Yes, Drone Strikes are Legal and Moral

I must confess, I’m puzzled by Christian outrage at our drone campaign — the most precise aerial bombardment in the history of warfare.  In general, the rhetoric casts far more heat than light.  One hears words like “indiscriminate” (manifestly false), “assassinations” (by that measure, what airstrike isn’t an ‘assassination’?), and “war by joystick” (are stand-off attacks now immoral?), but these words and phrases aren’t a moral argument.  While I can understand better the argument that drones also kill civilians, there is no method or form of modern warfare that doesn’t kill civilians, and the military alternatives to drone strikes, such as conventional aerial bombardment or raids by ground troops, would endanger just as many — and often more — civilians as the drone strikes.

But if one backs up and drills down deeper into the opposition to drone strikes, one typically finds either pacifism, a denial of a state of war (in other words, viewing our actions against terrorists as law enforcement, not war), or a subtle combination of both.  In this post, I’m not speaking to the pacifists among us.  There is literally no means or method of warfare that meets with pacifist approval.  But for those who aren’t pacifists, the legal and moral analysis requires an answer to two broad questions:

(I) Are we lawfully and appropriately engaged in a state of war?  The phrase used to describe the “right to war” is jus ad bellum, and its parameters have been debated for hundreds of years — from Augustine to Aquinas to the Salamanca.  While the precise parameters of Christian just war theory are too complex for this blog post, suffice to say that the horror of modern warfare has led to an extension of jus ad bellum into a doctrine known as jus contra bellum, an effort to ban or prohibit all war.  The U.N. Charter — the primary document governing the legal right to wage war by nation-states — falls more on the jus contra bellum side of the spectrum, banning aggressive warfare between nation-states.  Article 2 of the Charter states:

  1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.
  2. All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter.
  3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
  4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Yet the charter doesn’t mandate pacifism.  Article 51 contains an important exception to this broad ban on “the threat or use of force”:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Unquestionably, the United States has suffered armed attacks from terrorist enemies, and it continues to suffer armed attacks.  While Americans had been repeatedly attacked by al Qaeda (sheltered and supported by the Afghan government) prior to September 11, 2001, the United States only launched a formal state of war in the aftermath of 9/11.  The broad — and overwhelmingly passed – Authorization for Use of Military Force states:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

While there are some who believe that the declaration was unwise and that law enforcement measures would be more appropriate in response to 9/11, as a matter of international and domestic law, we are in a state of “armed conflict.”  I have yet to hear a coherent non-pacifist, distinctly Christian argument that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were not acts of war and that America was not entitled to invoke its rights under international law to defend itself.  In other words, we’re not engaged in a law enforcement effort to reign in a mafia but instead a state of war to defeat a national enemy.

(II) If we are lawfully at war, are conducting the war lawfully?  First, a bit of history.  Scriptures contain surprisingly few guidelines for the conduct of war itself (indeed, God even mandated total war on the Canaanites), but following the horror of the Wars of Religion in Central Europe, the battered nation-states of the West began to develop a doctrine of jus in bello — right conduct within war.  The goals of this developing body of law were laudable: if war could not be avoided, assure that only combatants suffer its consequences.  Armies should not target civilians, they should not target civilian structures, and if combatants are disabled by wounds or captured, they should be cared for.  Out of these doctrines sprang the romanticized vision of 18th Century warfare — two colorfully-uniformed armies fighting on an open field in a “gentlemen’s contest” until one force gave way.  While this ideal of war began to crack during the French Revolution and Napoleonic eras (where the levée en masse mobilized the bulk of young French manhood for war), it crumbled away almost completely during the Civil War.  Because Southern society mobilized so completely to support and sustain large armies (despite a much smaller population relative to the North), it became an object of Union warfare to destroy the South’s very ability to wage war.  Thus, Sherman’s famous March to the Sea.  Total mobilization met total war.

This principle continued through World War I and (despite post-war efforts at reform and limitation) into the unprecedented carnage of World War II, when the world’s most powerful nations pulled the near-entirety of their human, agricultural, and industrial capital into a struggle for survival.  It’s a time we can scarcely now comprehend, when city-wide air strikes were the norm and fighting raged house to house, city-to-city without regard to the niceties of 18th century combat.

Shocked by a war far more destructive than the Wars of Religion, the international community once again endeavored to place effective limits on armed conflict — limits which survive today and govern American military forces.  In sum, American forces are limited by the principles of necessity, distinction, and proportionality.

