Drone on about Just War

I’d like to look at a fairly recent Washington Post story about drone warfare. But before we look at it, let’s go back to June and look at a New York Times story on the same topic. Headlined “War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs,” the article is about the growth of drones. There were fewer than 50 a decade ago. Now there are 7,000. Some spy as well as strike. Manned aircraft are on the way out while the Air Force is training more remote pilots.

This is a very interesting trend and it immediately raises questions about whether the use of drones is more or less just. In the case of the Times story, they did get a quote from someone addressing the topic:

Large or small, drones raise questions about the growing disconnect between the American public and its wars. Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a videogame, inflict civilian casualties and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts. …

Within the military, no one disputes that drones save American lives. Many see them as advanced versions of “stand-off weapons systems,” like tanks or bombs dropped from aircraft, that the United States has used for decades. “There’s a kind of nostalgia for the way wars used to be,” said Deane-Peter Baker, an ethics professor at the United States Naval Academy, referring to noble notions of knight-on-knight conflict. Drones are part of a post-heroic age, he said, and in his view it is not a always a problem if they lower the threshold for war. “It is a bad thing if we didn’t have a just cause in the first place,” Mr. Baker said. “But if we did have a just cause, we should celebrate anything that allows us to pursue that just cause.”

Now, a moral theologian will tell you that this quote doesn’t do much other than begin the discussion on whether the use of drones is just. According to them, a just cause is a necessary cause but insufficient cause for making the determination of whether a war is just. Everything about how you conduct war comes into play.

The implications for drone warfare in Just War theory is a topic folks love to study and discuss and write about. Good religion journalists, such as the folks at PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, were writing about it a long time ago.

Which brings us back to the Washington Post article that ran over a week ago, headlined “A future for drones: Automated killing.” We’re told of criticism that the technology “makes war too antiseptic” and that they are “a challenge to the current understanding of international humanitarian law.” Sounds like a great time to bring in some Just War scholars or other ethicists. Then we’re given this quote:

“The deployment of such systems would reflect a paradigm shift and a major qualitative change in the conduct of hostilities,” Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said at a conference in Italy this month. “It would also raise a range of fundamental legal, ethical and societal issues, which need to be considered before such systems are developed or deployed.”

Consider those questions raised, Jacob Kellenberger! I’m sure the Post will now quote some people giving their thoughts on those raised questions, right? No. Instead we get this:

“Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions,” according to an Air Force treatise called Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047.

We get it! Now let’s talk about those ethical questions. And when we do, let’s make sure we bring in some Just War theorists and others who can help us navigate these very complex and thorny issues.

Instead we get a fairly dry discussion about how robots can be programmed to act “ethically” (whatever that means) and follow rules of engagement.

The reader who submitted this story commented:

The churches are collectively failing to apply the Just War theory to the changing nature of warfare. This is partly because journalists fail to see the ghosts involved. This article is an ideal example. Drone warfare raises questions of legitimate authority. A call to a major religious university – or a military chaplains school would uncover some sources. I’d be happy to come up with a list of suggestions.

Yes. An article about the ethical and humanitarian issues raised by drone warfare simply can’t get by without that discussion. And while I actually think there are quite a few people discussing this and saying interesting things about it. If we as a people are to engage in ethical combat, these voices are most helpful in navigating the thornier questions raised by technological advances. Their voices simply must be included in the debate.

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  • Bill

    The determination of whether a war is just, justified and legal is separate from operational considerations. A commander’s duty is first, to complete an assigned mission; second. to minimize casualties among his troops; third, minimize loss of their necessary equipment; and fourth, minimize collateral damage to non-combatants. It might sound hard and cold, but war is a nasty, brutal business. If the fight is not just and necessary, don’t get in it.

    Admittedly, there is something Death-Star creepy about a 22 year-old with a pony tail sitting behind a computer at Nellis AFB, killing people half a world away – to say nothing of automated drones that choose their own targets. Non-combatants should never be targeted, nor should the principle of proportionality be ignored. But drones are stand-off weapons, more accurate and specific than a flight of bombers. We have them; our enemies don’t. If you’re in a fight, that’s a very good thing. We somehow get squeamish about fights not being “fair.” But a commander who doesn’t take every opportunity to give his troops an “unfair” advantage is being negligent, not moral.

    The Church has been trying to minimize the destruction and death since the Peace of Christ and the Truce of Christ. But as Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, “War means fightin’, an’ fightin’ means killin’.” It’s all the more reason to be a lot more prudent about getting into wars than we have been. Chesterton reminds us that if it’s not a holy war, it’s an unholy one.

  • Bennett

    They also overlook the problem of how easily these things are hacked. I recall stories about how Iraqis with a $39 software package could patch into the drone feeds. For the time being, all they could do was watch the datafeed, but what happens when they can hijack it?

    That isn’t just a practicality issue, there’s a moral dimension to putting up a destructive weapon which could be easily subverted for use by anyone, anywhere. Manned vehicles can be captured too, sure, as can soldiers, but it’s just darned troubling to think of floating around Hellfire missiles in an environment where their delivery becomes, shall we say, a bit of a toss-up.

