Friday, October 26, 2012

The Theology of Drones

So a friend posed a question on FB recently.

The question had to do with the relationship between American drone strikes and Just War theory.   As a means of projecting national power, drone war-machines are going to increasingly become our weapon of choice.   From their genesis, the use of drones seems to track along the same tech-development tree as aircraft.  Initially, both technologies were used only for reconnaissance, as a way to put eyes-in-the-sky risk free.  There was little functional difference between those first slow-moving prop-driven drones and the slow moving recon planes of the first days of the first World War.

But just as aircraft quickly evolved, so too have our drones.  They can now take out folks--usually in the form of a Hellfire missile or other precision ordnance--without putting the controller in harms way.  Drone tech will likely go even further, moving towards both semi-autonomous craft and becoming much more lethal, with the potential for that lethality to be projected into combat with other military forces.  A drone airframe, for instance, could be built without the need to worry about the limitations of the human body.  The tech for impossibly maneuverable airframes is there, and has been there for decades.  A drone-variant X-29 could easily pull gees that would kill a human pilot.   We're going to head that way.  It is inevitable.

As we leap forward technologically, Christian ethics struggle to keep up.  Where do drones fit in the whole WWJD thing?   Clearly, it's an area in which both our current Christian POTUS and the Mormon GOP challenger find concurrence.   They're fine with the use of drones.  They permit targeted strikes, relatively little collateral damage, and no risk to personnel.   It is a technology that allows for radically asymmetric conflict, in which one side can project power and another cannot.   In that sense, it is like iron in the bronze age, or the chariot, or the longbow at Agincourt.  If your task as Head of State is to project power, well, drones are just power.   Plain and simple.

From a Just War perspective, drones in combat...well...they're just a particularly effective weapon.  Like, say, Joint Direct Attack Munitions or cruise missiles.   The asymmetric use of drones in conflict would not, in and of itself, represent a violation of Just War theory.

Problem is, Just War theory cannot apply to our current use of drone strikes, because we are not at war in any traditional sense.  There is no declared war, no struggle for territory, and no nation-state to serve as a direct adversary.

The pursuit of peace as a primary aim of Just War also does not apply.  The "enemy combatants" do not represent any state or jurisdiction with whom negotiations would be possible.  This means the goal of current drone strikes is not to force an opponent to parley for peace...because there is no authority that could speak on their behalf.

The focus of Just War on limiting warfare to combatants is also meaningless.  The blurring of the lines between civilians and combatants is so complete as to make the distinction irrelevant.

Does this mesh with the teachings of Jesus?  No, not really, not if we're honest with ourselves.  Christ has always stood in difficult tension with the power of the state.

But this also exists outside of Christian efforts historically to theologically justify combat and military operations.  What we are doing with our drones is not war.  It is simply the crudest form of law enforcement, the coercive suppression of a restive population.

Good thing that will never happen in America.