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Good Reads: Drones, Al Qaeda, and American exceptionalism

The debate over the use of drones – President Obama's weapon of choice in the war against Al Qaeda – has gathered steam after the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / October 11, 2011

A US army soldier with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th tries to launch a drone outside Combat Outpost Nolen in the village of Jellawar in The Arghandab Valley on September 4, 2010.

Patrick Baz/AFP/File

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It’s easy to understand why the notion of fighting a war by remote control would appeal to a politician or military leader. With unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as “drones,” targets can be pinpointed from several thousands of feet in the air, fired upon, and eliminated, all without having to put boots on the ground.

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Drone wars lack the horrific death toll of traditional trench warfare, like the battles of Gettysburg, Stalingrad, or Gallipoli. Imagine a war without coffins draped with American flags, without yellow ribbons, without post-traumatic stress disorder. But drone wars are not bloodless, and for every “successful” strike against a “legitimate” target like Anwar al-Awlaki, there are several others that go astray, hitting a civilian hospital, a school, or someone who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the target.

The use of drones by the administration of US President Obama – he’s used more than any other US president – generates a fair amount of controversy over legalities and morality. Is it legal for a US president to order the death of another human being – and particularly, as was in the case of Mr. al-Awalki, a US citizen – on foreign soil, without congressional approval and without legal due process?

Peter Gelling, writing for the online news website Global Post, does a great job of laying out both the statistics and the ethical issues. Between 2004 and 2007, there were 13 drone strikes in total. In contrast, there have been 81 strikes so far this year in just Pakistan and Yemen alone, he reports. (Many more go unreported in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq.) If Al Qaeda ceases to exist as a functioning organization, it may very well be helped along by technological advances such as phone monitoring and the use of drones. But does this technology come with a cost?

Few would deny that targeted drones are preferable to carpet bombing, but their accuracy is reliant on accurate intelligence. And more than once the United States has gotten it wrong – perhaps most tragically on Oct. 30, 2006, when an errant drone strike obliterated an Islamic boarding school in Chenagai, Pakistan, killing 82 people.

That al-Awlaki was urging people, including US citizens, to kill Americans is not under dispute. As the Monitor’s Warren Richey notes in his coverage of the ongoing case of the “underwear bomber” in Detroit, Awlaki was in regular contact with those in the process of planning attacks against US civilians, giving both religious and practical guidance.

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