The substantial increase in the employment of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other arenas has intensified the debate about the moral and legal nature of the targeted killing of people who are said to be civilians. As I see it, the United States and its allies can make a strong case that the main source of the problem is those who abuse their civilian status to attack truly innocent civilians and to prevent our military and other security forces from discharging their duties. In the longer run, we should work toward a new Geneva Convention, one that will define the status of so-called unlawful combatants. These people should be viewed as having forfeited most of their rights as civilians by acting in gross violation of the rights of others and of the rules of war.
To support this thesis, we must go back to the period in which the precept that currently dominates much of the public discourse on the issue at hand was forged. For generations, growing efforts had been made to limit wars to confrontations among conventional armies, sparing civilians. That is, a sharp line was drawn between soldiers (who were considered fair targets during war) and civilians (whose killing was taboo). True, these shared understandings were not always observed. Thus, during World War II, the Nazis tried to break Great Britain by bombing London, and their dive bombers attacked many other civilian centers. The Allied forces bombed Dresden, set a firestorm in Tokyo, and leveled Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, these attacks were condemned, or at least ethically questioned, precisely on the grounds that they eroded the line that ought to separate armed forces from civilians and protect the latter.
Over the last decade, however, we have witnessed a rise in terrorism with a global reach and potential access to weapons of mass destruction--the gravest threat to our security, as well as that of our allies and many others. These terrorists systematically and repeatedly use their civilian status to their advantage, both to enhance their operations and to mobilize public opinion. Thus, they have used ambulances to transport suicide bombers and their bombs--and have had their allies complain when security forces started checking ambulances, causing delays in their services. Terrorists disguised themselves as civilian passengers to hijack airplanes full of innocent people, turning the planes into missiles to kill thousands working peacefully at their desks--and afterward found people who complained vociferously about the security measures that were introduced to prevent such attacks. Furthermore, terrorists stored their ammunition in mosques, mounted antiaircraft guns on top of schools and hospitals, set up their command and control centers in private homes and made them into bivouacs, and then screamed bloody murder when any of these installations were hit by our bombers, artillery, or drones. In short, we must make it much clearer that those who abuse their civilian status are a main reason for the use of UAS and targeted killing against them--rather than merely against military targets.
Another way to illustrate this key point is to conduct the following mental experiment. Take any fighting force--for instance, the Japanese military in World War II. If that force is abiding by the rules of war--wearing clear insignia identifying the troops and their encampments, and thus the government that is accountable for their actions--they can be (and were) legitimately targeted, bombed, and killed. No one raises moral or legal issues--beyond a few pacifists who would rather surrender than fight at all--even if the particular unit is not engaged in battle: it might be resting in its camp, being resupplied, or training in the hinterland. Now imagine that the same troops--performing the same military roles--take off their uniforms, put on civilians' clothing, and move into civilians' homes, community centers, and shrines. …