“Necessity” or “military necessity” simply means that armed forces should limit their attacks to accomplish legitimate military objectives.  The central idea of “distinction” is to attack only military targets.  Finally, “proportionality” prohibits the use of force greater than required to achieve a military objective.  It does not mean fighting with equivalent weapons (you can bring a bomb to a gunfight — and I’d in fact encourage that).  Critically, military forces are also required to aid compliance with these principles by — among other things — avoiding use of civilian facilities, and wearing distinctive uniforms to assist in “discriminating” between military and non-military targets.  If an armed force tries to blend in with the civilian population and uses protected sites (such as churches, mosques, hospitals, etc.) for military purposes, then it is violating the laws of war.  Al Qaeda, its various affiliates and offshoots, and the Taliban violate the law of war intentionally and strategically.

In such circumstances, the requirement — in particular — of “distinction” is not unilateral and absolute.  In other words, the enemy’s failure to use uniforms and its persistent use of civilian buildings gives us greater latitude in the use of force, not lesser.  To be sure, we should do what we can to make sure that we’re engaging militants and not civilians, but the moral and legal responsibility for civilian deaths (assuming we are not grossly negligent or reckless) falls on the disguised militants,not on the uniformed Americans.  Here’s a concrete example: When I was in Iraq, it was well-known that al Qaeda would use a certain kind of civilian truck to carry and detonate VBIEDs (vehicle-borne IEDs).  They would dress like common farmers or merchants, drive up to Iraqi or American outposts, and detonate the vehicle.  As a consequence, we put in place elaborate procedures to try to stop vehicles far from our outposts and steer them a safe distance away.  One evening, a truck matching the exact description of a truck on our “BOLO” list (“be on the lookout”) came speeding towards one of our facilities.  The driver ignored hand signals, he ignored warning flares, and a soldier then fired a single shot into the engine block to stop the truck.  The bullet ricocheted off the target and straight into the heart of a young father of six — a completely innocent young father of six — who had been merely listening to the radio and driving, oblivious, to all the warnings around him.  To make matters worse, when he died, the truck rolled over into a ditch and killed the family’s entire herd of sheep that was in the back of the truck.  One bullet widowed a wife, left children fatherless, and impoverished the whole family.

I’ll never forget trying console the distraught soldier who fired the fatal shot. I told him that the moral responsibility for that horrible accident lay with the terrorists who disguised themselves as civilians and placed themselves behind the wheels of civilian trucks.  Absent that reality, that young man never would have been suspected, his truck never would have been threatening, and he would be alive today.

In other words, when civilians die because terrorists live and work and fight among them, it is the fault of the terrorists, not our soldiers.  They are violating the laws of war, not us.

What does this have to do with drones?  Well, since we are in a state of armed conflict, and the drones are used as weapons in that conflict, the question is whether they satisfy the requirements of necessity, distinction, and proportionality against the backdrop of the terrorists’ own war crimes.  Simply put, if drones don’t satisfy those criteria, none of our weapons (aside from snipers) do.  Drones can linger over targets longer than most fixed-wing aircraft, their sensors allow for target identification and evaluation at a level unprecedented in the history of war, they carry precision weapons — not “dumb” bombs — that almost always hit within mere meters of their aim point, and their limited payloads mean they don’t even have the capacity for the kind of mass destruction an artillery battery or B-52 can inflict.

And if you think it would be more precise and less destructive to put “boots on the ground,” you’re generally deluding yourself.  Firefights can spiral out of control very quickly, and providing proper support to “troops in contact” often results in massive devastation.  Again, I’ll give you a real-world example from Iraq.  In spite of receiving consistent and solid intelligence about the location and regular meeting-place of a well-armed al Qaeda cell, we were — inexplicably — denied permission to strike the target by air.  Instead, our troops had to go in by ground, and the result was tragic.  The al Qaeda cell faked surrender, ambushed our guys from the interior of a mosque, and triggered an intense, 36 hour firefight that left an entire village in ruins, two of our soldiers very severely injured, and an unknown (but large) number of dead Iraqis.  And a drone strike would have been immoral?

There is much hand-wringing over terms like “kill list” and characterizations of drone strikes as “war by joystick.”  But if the enemy refuses to wear uniforms, don’t we have to do the intelligence spadework to establish their identities?  Aren’t target lists a natural part of warfare?  And how close is close is close enough to satisfy the honor-bound impulses of those who generally aren’t wearing the uniform, won’t ever walk a patrol in an Afghan village, and romanticize “manly” combat like some militaristic English gentleman putting down the colonial rebellion?  The Taliban haven’t shot down a jet.  Are the pilots wrong?  Many of them don’t even fly out of bases in the combat theater. Believe me, a soldier under fire appreciates a drone strike, air strike, or artillery fire mission regardless of the danger to the drone operator, pilot, or artillerymen.

