In the essay "We have always fought" by Kameron Hurley, she makes the following claim:

We don’t kill “fifteen year old boys” but “enemy combatants” (yes, every boy 15 and over killed in drone strikes now is automatically listed as an enemy combatant. Not a boy. Not a child.).

I have heard similar claims made by other sources, often referring to "fighting age" men instead. What is the evidence for this claim? Is there an official statement or policy that declares all adult males to be combatants? Are there examples of adult males killed by drone strikes counting as civilian casualties?

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    Why do you seem to assume that 15 year olds can't be combatants? Lots of examples from European history.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:32
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    Neither I nor the claim I quoted assume this. I'm asking whether men above a specific age are counted as combatants by default, regardless of their actual status
    – pidan_dan
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:48
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    @jamesqf Questioning something doesn't imply disagreement.
    – LCIII
    Sep 14, 2017 at 16:02
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    Is this question only about Americans and for Americans? Sep 17, 2017 at 8:55

3 Answers 3


The claim boils down to

...every boy 15 and over killed in drone strikes now is automatically listed as an enemy combatant...

Most drone strikes have been performed so far the US or UK military. So I guess the claim might be about some of these.

Also it is unclear (even from context) which list is meant specifically. There is no complete official list of drone strikes from the US or UK military. Most information comes from NGO organizations like dronewars or reprieve which in turn rely partly on non-exhaustive, summarizing official reports of government agencies, partly on local media reports after drone strikes took place.

For example, the UK ministry of defense seems to use the terms insurgent, civilian, child in their reports of drone strikes. They do not specify the age or role of the killed people, instead just count them as fatalities (civilian or combatant).

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism US officials or spokespersons are quoted speaking about air strikes against "individuals threatening the force" which might be seen as a synonym for combatant. The possibility of hitting individuals not threatening the force seems to be not discussed very often from an official side.

A report in the NY Times discussed a disparity of the number of civilian casualties from drone strikes and another article there mentioned that "all military-age males in a strike zone [are counted] as combatants, according to several administration officials". However, the article fails to name the administration officials although it could explain the usual low number of reported civilian casualties. However, this could also be explained by really precise drone weapons, difficulties in determining the status of drone strike victims or deliberate misinformation.

The report on Counting Deaths from Drone Strikes created by the Columbia Law School concludes that "the uncertainty about civilian deaths is largely due to the U.S. government’s resistance to openly providing information about strikes.".

All in all, I conclude that most official reports available do not specifically mention the status of a drone strike victim and while there is an indication that the US government might count all "military-aged" male victims as combatants (which would make the claim true) it is not sure because there is not enough available information about the details of the process of officially determining civilian and military casualties as well as the total count. It may be plausible, but we don't know for sure.


The New York Times reported in the 29 May 2012 article Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

A few days later, Justin Elliot reported (in reference to the above NYT article):

Crucially, the White House has done nothing to knock the story down. I gave the White House a chance to respond, and it declined to comment on the record. But speaking on condition of anonymity, an administration official acknowledged that the administration does not always know the names or identities of everyone in a location marked for a drone strike.

"As a general matter, it [the Times report] is not wrong that if a group of fighting age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed that all of them are in on that effort," the official said. "We're talking about some of the most remote places in the world, and some of the most paranoid organizations on the planet. If you're there with them, they know you, they trust you, there's a reason [you're] there."

According article 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the United States signed but did not ratify:

States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities

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    A conclusion or some commentary would be good. It is unclear whether this source counts as evidence for or against the original quote. For instance, where a strike goes awry and destroys the wrong house, the quote you provided would seem to imply that any 15+ males would count as civilians, whereas the quote in question would count them as combatants.
    – Scott
    Sep 13, 2017 at 2:10
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    @einpoklum This 1988 article says that the US opposes raising the minimum age for combatants from 15 to 18. nytimes.com/1988/12/01/world/… I don't know if the information in the article is all still current, but the part about being able to join the US military at age 17 is still true.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 13, 2017 at 12:51
  • Reminder: Comments should be to improve the answer, not share your political views.
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 13, 2017 at 23:53
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    Thank you for finding these sources, that NYT article is probably what spread the idea of "all adult males counted as militants". The full article seems to say that the US determines whether civilians would be struck before ordering a drone strike, but also that there is often no investigation into the actual identities of victims after the fact. I think your answer could be improved by summing up this context.
    – pidan_dan
    Sep 14, 2017 at 5:00
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    @Scott It seems like this answer gives us all the available information and we can draw our own conclusions; anything more would essentially be editorializing.
    – Casey
    Sep 14, 2017 at 17:51

Unlikely. The term "combatant" is somewhat ambiguous and has changed meaning in recent years in the US. You can read more about it here, but essentially:

"Enemy combatant" shall mean an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.

That definition was given in the 2004 rules for Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the definition used by some US courts (more info)

More traditionally a combatant is someone taking part directly in an armed conflict.

It seems very unlikely that any male over 15 would automatically be considered a combatant purely based on their sex and age. The claim seems to suggest that to be the case even when civilian targets were hit. This would violate a number of US and international laws and there are no evidence to that effect.

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    "It seems very unlikely that any male over 15 would automatically be considered a combatant." It's any male at the drone strike zone and while this is still not likely to be true, there is an incentive to do so - keeping the number of civilian/unknown casualties artificially low. If you ask me, often it is not sure if someone is a combatant or not. Sep 14, 2017 at 15:39
  • Perceived incentive does not mean it's actually happening. I do have an incentive to rob a bank but I'm not.
    – ventsyv
    Sep 14, 2017 at 15:47
  • The practice specifically refers to whether to tally casualties as "combatant" or "non-combatant" after a drone strike. In those circumstances it is quite difficult to tell who is or isn't "engaged in hostilities in with the United States," particularly in a country where it is common for normal people to have AKs. So I don't think you're answering the question.
    – Casey
    Sep 14, 2017 at 17:55
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    Based on the evidence of the other guy's post with the Times article I think that is likely what they do, though. Reading between the lines, the other quote in that answer does not deny the accuracy of that report.
    – Casey
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:57
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    "Perceived incentive does not mean it's actually happening. I do have an incentive to rob a bank but I'm not." You aren't? But you could. How would I know? If you don't know whether a claim is true you should just write that you don't know (and present the search that yielded no results). Sep 15, 2017 at 9:00

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