by Rubab Zaidi

Over the past several years, dialogue surrounding military engagement has increasingly focused on one enigmatic buzzword: drones. Formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones are being hailed as the future of modern warfare, gaining predictable support in an era of sustained international conflict. By many accounts, exacting precise kills at minimal cost to military personnel has never been easier; drone strikes rely entirely on attacking an enemy’s precise location remotely, ensuring the physical safety of troops and a significantly diminished burden to equip costly military bases abroad.

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial attack vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and missiles.  (U.S. Air Force photo Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, Released)

On the surface, this revolution in war-making seems replete with promise; one is even tempted to frame it, as one journalist recently did, as the most humane, practical approach to war. Worryingly, however, discussions advocating the military use of drones often skirt around a very essential consideration: is the long-term societal impact of drone strikes, especially insofar as they affect civilian populations, truly worth these calculated advantages? Given the severe trauma we now know to be one social outgrowth of repeated drone strikes perpetrated in an area, is it likely that we are making ourselves less secure in the long run, with an added cost of unforeseen levels of human suffering?

In September 2012, a sobering response to such questions hit the airwaves. The findings of the much-anticipated Stanford/NYU field report, “Living Under Drones,” were released.  Researchers found that U.S. officials have willfully downplayed the proportion of civilians killed by American drones in Palestine, as “the number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just two percent” and that furthermore, “evidence suggests that U.S. strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.” Additionally, psychological trauma and associated mental health concerns are sharply on the rise in affected locales, most of which lack the resources to address such issues. Education–one of the most essential keys to forging an educated, nonviolent society immune to the cultivation of terrorism–has also taken a hit. Many children have been pulled out of school by worried parents, and still others have dropped out as a result of trauma or injury.

The overall picture the Stanford/NYU study paints of targeted societies is an incredibly dismal one: in the face of drone strikes, life comes to a standstill for civilian masses, who simply yearn to enjoy ordinary lives free of fear from terrorists and faceless flying weapons. The more our mysterious aerial devils disrupt their lives, the greater the likelihood that traumatized civilians will find comfort in the virulently anti-American rhetoric of groups like the Taliban—a paramount danger to our avowed mission to eradicate terrorism. As retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal–a starch critic of military drone use–notes, drone strikes are a “covert fix to a complex problem,” and are perceived on the receiving end as a gesture of war no less extreme than a ground operation.