voices? We should be cautious about the available data points, not because they are without value, but because they are so few. Extrapolating from insufficient data is dangerous in any field of study, and yet, to produce the mountains of pages that have been written about MQ-1/9 and their crews, authors have done just that.

More troubling still is that in order to get from a couple of interviews and a couple of memoirs to a full-length monograph, it seems that authors in philosophy, history, political science, and anthropology have leaned even more heavily on openly polemical commentary as if it was even-handed and informed journalism. Such misrepresentations have encouraged further misunderstandings that distract the populace from legitimate public reflection on the ethics of remote weapons and modern war.

For instance, in her 2013 book, Drone Warfare, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin claims:

In 2003, the Defense Department developed a new computer program… The dead show up as blob-like images resembling squashed insects, which is why the program was called “Bugsplat.” Bugsplat also became the “in-house” slang referring to drone deaths.

She goes on to lament such language that doesn’t “inspire a reverence for life.” I, too, lament dehumanizing language (both in the military and out of it). But in this particular case her analysis is mistaken. Since her book’s release (and the interviews that led up to it), public references to “bugsplat” abound. And each reference lends undue legitimacy to Benjamin’s assessment of the term.

Only a few authors have gotten it right. Bugsplat was software that depicted the expected blast and fragmentation pattern of the various air-to-surface weapons in the U.S. inventory. But it wasn’t that “the dead” were depicted as squished bugs. People were not depicted at all. The software was developed to show how urban terrain would impact the blast and fragmentation pattern of a given weapon on a given target. The “splat” was about patterns, not people. To take one simple example, dropping a 500-lb, GPS-guided GBU-38 onto an open field would generate a significantly different blast and fragmentation pattern than dropping a GBU-38 onto a house with some windows and an open door. This software can incorporate diverse structural elements and produces a graphic image of the pattern in which some rays would protrude further from the center (e.g., where an open door stood) than others (e.g., where the windows were) and others would be even more stifled (e.g., by the concrete walls with no windows). The resulting image looks like a bug splat on a windshield. Benjamin’s interpretation is believable but not accurate. And each time her description is reflected and propagated in the literature, the accuracy and legitimacy of the ethics debate suffers another blow and the divide between military practitioners and the interested citizens for whom they fight gets a little wider.

So ubiquitous has this narrative become that artists in Pakistan have placed a massive portrait of a child on the ground such that it would be visible to MQ-1/9 crews. Concerned that “viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed,” the artists called the campaign “#notabugsplat.”

A sociologist, anthropologist, or social psychologists might, even with this better understanding of the software’s purpose, contend that the insensitive name belies animosity toward the enemy, suggesting that one wants to crush one’s enemies like bugs. Whether, or the degree to which, military members (and their civilian counterparts) view enemy fighters and the foreign citizens among whom they hide in this way is a discussion worth having, but not under the dim light of an incorrect etymology. There are two facts that are almost never cited alongside the “bugsplat” references. First, the purpose of the software has always been to better understand the precise effects of the weapons in order to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. Second, this “Bugsplat” software was renamed “Fast Assessment Strike Tool-Collateral Damage (FAST-CD)” more than a dozen years ago (2003). Filtering one’s view of how military personnel approach war through the outdated naming conventions of software engineers sidesteps the important questions that ought to be the subject of serious investigation. And yet, the misconception persists and has become endemic in the public mind.

While the dearth of first-hand accounts is clearly a contributing factor to such misconceptions, some who write as “drone experts” must accept a portion of the responsibility. Aware as we are that there are so few first-hand accounts, sources employed to supplement those accounts ought to be carefully vetted.

Immediately following Benjamin’s “bugsplat” description (separated only by a semicolon) she says that “‘squirters’ is slang for people scurrying away trying to flee the attacks.” On this, she’s right (even if “slang” is a poor word for it). As Benjamin’s references to bugsplats and squirters have made their rounds, some have carried the terms even further. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson’s 2016 book, Drone, follows Benjamin’s format: First talk about Bugsplat, then about squirters. But Gusterson adds, “such runners are called ‘squirters’ because it is assumed that they urinate on themselves in terror.” This is a false claim. “Squirters” are so named because, like a pinprick in a water balloon, through the infrared camera overhead the target they look as though they’re squirting out of the target building during a raid or kinetic strike.

In fact, the U.S. Air Force’s list of Sensor Tasking Brevity Terms include, among others, “SQUIRTER: a ground-borne object of interest departing the objective area.” This is not a “drone” term. Its use is not even limited to the Air Force. And it has not developed from the deviant sense of humor of an immature MQ-1/9 pilot. Brevity terms exist to reduce unnecessary radio traffic. This term exists in the contemporary military lexicon because while briefing the sensor deconfliction plan to all aircraft in the stack before an operation, saying “Viper 21 has squirters” takes far less time than saying “Viper 21 will follow any ground-borne objects of interest departing the objective area.”

Gusterson’s source for the uretic interpretation is an article by Justin Randle in the London Review of Books Blog. Randle included the urination claim as a parenthetical without a citation.

