byFaith | 1.21.14
By Alan Dowd
Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (“UCAVs” in Pentagonese) have
killed lots of bad guys in recent years: Libyan tyrant Muammer Gaddhafi,
al-Qaeda’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
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 can and do 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);
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.
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
stuff. At worst, it appears how we employ
UCAVs is unjust on occasion.
It also may be that some of the reasons whywe 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 metal. 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.
Second, not only do drones make it easier to go to war; they
make it easier to keep wars going. With UCAVs, there is less political
pressure—at least domestically—to end hostilities “in a speedy and responsible fashion,” to quote one just-war thinker. Instead, presidents can dispatch
pilotless planes to wage war for years or decades.
Before scoffing at this, recall that today’s UCAV strikes
are conducted under the auspices of a 2001 war resolution that authorized the
president to target “those nations, organizations or persons he determines
planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on
September 11, 2001…to prevent any future acts of international terrorism
against the United States.” It would be
a stretch to say that this piece of legislation authorized—12 years later—an
autopilot war against targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia,
Mali and beyond. Those targets may indeed be enemies of, and threats to, the
United States. But few, if any, of them “planned, authorized, committed or
aided” the 9/11 attacks.
Put another way, UCAVs provide the means to wage longer,
more elastic wars than would be politically sustainable without them. A recent book
links the rise of drones to what its authors call “the permanent war.” The
problem, as former National Security Council official Paul Miller observes,
is that “wars are supposed to end…Endless
war is unacceptable and dangerous.”
The United States has every right to defend its interests
and values, but means and methods matter.
Third, drones make it harder to apply human judgment to the battle-space—that
area of land, sea and sky where war is waged.
The story of David and Goliath is instructive. Rather than
using a sword to kill at close range, David used the stand-off weapon of his
day: a slingshot. Yet David was close enough to hear Goliath’s taunts. In other
words, although technology allowed David to attack his enemy from a distance, David
remained in the battle-space.
Over the centuries, technology has increased the distance
between warriors, but not until the advent of drones did technology completely
remove the warrior from the battle-space. Many drone operators are based in
Nevada and New Mexico—more than 7,500 miles away from their targets. This is
transformational—and arguably not in a positive direction.
Separating the warrior from the battle-space worries Scott
Taylor, an F-15E pilot who served for 20 years, including in combat. Taylor compares
traditional pilots to cops on the beat and UCAV controllers to cops watching
the streets via closed-circuit TV.
“When police officers are on the street, the environment and
their proximity to the people in their realm of influence demand a different
level of judgment and accountability than would be required from someone
sitting in a control room,” he explains. “Just as the policeman on the street
brings judgment, a frame of reference and accountability to a situation, so
does the pilot in the battle-space.”
This is not to say that pilots do not have lapses of judgment.
But when that happens, we are able to hold them accountable for their mistakes.
There is some solace in this. War, as philosopher Michael Walzer observes, is
“a human action…for whose effects someone is responsible.” But who is
responsible when AWOL drones crash-land in Iran,
collide with cargo
planes, smash into Djiboutineighborhoods, veer so dangerously off
course that manned jets have to be dispatched to destroy them, or start
their engines autonomously?
Technological limitations aren’t the only drawbacks.
“It’s different to make a decision
to take a life or destroy a target when your own life is at risk,” Taylor argues—something
David understood when he faced Goliath. “When that element of the act of war is
removed, the sense of reality is removed.The
magnitude of the decision to take a life is entering virtual reality instead.”
Making war less real for those of us on this side of the drone revolution
won’t make it more limited or more just. As political theorist Michael
Ignatieff asks, “If war becomes unreal to the citizens of modern democracies,
will they care enough to restrain and control the violence exercised in their
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith's online magazine.