10/17/2014 10:22 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

The Morality of Drones

John Moore via Getty Images

Every day brings fresh reports of our use of drones to suppress terrorists, usually in the Middle East, and there is an ongoing debate among thoughtful people about the morality of this weapon. There is something sinister and antiseptic about people sitting at computers thousands of miles away, sending instructions to high-tech weapons that rain death from the sky.

Called "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs) or "remotely piloted aircraft" (RPAs), drones have been around since the early 1960s and serve multiple uses. When I was in the Signal Corps, we used them primarily to gather intelligence about the location of enemy (or potential enemy) troops and positions. The most important weapon in the hands of any battlefield commander is accurate information. Today there are many positive civilian uses for drones, but the primary use -- and the one that is creating a legend -- is as a military weapon.

The Predator is one of the deadliest of drones. It looks like a praying mantis and fires Hellfire missiles right on target. The more recently developed Golden Hawk doesn't even need a controller. It can take off with all its instructions in its system. A Golden Hawk can fly from San Francisco to Maine, compile a complete map of the state, and return to San Fran on its own without refueling. We are clearly into a new age of aerial warfare.

The great advantage of drones, of course, is that when they malfunction or get shot down, we do not lose pilots, either killed or taken hostage. A drone is a piece of metal to be replaced. Also, drones are less susceptible to error than human beings. Today we have more people operating drones than flying aircraft. In fact, there is a common perception in the military that trained pilots make the best drone controllers if only because they understand what the world looks like from the sky and are better qualified to make tough decisions quickly. Also, we have a generation of young people who have grown up playing computer games, and drones must seem like a variation of those games, except that war is not a game. It is and always will be a major challenge to keep drone operators aware of that reality.

In the larger sense of what war is about, I see no unique issue with drones. It is true that even when used effectively, drones cause "collateral damage," which is a euphemism for killing innocent civilians, including children. And yet during World War II we carpet bombed major cities in Germany and Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nothing we do with drones can rival that level of destruction and killing, at least in terms of magnitude.

It appears we will be engaged in the terrorist war for a long time, and drones are a useful weapon. But we cannot win wars from the air, and we need to keep in mind -- we need to seriously consider -- the consequences of using drones. Every bit of "collateral damage" we inflict creates deep-seated bitterness against us that will linger long after the fighting abates.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight Jr. (USA-Ret) is the author of From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications (History Publishing Company).