Thus, in the absence of first-hand accounts and by means of less than careful reiteration, an anti-drone activist and a blogger have played far too great a role in determining how the public perceives the character and professionalism of MQ-1/9 pilots and sensor operators who fight on their behalf.

Other examples abound.

Serious scholars call MQ-1/9 “semi-autonomous” and “robotic,” even though no part of the weapons release process is automated. The rudimentary “autopilot” features that are available on the MQ-1/9 pale in comparison to the average modern aircraft. A journalist who presented to students and faculty at Colorado College claimed that the real problem with Predator and Reaper is that they are imprecise (though he said nothing of the imprecision of the language with which they are discussed). I recently helped to bring Air Force officers to the Air Force Academy to discuss various career fields with cadets. After about an hour of fielding cadet questions, an MQ-9 pilot leaned in my direction and asked, “Why does everyone want to ask me about PTSD?”

In the absence of first-hand accounts, an endless and circular discussion of these themes — saying things about what people are saying — has taken the place of a genuine discussion of the weapons systems and the warfighters. The would-be vacuum has been quickly congested with stories about stories; and the public conversation that ought to include both military members and civilians flounders.

The issues at stake in the “drone ethics” discussion are complex. A great many arguments that claim to challenge the ethical justifiability of remote weapons are in fact challenges to U.S. military policies. Through no fault of their own, MQ-1/9 aircraft and their crews have become emblematic of these concerns — an image on which to hang apprehensions and misgivings about asymmetric war and counter-terrorism operations. As a result, complex questions masquerade as simple ones.

For example, here’s a simple question: Do MQ-1/9 pilots suffer from PTSD? The easy answer: Yes, at similar rates as airmen that operate other major weapons systems. Here’s a harder question: What did the revelation that MQ-1/9 crews can suffer from PTSD do to public perception of (and empathy toward) the crews?

An easy question: Do “drone strikes” violate U.S. law in any way that traditional air-to-surface strikes do not? The easy answer: No, they don’t. Claims that they do are always accompanied by a qualifier. Drone strikes “beyond the battlefield,” or “drone assassinations,” or “US drone strikes against US citizens” may be illegal (or may not be). But if they are illegal, it is because of the context, not the weapon. There are more difficult questions still: What do domestic laws say about violating Westphalian sovereignty? What should they say? How closely should domestic laws mirror international legal norms? Do weak states enjoy the same rights as strong ones? Should they? What should be the limits of executive authority when one’s own citizens take up arms against the state?

Here’s another easy question: Do some Americans have a problem with MQ-1/9 even if they don’t have a problem with traditional airpower? The easy answer: Yes. The harder question: Why? Why is this weapons system, or method, or technology the catalyst that has caused many to doubt the morality of precision air strikes, targeted killing, or aerial bombardment in general?

As I have written elsewhere, some of the responsibility for failing to address the more important questions falls to senior U.S. military leaders who, in prioritizing security over transparency, have allowed operational security concerns to silence the first person narrative. But surely some share of the responsibility must fall at the feet of those who write, not about these aircraft, but about what people are saying about them.

What is to be done?

For the moment, there are three course corrections we might make to address these issues.

First, those who read about MQ-1/9 should do so with a moderate, but healthy, skepticism. I have yet to read the book that gets it right (and many have gotten it very wrong). In this subset of the American military, more than in many other areas, the chasm between those who do the job and those who write about the job is vast. Epistemic humility may, perhaps, always be a virtue, but it is especially so here.

Second, those who write should be careful. We should take great care that our claims about these weapons systems are not merely well-cited, but accurate. In the absence of a large and up to date narrative sampling, writers from across the academy and commentariat will face a strong temptation to generate narratives because they are interesting or confirm pre-existing opinions rather than seeking out what is true and building a narrative on that basis. Perhaps, in investigating the story of the Predator and Reaper, we may find the storyline to be more familiar than sensational—more like traditional airpower and less like a revolution. True stories are worth telling, even when they are familiar. The political environment in which we work is perhaps one in which truth-seeking can be a thankless task; but that makes it more important, not less.

Finally, the people who know all — or most — should talk more. War stories written by fighter pilots, Navy SEALs, and commanding generals flood the “new releases” shelves, but authentic MQ-1/9 stories are difficult to come by. U.S. Air Force MQ-1/9 crews have begun to address this issue recently through short video stories, each of which documents, from the mouths of the pilots and sensor operators themselves, the current fight against ISIL. Crew members and commanders recount the first aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the first air strikes against ISIL targets in Northern Iraq. Others tell the story of an MQ-1 strike against an up-armored car bomb headed toward U.S.-aligned forces in Syria. Pilots of the Reaper-led air war that liberated Manbij tell the story of what their precision strike capability has done to push ISIL out of the city while at the same time leaving it intact for the refugees who would return.

These men and women are doing important work in the service of their country and in defense of the citizens of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s time we let them speak for themselves.


Joe Chapa is a Major in the U.S. Air Force and a Senior Instructor of Philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College and will begin doctoral work in philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford this fall. He is a senior pilot with more than 1,000 pilot and instructor pilot hours. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo, by Airman 1st Class James Thompson