To be clear, I do think it’s interesting and worthwhile to debate and study the effectiveness of drone strikes.  Do they materially impair enemy capabilities?  Are they more effective than other forms of attacks?  A smart military is always evaluating and re-evaluating its tactics.  But at the end of the day, my question to those who decry drone strike is simple: If the military can’t use its most precise weapons to attack the enemy, which weapons can it use?

  • Brad Williams

    This debate has nothing to do with the precision of the weaponry used. It is whether or not this is a constitutional use of force and whether there is enough accountability in the process.

    We have declared war on “terror”, which is an emotion. So who, exactly, are we at war with? Anyone the state declares to be an instrument of terror? And is this a perpetual state of warfare that can never end, and thereby potentially make anyone a target of a strike as long as the President says, “This person/group is a terrorist.”

    Why would we ever have to declare war again? We can now send drones into any country and kill any person at any time as long as they are declared a threat.

    I think this is the heart of the objection. It is an abuse of Presidential authority, and I don’t see any way of us reigning it in.

    • David French

      But that’s not our current situation, Brad. The drone strikes are pursuant to the AUMF, passed overwhelmingly by Congress. The AUMF defines the enemy, and that enemy remains our enemy until it surrenders, is destroyed, or Congress withdraws its authorization. But this authorization was renewed in 2012.

      • Brad Williams

        “That enemy” is so broadly defined it could be anyone. Who has to surrender? I mean, who can we accept surrender from? Who speaks for “those nations, organizations, or persons (The President) determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11.”

        Never, I don’t think, in the history of the world has an “act of war” been perpetrated by a terrorist group. In all of civilized history, we have held a national sovereign to account for ‘acts of war’. But now we don’t have one. We have what amounts to a perpetual state of war with anyone the President says is a terrorist, and he is allowed to authorize actions against ‘terrorists’ in any nation that he finds them in. Can he blow them up in Mexico? Do we do an ‘act of war’ in Canada and say, “Sorry Canada, there were some terrorists there. We had to get them.” Because that is what this allows us to do.

        I think it is irresponsible, and I think that the fact that this is happening is a sign that the American public, as a whole, doesn’t even care. I’m not really upset that you might defend this state of perpetual war; I’m upset that this conversation isn’t even happening, and that the Commander in Chief is being given powers that basically lets him bomb anywhere in the Middle East without having to say anything but, “There were terrorists there.”

        • Brad Williams

          By, ‘this conversation isn’t even happening’, I mean that there isn’t a robust debate taking place. (Present company excluded, of course.) Most people have no idea what you are talking about here, I would think. But it does seem to be getting more traction of late, thank the Lord. The fact that drones were hardly even mentioned in the Foreign Policy debate means this is virtually a non-issue to both parties. (At least, it appears that way.)

  • Brad Williams

    Also, I am not a pacifist. I served for six years in the Army National Guard. My concern is about the limitation of government power, not the necessity of fighting a war.

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  • Craig

    Jesus would use drone strikes himself if he didn’t have tsunamis, earthquakes, pestilence, floods and lightning for dealing with these heathens. If terror from on high is good enough for Jesus how can it not be good enough for us? These holier-than-thou pacifists should take instruction from the Psalms: “God is ANGRY with the wicked every day. If he turn not, He will whet His sword; He hath bent His bow, and made it ready. He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death; He ordaineth His arrows against the persecutors.”

    Now, just as we inscribe “In God We Trust” on every nickel, let’s do the same in 500 point font upon every combat drone and upon every bomb we drop on these heathen nations. Some of them Wycliffe missionaries can help us with the translation.

    • Brantley Gasaway

      Craig–you must be a writer for the Onion! What great satire…at least I hope your comment is satire.

      • Craig

        Sir all I can ask is this: can you seriously look at that drone photo without whispering to yourself hallelujah? That blazing missile calls to mind the Lord’s own awesome handiwork. I’ve grown tired of Sunday School posters with big waves and storms and such. And I’d love to see Zondervan Drone Strike edition in NIV.

        • Brantley Gasaway

          WWJB: who would Jesus bomb, eh?

  • Patrick

    I disagree they are moral or lawful.

