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Drone killings: a result of our animal instincts?

United States

A US drone, armed and ready to fire.

Photo by an Honourable German under a CC Licence.

Recently the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay called for a probe into US drone strikes in Pakistan arguing they ‘raise serious questions about compliance with international law’ and cause ‘indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians.’

The Obama administration’s response displays a strange kind of psychology at work. The US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta lashed out that the US is ‘reaching the limits of patience’ with Pakistan. It’s almost as if the US government are the real victims of the drone strikes, that are reportedly being stepped up.

When we talk ‘jungle law’ this is as close as it gets. When the strong prey on the weak and when laws are increasingly dismissed, then animalistic behaviour starts to emerge. So to get a better insight into drone warfare perhaps we should approach this topic not merely as political analysts, but from the viewpoint of a zoologist.

Of all jungle animals the chimpanzee is often considered the closest to humans. The world’s foremost primatologist Jane Goodall was once criticized by some colleagues for publishing findings on inter-community aggression among chimpanzees that drew parallels with warfare. She was accused of giving a foothold to people who wanted to maintain that war and violence are part of our genetic make up and therefore inevitable.

‘Of course we do have aggressive tendencies,’ Goodall argued. ‘But I believe that we have more capability than any other creature to control our biological inheritance – and we do so most of the time. Chimps act the way they feel, unless they are afraid of reprisal if they do so. But that doesn’t apply to humans.’

Bypassing natural revulsion

But could US drone strikes actually be a way of overriding our natural instincts? The answer may lie in a 1996 book by Dave Grossman On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society which contains fascinating data on how – contrary to the idea that we are aggressive – the human brain is hard-wired against killing other humans. In World War 2 only 15-25 per cent of infantry combatants were willing to fire their rifles. The number shot up to 50 per cent during Korean War and later to 90 per cent in Vietnam. This increase was arguably due to operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, a form of learning whereby an individual will modify behaviour based on consequences.

Humans have much in common with chimpanzees.

Photo by Bradypus under a CC Licence.

So by creating distance between killer and target, drones can bypass this natural revulsion towards killing other humans. Today drone operators zap targets from distances of thousands of miles like a video game. By removing our naturally-installed barriers to killing other humans these drones make eliminating human life dangerously easy.

Yet another way to create distance between killer and target is de-humanizing the ‘other.’ A moral distance can be further achieved by painting the target as some kind of threat. Media outlets have made a habit of unquestioningly reporting drone strike victims as ‘suspected militants.’ But a recent New York Times article revealed drone operators see ‘all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.’

By openly flouting international laws and conventions, the War on Terror has become a macrocosm of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

In its wake American columnist Glenn Greenwald issued a scathing critique: ‘For now, consider what this means for American media outlets. Any of them which use the term “militants” to describe those killed by US strikes are knowingly disseminating a false and misleading term of propaganda. By “militant,” the Obama administration literally means nothing more than: any military-age male whom we kill, even when we know nothing else about them... Any media outlet that continues using it while knowing this is explicitly choosing to be an instrument for state propaganda – not that that’s anything new, but this makes this clearer than it’s ever been.’

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

For drone operators lives of innocent tribesman in Pakistan or Yemen are apparently expendable in order to get at potential Al-Qaeda targets. Here again we find a commonality between humans and chimpanzees since both form ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group.’ Indeed US government, by having ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, shares rather dubious company with likes of Al-Qaeda since both justify killing innocent civilians to attain particular goals.

By openly flouting international laws and conventions, the War on Terror has become a macrocosm of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where a group of children become marooned on an island and their morals and perspectives begin to degenerate. The children’s distancing from civilized behaviour is a result of their hunting for meat which they come to prioritize over building shelter and being rescued.

Paradoxically the more people killed in these wars the more paranoid American leadership becomes about matters of security – a natural outcome of following irrational policies. A few years ago a psychologist at the University of Virginia found that emphasizing how violence is an instinct we share with animals could reduce support for war against ‘outsiders.’ Another study found chimps follow their leader even if it’s a ‘stupid’ thing to do (which gives all the more reason not to blindly lap up government rhetoric).

No matter how technologically advanced humankind may become, it’s entirely possible on the inside we may be unable to shake off our more primitive instincts. Conducting an unending War on Terror using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is one manifestation of such atavistic thinking.


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