18 June 2012


The use of Predator drones (see image above, click to enlarge) in launching precision missile attacks against al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist groups and leaders has been increasingly in the news ~ both when a particular surgical strike is successful, and when the strike is less surgical, resulting in unintended civilian casualties.  The most recent incident, which killed al-Qaeda's second in command, was notable not only for its success, but also for the degree to which the report revealed President Obama's personal involvement in the selection of targets and the final "go" command to launch the mission.

David Luban in Boston Review writes eloquently about drone warfare and the president's role, in the context of 'just war theory' ~ the doctrine of military ethics which holds that "a military conflict ought to meet philosophical, religious, or political criteria".  Among other sources, just war theory has its origins in the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who posited that in order for a war to be just, a number of conditions must be met ~

  • war must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain
  • war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state
  • peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence
  • diplomatic agreement is preferable, even for the most powerful party, before a war is started
  • the response should be commensurate to the evil ~ using more violence than is necessary would be unjust
  • governing authorities declare war, but the war is just only if the people support it.
  • there are moral limits to action ~ one may not attack innocents or kill hostages
  • war is only legitimate as a last resort, after all options for dialogue and negotiation have failed
By Aquinas' reckoning, examples of just war include ~
  • war in self-defense
  • preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack
  • war to punish a guilty enemy
  • war to prevent or halt genocide
Luban's article explores the nuances of just war theory in the context of the war on terrorism, focusing specifically on the use of weaponized UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones).  There is little controversy surrounding the use of drones for reconnaissance, but arming them with missiles remotely guided in real time by an operator stationed on safely in the U.S., has pushed us into new military and ethical territory.  The wars of science fiction have become reality.  In Luban's words, "The most agonizing issue in the drone program is figuring out who is an enemy combatant, who is not, and how one knows.  The modern law of war is clear, however, that no matter how difficult the inquiry is, it must be undertaken.  Parties 'shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives, and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.'  There is nothing quite so clear or straightforward in the just war classics, and they would offer no guidance to the president on this score.

" .... What about unintended civilian deaths, so-called collateral damage.  The rule in the modern law of war is that militaries must do everything feasible to minimize collateral damage, and must never launch an attack at a military target if the expected civilian damage would be excessive .... This rule permits proportionate collateral damage so long as harming civilians was not the intention.  This principle also has no clear counterpart in medieval just war theory .... In the war context, striking the military target is the intended effect, the collateral damage is the unintended effect, and it is the former, not the latter, that defines the moral character of the action .... President Obama and his advisers have cancelled targeted killings for fear of excessive collateral damage.  It was reportedly for this very reason that the president vetoed his advisers' recommendation of an airstrike on the bin Laden compound in favor of the riskier SEAL operation."

Clearly we have entered uncharted territory, and are refining the military and ethical aspect of the rules of engagement as we learn from experience.  War is troubling enough when engaged in by armed human combatants who risk injury or death.  The new dimension of armed drones, even though guided by humans, calls for heightened ethical scrutiny precisely because a drone or its operator can't be killed ~ only the target can be.  The reduction in risk to one side in a conflict inevitably calls up the temptation to engage at will ~ which is why an institutionalized devil's advocate is needed to argue against each and every deadly "nomination".  

Luban brings up further legal, moral, and practical issues, which I invite you to read and consider.  As an example ~ "So far i have said very little about the issue that, for the majority of observers, matters most ~ the drone strikes themselves ~ beyond my basic point that killing deadly enemies is in principle neither immoral nor illegal.  I say 'in principle' because so much turns on the details ~ the expected collateral damage, how much care has been taken to verify the target and the danger he poses, whether the target was trying to surrender, whether the foreign state is truly unwilling or unable to suppress the target, what the non-lethal alternatives were.  The wrong answer to any of these issues means the decision to kill from the air flunks the test of morality.

"But if the killing is legitimate, the fact that it was targeted, or done by a drone rather than a bomb or a gun, makes no difference.  If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call 'indiscriminate' and a war crime."

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