    We’re allowing agents of Caesar to anonymously pick and choose whom to kill knowing they are generally unarmed when killed and many of the dead will be uninvolved folks. That’s murder, not self defense. No lawful document in several centuries allows killing unarmed non combatants. The Bible certainly allows only self defense killing.

    Christians should not be involved in supporting killing anyone on the whims of some anonymous agent. For all we know, the person who decides to kill X person is a psychopath. Or evil themselves, some of the dead may not even be who we think they are. We’re way too quick to trust our own state, IMO.

  • Kullervo

    I admit to being baffled by the moral objection to drone strikes by anyone who is not a pacifist.

    • smallearth

      I’m not a pacifist, but I find drone strikes morally repugnant. The idea of killing people because you think they ‘might possibly’ be a threat to your nation is horrific. No human intel to prove a case… just death on a statistical likelihood that any group of men with weapons is hostile to the US…

      In any case, so what if men in Yemen/Pakistan are hostile to the US… is that a reason to kill them? Since when did killing people BEFORE they become an ACTUAL threat become acceptable?

  • Mark

    I loathe warmongers, whatever their race, creed, religion or . Murder is murder, all the words in the world can’t wash the blood off your hands. What about “double tapping?” The first comment0r is exactly right, that this is an abuse of executive power, and that Americans- who can call themselves “Christian”- can absolve themselves of their guilt by hiding behind words- and excusing all civilian “collateral damage” as being excusable, because, after all, the victims just are not Americans, are going to have to answer to that higher power they call upon to justify… Terror… The President is NOT a King. Stop empowering the grandiose delusion that he is.

  • Ogrepete

    While I didn’t take time to read the entire post, David, I think I got the gist of what you are saying. My bottom line is that if someone is trying to kill me, I’m going to try and kill them first.

    Drones make that job easier for our soldiers, so I am fine with their use on foreign soil.

    • Patrick


      Because exploding unarmed humans and their families whom we do not know for a 100% certainty 5000 miles from our state are even people who could or would come here to harm us is morally questionable. Not to mention our state might just decide believers or simple opponents of US foreign affairs MIGHT need this treatment.

      Christians did not used to give Caesar the authority reserved for God in the beginning. That’s a later development. I expect the Christian martyrs of the Nero era might like to speak up about this late paganism of ours. The US state is not Yahweh and should not be given that trust by the Christians of the USA..

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  • Bert Chapman

    I advise the pacifist peons who are so concerned with the “propriety” of drone strikes to take their concerns directly to Islamist terrorists and and directly confront them about their evil tactics. You should go to Waziristan, Gaza, Syria, Iran, and other areas of the Islamic world and ask them why they think blowing themselves up and blowing other people up will get them to heaven, ask them why they persecute and Christians, Jews, and others not adhering to their idealized conception of Islam, ask them why they enslave women, them why every country that implements Sharia rule is a socioeconomic disaster, ask them why they want to obtain nuclear and other mass destruction weapons to use against we “infidels.” etc. For your commitment to social justice, peaceful dialogue, and reconcilation, you may get laughed at before you are summarily and sadistically executed by the jihadis!

    • Adam L.

      “For your commitment to social justice, peaceful dialogue, and
      reconcilation, you may get laughed at before you are summarily and
      sadistically executed by the jihadis!”

      That’s precisely what happened to Jesus.

  • Longtorso

    “Because exploding unarmed humans and their families whom we do not know for a 100% certainty 5000 miles from our state are even people who could or would come here to harm us is morally questionable. ”

    To say the least.

    • David French

      100% certainty is the standard in war?

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  • Marty Troyer (The Peace Pastor)

    Clear and well done piece using Just War theory to defend something fewer Evangelicals are defending than one might think.
    My disconnect with your reasoning is not because I’m a committed peacemaker. It was based on your sources and on your context. Here’s my dialogue with your post (and other Christian blogs that critique drones):

  • Adam L.

    “If the military can’t use its most precise weapons to attack the enemy, which weapons can it use?”

    Sorry to butt in, but this is the greatest case for pacifism I’ve ever heard. There is no middle ground. Either you are against war, or you are for the unrelenting terrorizing of entire communities with no terms of surrender available.

    Most of the strikes carried out are ‘signature strikes’. This basically means they bomb any group that gets together because it might be insurgent activity.

    Sometimes kids are killed in these strikes. People in these communities know they can’t have a funeral to honor them because the funeral party might get bombed.

    “What happens now is that not many people go to funerals because funerals have been struck by drones. Many people are scared… People go to help, and then a drone strikes them.” — Firoz Ali Khan (anonymized name)