  • Evanston2

    Mollie’s post ends with “If we as a people are to engage in ethical combat, these voices are most helpful in navigating the thornier questions raised by technological advances. Their voices simply must be included in the debate.” Where to begin?
    “We as a people.”
    “Ethical combat.”
    “Simply must be included.”
    There is no nice or perfect way to kill somebody. We are neither omniscient, omnipresent, nor omnipotent. Drones reduce the risk to our forces (no pilots), reduce costs (less training, less maintenance, less fuel), and depending on the scenario reduce overflight issues with foreign governments and can increase effective range and loitering time. The bottom line is either you trust our armed forces to do their best to kill the right people when necessary or you just believe we’re bloodthirsty maniacs (I am retired USMC). There is no “we” that “simply must be included.” You want a “debate?” Then responsible journalists should compare real alternatives. Instead, we can expect idealistic droning on about drones. The same way the NYT claims there is a “growing disconnect between the American public and its wars.” Uh, exactly when were we connected? My service was post-Vietnam and during that era there was always a disconnect. Most decidedly with the NYT. Attempts to allegedly “reconnect” produce social experiments like DADT repeal. When will we see a study on the qualifications of (what the NYT calls) “military ethicists” to risk the lives of others from the “we” chair? Last time I checked, it’s called an “election” and the President frames the conflict and as Bill says in the first comment (above) the military does its best.
    Overall, I find the implicit assumptions of both Mollie and the NYT to be unprofessional and agenda-driven. Report the facts as they relate to reality instead of hyperventilating with childish fantasies. Drones are just another option in a large array. Again, there is no nice or perfect way to kill somebody.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The reality is far simpler. A war need be neither just nor legal. It merely needs to be successful.

  • Evanston2

    I just saw a sarcastic headline about Awlaki: “At least he was spared the horrors of Gitmo.”
    This is funny, but like all humor cuts where truth gets us a bit nervous. After all, could we have sent Awlaki to Gitmo? Well no, not if the NYT and most of those crying about “due process” had their way…which, by the way, they did. Gitmo is not an option. And that’s why I assert that journalists should present alternatives whenever (what Mollie calls) “the thornier questions raised by technological advances” arise “in the debate.”
    Shut down capital punishment and you get vigilantism. Shut down Gitmo and “we” must either totally nullify a threat or let it linger (like we did with Bin Laden for 8 years under Clinton and 8 months under Bush). Morality is more than a high minded exercise in empathy. It starts with survival and then a balance of costs versus risks. People operate this way and always will. What I derided on this page as the “we chair” is one that exists only because journalists keep these self-appointed experts in their electronic Rolodex.
    Does this “technological advance” really have lasting resonance — that is, what Mollie calls “a debate?” Tune in on election commercials. No one will run for or against drones. It’s a foregone conclusion to add to our array of options. The only time it will surface is when some liberal journalist tries to make this a “gotcha” question during a Presidential debate. No candidate, not even Obama, will apologize for these strikes. End of debate.

  • Ben


    The bottom line is either you trust our armed forces to do their best to kill the right people when necessary or you just believe we’re bloodthirsty maniacs.

    How about neither? Journalists aren’t in the business of trusting or believing without verifying.

    You want a “debate?” Then responsible journalists should compare real alternatives. Instead, we can expect idealistic droning on about drones.

    I think this is the central thrust of your two comments. You seem to want a story looking at various military options — if no drones, then what other tactics could be used, and would they be as effective? That’s a fine story, particularly for a Pentagon reporter or a military-focused news service. But it’s also valid to have a story looking at the ethical implications of drones regardless of whether there are military alternatives or not. One can approach right and wrong from a frame outside of what makes things easiest for the US military.

    In thinking about press coverage of the drones, I think it must be recognized that the vast majority of press reports merely indicate a drone strike has happened somewhere in Pakistan, killing x number of suspected militants (or maybe y high-profile terrorist). There might be one stock sentence thrown in about how the drones are unpopular in Pakistan. So, Evanston, to get upset at the occasional story that tackles the political or humanitarian impacts of drones as “droning on” I think really misreads the overall tenor of drone coverage, which is essentially ethics-free and would subtly normalize the relatively new practice if not for the occasional story that delves more deeply.

  • Evanston2

    Ben, I appreciate the careful reading of my comments that you clearly undertook. Now, it may seem disrespectful but the main thrust of your comment is an assertion: “…it is also valid to have a story looking at the ethical implications of drones.”
    I’m not upset at the story. Nor Mollie’s comments. I’m laughing at them, as well as your assertion — which consists of a blank check to cover any story that is “valid.” Go ahead, cover such stories. Because your journalistic blank check is not accompanied by an actual check, that is, money. This “issue” has no resonance as an issue among the general public.
    People no longer subscribe, literally and figuratively, to the type of journalism you advocate. As I said, the proof will be in the pudding. This will not be an issue pushed in campaign commercials. It may surface in a question by Wolf Blitzer, etc. during a debate and score points among those who never get their hands dirty with the real ethical issues involved.
    The real laugher is your closing line. Technological advances in warfare are constant. Application thereof only awaits the next conflict. Normal people understand the ethics involved: we want to make war as unfair as possible: that is, I want to be able to kill the other guy with no chance of him getting me.
    Overall, I am not upset at the story. I am not commenting on the story. I’m commenting on the hubris reflected in Mollie’s post — she is normally much more circumspect. You’re the one misreading the overall tenor of my comments: y’all have to write about something (after all, that’s what you’re paid for) but take some free advice and if you think ethics are somehow divorced from a discussion of alternatives, go back to school.