Report on the Senior College Colloquium on the Military Use of Drones

13 October 2016, Senior College Centre

Prepared by Edna Hajnal

Nine participants, including moderator Peter Russell and reporter Edna Hajnal.

Background Information and Readings suggested and circulated to participants by Peter Russell:

Scott Shane, Objective Troy; a Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone. 2015.

David Cole, “The Drone Presidency” in New York Review of Books, August 16, 2016. Reviews the following books: Hugh Gusterson , Drone: Remote Control Warfare; Jeremy Scahill, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program; David Cortwright, Rachel Faihurst and Kristen Wall, Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict; Peter L. Bergen and David Rothenberg, editors, Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law and Policy. Cole highly recommends Gusterson.
Review in a recent Economist of a book by Roseanne Brook, How Everything Became War and the War Became Everything.

The film Eye in the Sky was also mentioned. It takes a morally responsible approach, surprising in an otherwise melodramatic subject in cinematic terms. The roles of both Helen Mirren as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the program for the British and Alan Rickman as the Chief of Military Staff were both very commendably performed.


Journalist Scott Shane and two colleagues at The New York Times made the American public aware of the military use of drones, the contrast and conflict between Barack Obama, a President with leftist foreign policy, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, scientist, scholarly imam and writer who used the internet to advocate a holy war against the enemy. The FBI kept him under surveillance, especially his sexual activities – “a sexual beast”. His training as imam was informal, from a mentor, his reading and propaganda. His radicalization started with reaction to 9/11.

Obama had been critical of the Bush regime, especially the practice of “boots on the ground”. He has relied for military advice on both the Pentagon and CIA. The U.S. President is surrounded by the omnipresent military. He believes in fighting terrorism with military might. He was persuaded by advisors to use drones, with the justification that there would be little collateral damage, no need for boots on the ground, and action far from the homeland. It has not worked out that way, as problems and evidence to the contrary became apparent. These problems include: lack of accountability; many Muslims moving toward fundamentalism; reaction to 9/11 with increasing negativity to Moslems and anything Islamic; increasing counter-productivity of drones. Moreover, it proved difficult to determine whether there is an imminent threat that would justify the use of drones, even with professional intelligence backup. The intelligence service is rarely accurate. It can be argued that the best intelligence is free journalism.

Other aspects of using drones involves the difficulty in recruiting people to look at screens and plan and carry out drone attacks because they feel responsible for killing civilians including children. Many have developed PTSD. (At least one suicide per day is the result of PTSD but higher among veterans. The U.S. is now investing more money in helping vets.) There are many moral and ethical dilemmas: are drones ethical to use? In combat decisions have to be made constantly; the pilot of a plane doesn’t see the victim and isn’t held accountable for killing. It is difficult to tell a wedding party from a radical gathering. In contrast, drone targets are monitored efficiently and in real time. As well, drones are relatively inexpensive and easily available, including potentially to terrorists. It is only a question of time needed for terrorists to also acquire the technology to add military payloads to drones.

Participants ended the colloquium with a discussion of the need for an international treaty (under UN auspices) to control the military use of drones. Questions were raised about the objectives of such a treaty and ways to accomplish them. Canada has the potential to take the lead in pushing for such a treaty, as it did for the treaty banning landmines. Middle powers are susceptible to shaming and are more likely than great powers to sign and ratify international treaties. A related question: How does a government outlaw drones but not bombs? (The US bombs Pakistan with passive permission of the Pakistani president, but is opposed by the parliament.)