There is an eerie Orwellian cost to the Obama administration’s refusal to use the term “War on Terror” to describe its...war on terror. In his briefing after the White House’s admission that two hostages — one American, one Italian — were killed in a U.S. “operation,” press secretary Josh Earnest struggled mightily to avoid the word “war” to describe exactly what the United States is up to. Finally he gave in and stated that under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, the nation is “at war” with al Qaida.
Why do the words matter? Because the inevitability of civilian casualties, even in the most justified of wars, is accepted both in international law and in the ethics of war. Civilian casualties are never good. They are a tragedy, a terrible cost that must be avoided whenever possible. But in wars, they happen.
As the philosopher Michael Walzer has pointed out, in the fluidity of minute-to-minute wartime decisions, it’s not possible to act with the sort of precision that might be called for in the classroom. Targeting noncombatants is forbidden. Nevertheless, they always suffer horribly in war.
The problem the White House faces is its stubborn insistence that its non-war is being fought with precision. Earnest used that very word repeatedly. But it’s hard to take the claim seriously in light of calculations, like those published in the Guardian last November, that U.S. efforts to kill just 41 leaders of al Qaida and other groups caused some 1,147 civilian casualties. Even if we discount that number by half, the tradeoff involved is profoundly troubling.
The sort of war the administration is waging requires extraordinarily accurate intelligence. Earnest said in his briefing that a strike is not permitted unless there is “a near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed. In wartime that standard would be impossible to meet. Claiming that a war isn’t a war doesn’t make meeting the standard any easier.
I am not suggesting that calling the War on Terror a war would make civilian casualties any more justified. But it might force the administration to concede that we simply lack the intelligence resources to establish a guarantee against killing noncombatants. And once the administration admits the inevitability of significant numbers of civilian deaths, we might be able to engage in serious public conversation about the morality of the drone war.
That’s a conversation we need. Although the frequency of drone attacks has tapered off lately, they have been the Obama administration’s principal anti-terror weapon. During Obama’s first year in office alone, the United States conducted more drone strikes than in the entire eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Given military budget constraints, Obama’s successor will likely operate a similar policy. So the time to thrash out the ethics is now.