It's an Unfair Fight

Paul F. M. Zahl is president emeritus of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the author of Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Eerdmans).

America's use of unmanned predator drones to kill people by remote control is laying up for us a harvest of judgment to come. And I don't mean just the judgment of God, but also an enduring hatred of our country on the part of defenseless people, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, it is wrong to conduct war when one side in the fight does not see the mortal results. The United States Air Force and the CIA operate predator drones thousands of miles away from the intended targets.

From our side, the operation proceeds entirely through the filter of a far-away video camera. There is no possibility of making eye contact with the enemy and fully realizing the human cost of the attack.

This argument is useful against many forms of combat, including almost all air bombings. George Bell, the bishop of Chichester in the Church of England during World War II, used to carry in his pocket photographs of charred human remains from Royal Air Force bombing missions in Germany. He argued that if the British pilots could just look at those photographs, they would refuse to fly any more missions.

The same thing applies to predator drones. A technician can sit in front of a console at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and conduct a lethal operation while being entirely insulated from the thing he or she is doing. (Incidentally, the number of innocent casualties of drone attacks may be much higher than official reports, based on credible reports from people on the ground.)

In addition, unmanned predator drones prevent war from being a fair fight. They emasculate the enemy.

I use emasculate intentionally, because our victims live in societies where male humiliation is a fate almost worse than death. This method of fighting reduces people on the ground to a condition of absolute helplessness, because they cannot fight back against unmanned drones.

This reduction of the enemy to absolute helplessness is good for us, you may say. It means we can't lose! But it also creates resentment in the people we are fighting. We have a growing concern about this. You can read about it in journalist David Ignatius's Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage, in which a brilliant terrorist is "born" from a drone attack on his family and village. A lifetime of revenge is birthed from one "silver glint" way up in the sky that kills without warning or recourse.

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People can't be expected to take this one-sided warfare "lying down." This is not a David versus Goliath scenario. It is a case of the Philistines telling the Israelites that they are not even permitted to put a champion on the field.

Let Character Prevail

Daniel M. Bell Jr. is a professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Brazos Press).

If the question regarding the use of drones is about the physical or psychological distance between the trigger and its effects, then the answer is no, the use of drones is not intrinsically immoral. Just war as a Christian discipline does not require proximity. One is not required to stare into the enemy's eyes as one pulls the trigger. If proximity were a condition of just war, just war would be a matter of fisticuffs and knives, and the chain of command (a kind of remote control for war) would be pretty short.

This is not to say that using drones and other weapons that enable killing at a distance does not raise important questions. The history of Christian just-war reflection is peppered with a suspicion of weapons that kill at a distance, from archers to airplanes and now drones. But the moral question is not that of physical distance. Rather, it is one of character, of virtue.

The concern with the introduction of archers and various bows was not that of psychological distance, but of honor and courage. Did those who used such weapons have the requisite virtues to wield them not merely effectively but also ethically?

At first glance, the idea that technology like predator drones might raise questions of character and virtue seems odd. After all, we live in a culture that too often acts as if technology can replace character (see the first Iron Man movie). So, we think, the key to moral wars is smarter weapons and better technology instead of better people. Yet technology is no better than the people who use it.

No matter how precise the weaponry or how close the trigger to its effects, if the one pulling the trigger is not a person of character formed in the virtues that characterize a just war people, then that technology will only amplify vice.

There are people, even in the military, who are concerned that U.S. military superiority, including drones, may make resorting to war too easy. Again, this is not a question of distance but of character. With less effective weaponry and more military parity, the effects of vice are naturally blunted; with more effective weaponry and fewer obstacles to their use, any deficit of character is more glaring and palpable.

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Such superiority and such technology are not inherently unjust. In the hands of a people committed not simply to more effective and less costly (on our side) warfare, but also to justice, prudence, courage, temperance, and charity, it seems clear that technology and distance need not present a problem. On the contrary, they could aid a virtuous people in being more discriminating and proportionate and, thus, more just in their wars.

Therefore, the moral challenge of unmanned predator drones is this: Is the church teaching the virtues and Christian discipline of just war doctrine needed to use such technology and weaponry not merely effectively and efficiently, but also to use it wisely?

Follow Just War Rules

Brian Stiltner is an associate professor at Sacred Heart University and co-author of Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (Georgetown University Press).

Drone warfare must be evaluated by the just-conduct standards that apply to every weapon technology: Are civilians rigorously protected from attack, and is the destruction minimized? Supporters of drone attacks enthuse that we are "taking out" many top al Qaeda leaders, with no loss of American lives and very few civilian deaths. Critics claim that the weapons are indiscriminate, destabilizing, and highly suspect under international law.

I do not go as far as critics who see only evil in using military methods in the fight against terrorists. But I stand with them in raising serious questions about the use of drones based on just war criteria. While drones are not inherently indiscriminate or disproportionate, American leaders rely upon them too heavily in an age when the public is reluctant to see American soldiers deployed in combat but eager for assurance that terrorist leaders are being killed.

Understanding the deadliness of drone attacks is difficult. The Obama administration said last year that 20 innocent civilians had been killed by drones in northwest Pakistan, in contrast to that government's assertion of 700. The truth is likely in the middle. A New America Foundation study of the cia's drone attacks in this region from 2004 to 2009 concluded that between 830 and 1,210 individuals were killed, of which about 32 percent were civilians.

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That means roughly 300 civilians were killed over a six-year period in a mountainous region smaller than Connecticut. No wonder the drone program is controversial. Both the rate and the number are morally troubling. A civilian casualty rate of 30 percent indicates that drones have not been used with sufficient care.

If the United States is going to continue to use military attacks as part of its fight against terrorism, they must be rigorously controlled. Leaders must take care to use drone technology well, supported by good human intelligence and effective international cooperation. The Obama administration has taken note of the criticism, ratcheting down the number of attacks in 2010, using smaller bombs and better targeting technology, and relying on more spies and greater cooperation with Pakistani intelligence services. The percentage and number of civilian deaths has decreased sharply from the previous year.

The United States should continue in this direction. Ideally, drone programs would be run by the Pentagon alone. Drones are military weapons. They ought to be used only in military campaigns under the standards of military ethics and international law. This does not mean that they cannot be used in the asymmetrical "war on terror," but like everything else about this war, the U.S. attitude has often been to exempt itself from traditional rules of war rather than to find ways to apply those rules to new challenges.

We should be doing the latter. The point is both to avoid killing civilians and to send the right message about how the United States intends to combat terrorism. Rigorously avoiding civilian deaths, protecting American military personnel, and drying up the supply of Islamist terrorists are not mutually exclusive goals.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today coverage of war and technology includes:

Geek Theologian | Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly talks to CT about the Amish, heaven, and why he doesn't own a smart phone. (July 15, 2011)
My Top 5 Books on Technology | Picks from Shane Hipps, author of 'Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith.' (June 30, 2011)
The God of War | God seems to sanction raw violence in the Old Testament. Does his character change in the New Testament? (May 1, 2003)
A Time for War? | Augustine's just war theory continues to guide the West. (September 1, 2001)

Previous "Village Green" sections have discussed terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, giving to street people, the best Christmas stories, laws that ban Islamic veils, the Tea Party, Afghanistan, Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, preaching, immigration, Lent, premarital abstinence, aid to foreign nations, technology, and abortion.

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