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If Drone Strikes Are "Surgical," the U.S. Is Guilty of Military Malpractice

October 2, 2012 ·

The U.S. use of drones in Pakistan is not only illegitimate, but less precise than advertised.

The U.S. use of drones in Pakistan is not only illegitimate, but less precise than advertised.

In his latest salvo at the U.S. drone campaign, Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic's resident anti-militarist, writes about his exasperation with the terminology "surgical" when applied to drone strikes. The Obama administration, he writes, has "successfully transplanted the term into public discourse about drones."

I've been told American drone strikes are "surgical" while attending Aspen Ideas Festival panels, interviewing delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and perusing reader emails after every time I write about the innocents killed and maimed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

It is a triumph of propaganda.

But, Friedersdorf points out:

Using data that undercounts innocents killed, The New America Foundation reports that 85 percent of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes are "militants," while 15 percent are civilians or unknown. What do you think would happen to a surgeon that accidentally killed 15 in 100 patients? Would colleagues would call him "surgical" in his precision?

No, he'd likely be named a defendant in medical malpractice suits. Friedersdorf again:

… it is a downright dishonest metaphor when invoked by an administration that could make their strikes more like surgery but doesn't. For example, the Obama Administration could make certain of the identity of the people it is "operating on." Instead it sometimes uses "signature strikes," wherein the CIA doesn't even know the identity of the people it is killing. It could also attempt autopsies, literal or figurative, when things go wrong. Instead, it presumes sans evidence that all military-aged males killed in drone strikes are "militants." 

Friedersdorf's criticism, of course, isn't constructive; he isn't seeking to assist in legitimizing our drone strikes. He's just pointing out that the program is even worse than it has to be.