Drones and Just War

23 Jan

From Alan Dowd in ByFaith:

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (“UCAVs” in Pentagonese) have killed some bad people in recent years: Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi, al-Qaida’s Anwar al-Awlaki, terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan — all without putting their operators in harm’s way. But the seductive promise of UCAVs obscures the moral questions associated with remote-control war.


First things first: The meta-argument over the morality of war is an important discussion, but it’s a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that people of faith often disagree about this. My starting point is that the author of Ecclesiastes conceded there is “a time for war” and that Jesus had sterner words for scholars and scribes than he did for soldiers. As military writer Ralph Peters observes, “Even in the Gospels … the thrust of the texts is to improve rather than abolish the soldiery.”


Indeed, Scripture and human experience have helped mankind develop codes of conduct for waging war. The byproduct is broadly known as “just war theory,” which calls on governments to stay within certain parameters in times of war. Among those parameters: The reason for going to war should be just (self-defense, redressing a wrong, answering an attack, defending others, protecting innocents); a nation should go to war only as a last resort; weapons should not be used indiscriminately; and force must be used in a proportional manner, which enfolds the notion that there should be limits on the duration of the war.


UCAVs, in and of themselves, don’t violate any of these parameters. But how and why we use them might. Like any tool — a hammer, a gun, a computer — drones can be used for right or wrong purposes.


Wrong Way?


The Brookings Institution estimates that as many as 600 of the 3,300 people killed to date by U.S. drones over Pakistan were not terrorists, but rather people in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to a New York Times portrait of the inner workings of the drone war, the White House has embraced a controversial method for determining civilian casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”


At best, that’s a creative way to justify some unpleasant realities. At worst, it appears that how we employ UCAVs is unjust on occasion.


It also may be that some of the reasons why we are employing UCAVs may be unjust, even if indirectly.


The main appeal of UCAVs is their ability to wage risk-free war — that is, war without any risk to those pulling the trigger. Having the capacity to conduct war by remote control opens the way to some very slippery ground.


First, risk-free war makes it easier to go to war. After all, the loss of a drone is the loss of nothing more than hardware. This has significant ramifications for when and whether American presidents wage war.


The prospect of risking and losing American lives — and justifying that to the nation — necessarily gives the commander in chief pause. But if there are no American lives at risk, it’s less likely that the parents, spouses, children, or congressional representatives of those pulling the trigger will raise a fuss. (In fact, 83 percent of the country supports the drone war.) Without this final, built-in check on war-making power, presidents might be tempted to order military action more casually — and war might become a first resort rather than a last resort. That appears to be where UCAVs are taking us.

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