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.


  1. I take issue with the characterization 'crudest.' There are many crude versions of law enforcement, I have yet to see them sensibly ordered. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a law enforcement that rests on plea bargains to avoid any sort of trial - thus the punishments threatened are harsh and not commonly applied - and uses imprisonment and subsequent parole as the nearly universal response to crimes from white collar to violent - is remarkably crude. It is crude in particular with reference to the system from which it descended, which had a scale of punishments, not cruel nor unusual, including a range of fines, hard labor, imprisonment, public shaming, and capital. This idea - that the punishment fit the crime - would represent a refinement today.

  2. Execution without trial or recourse is as crude as it comes, Ben. It is simple subjugation, the raw application of coercive force for the purposes of removing adversaries and intimidating potential adversaries.

    Unless you're working with some Clintonian definition of the word "crude," I think there's not any question here. I realize your political leanings make equivocation necessary here. But the thing is what it is. I stand with that characterization.

  3. I am not equivocating, though I understand your political leanings make such accusations necessary.

    Execution has been part of the continuum of appropriate consequences for violent crime since the very beginnings of justice; the eventual erosion of law enforcement to the effective state of universal imprisonment is, in fact, the 'crudest' version. Absolute entropy. Restoring some capacity to execute those who have committed multiple murders is a step away from that.

  4. A step away from absolute entropy, eh? Sounds delightful.

    Given that the core assumption here...that this is law enforcement, and not unchallenged: what of the enforcement of laws where there is no recourse? What do we as Americans think of this?

    Finally, while you're on the "effective state of universal imprisonment" schtick, let me commend "A Scanner Darkly" to your viewing. Brilliant film, one of the best Philip K. Dick adaptations I've ever seen. It visualizes just such a culture, a self-consuming dystopia where crime and enforcement have become a jurisprudential ouroboros. Cool flick..

  5. Yes, delightful is not my choice of words for warfare or law enforcement, both coercive. I would rather there be no violent crime than that there be crime and repercussions. Ultimately, as Voltaire wrote, "Il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort." We cannot escape that fundamental truth.

    While we are on movies, I think that Americans have typically expressed what they think of enforcement in a condition of otherwise lawlessness - they express this in mafia movies, westerns, sci-fi, and in each and every format, they express horror at unchecked evil. They express satisfaction at the interjection of some justice. They can acknowledge the complexity of justice with a minimum of 'process' while not being shackled to a false idol of process as the sole requirement of justice.

    Everyone can agree that process can be corrupted; the laws badly or wrongly or evilly written, poorly or even crookedly enforced. This was the foundation of the civil rights movement - and civil disobedience. However, somehow stepping outside the process for justice suggests to some people an inherent evil in itself. People who seek solutions in process are 'budding bureaucrats.'

    Anyway, we will find ourselves re-arguing a whole pantheon of art, literature and philosophy in the end. It doesn't take great genius to see that the trappings of a kangaroo court are neither protection of the innocent nor necessary for justice. We are all called to seek justice in the situations surrounding us; generally not in violent ways, but usually without any formal process at all. I'm sure you can quote 'seek justice, love loyalty, walk humbly.'