Editor’s Note: In the article below, you’ll read about the pluses and minuses concerning the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones. We invite your comments. When do you believe the use of drones is acceptable? And how does our faith inform that opinion?

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.

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.

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 standoff 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 battlespace.

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 battlespace. Many drone operators are based in Nevada and New Mexico — more than 7,500 miles from their targets. This is transformational — and arguably not in a positive direction.

Separating the warrior from the battlespace 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 battlespace.”

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 Djibouti neighborhoods, 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 name?”


Alan Dowd writes for byFaith at the crossroads of faith and public policy.