Drones: Is It Wrong to Kill by Remote Control?
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.
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.