by Nicholas J. Vocca
Acting on the authorization of former President George W. Bush, a C.I.A.-controlled armed drone struck and killed a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant, Gaed Salim al-Harethi in the desert near Saan, Yemen, on November 3, 2002.
Though this was the first drone strike ever by the United States, it was not the first one in the history of war.
The Nazis targeted England with several thousand V1 "buzz bombs" and V2 rockets during World War II, and despite consistent criticism from the U.S. as practicing "extrajudicial murder," the Israelis have mainly used manned helicopters to launch missiles in what they call "focused foiling."
As for America's choice in using drones to fight the War on Terror, and whether these weapons are legal within the scope of the Geneva Convention's allowed weapons in a war where civilian casualties may result, the following should explain the answer(s):
The 1949 Geneva Convention IV: "The presence of a protected person, (such as a civilian), may not be used to render certain parts or areas immune from military operations."
1977 Additional Protocol I, Article 57.1: "The presence of civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations."
Long before drones were developed, the use of unmanned missiles have been permitted in warfare, regardless of the collateral damage(s) they sometimes inflict on civilians.
That being said, let us examine some differences between the modern day drones and the historic use of field artillery as a weapon of war back to its first documented use on the battlefield in China in 1132 when Chen Gui used cannons to defend De'an from an attack by Jurchen Jin.
Artillery barrages depend more on 'spotters' who relay the estimated range of an enemy gun position, or other high-value targets, such as weapons storage facilities, fuel dumps, supply depots, and heavy troop concentrations to coordinate the firepower in order to destroy these.
With its dispersion pattern at the point of impact, artillery personnel most always have to fire off multiple rounds to assure a total target hit which often increases the potential for more civilian casualties.
Even with today's advanced field communications, the risks for human error in sending or receiving information on an accurate coordinate-point is sometimes hindered by the loud bursts of outgoing or incoming shells, radio jamming by the enemy, or the failure to transmit clear and concise fire orders when under hostile enemy fire. As most know, it is these adverse conditions that have caused good soldiers to be killed by friendly fire, or entire villages nearby to be wiped out.
With their high-tech Multi-Spectral Targeting System camera and sensors, drones are the spotter that relay critical information about specific targets back to the command center where highly-trained professional targeting-cell operators confirm the lawfulness of a target before triggering the drone's missiles.
Though innocent civilians sometimes become collateral damage in a drone strike, the potentials for such are greatly minimized because drones only fire one or two G.P.S. or Laser-guided missiles.
Before commanders issue an order to authorize either a drone or artillery strike, their considerations in doing so must be balanced between the proportionate rate of civilian deaths or injuries that may occur and the military objectives they desire to achieve, just as the late-President Harry S Truman did when making his decision to use the Atomic Bomb on Japan.
In conventional ground warfare, the targeting of another human for extermination is based on their conduct. If they are pointing a weapon at you, or pose any threat against you or those in your unit, that person is entitled to be sent away as an enemy combatant, regardless of their country of origin, including the United States.
Numerous U.S. citizens of German, Japanese or Italian descent went back to the country of their national heritage and fought against American and Allied Forces in WWII, and it was not considered illegal to wipe them off during an engagement. Therefore, under the set rules of war, it is legal for the United States to kill an American citizen if they have left the country to fight with the enemy, or have somehow deserted their unit and defected to the other side.
Although the evidence supporting assertions that U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was an al-Qaeda operational leader has not been made public, we hope to hear over time that the two-drone C.I.A.-controlled missile strike that killed him in September 2011 was justified in order to remove the cloud of suspicion claiming this incident was a war crime perpetrated to eradicate him because he spoke too long, and too much, when making subversive remarks about the United States.
Because America and its allies are fighting a war where the enemy wears no designated uniform and has thereby abandoned the traditional ways of making themselves known to opposing forces, along with the fact that Islamic law allows for every household to possess an AK-47 and sufficient ammunition to protect themselves, the decisions to detain or fire upon anyone carrying a weapon are, at the very best, very difficult for troops to make, unless the unit is ambushed, which is often the case.
A sad but honest realization about al-Qaeda and its offspring groups is that they are a very tenacious, ruthless, and stealthy opponent which peaceful nations should never take for granted, lest they themselves are fools and desire to one day be overrun by the sleeper cells these extremists have in every nation around the globe.
This is an enemy which has caused allies to re-think and revise their strategies repeatedly, and one where they have sometimes had to set aside traditional warfare tactics in order to contain these insurgents and gather necessary intelligence.
"War is hell," and it will be only through our firm resolve and continued vigilance that will prevail in keeping this devil on earth from reaching our doorsteps.