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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