Droning On and On...

At the Second Vatican Council one of the four Apostolic Constitutions to be produced was Gaudium et Spes. One of its sections (78) on fostering peace worldwide stated “insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.”

As the Christian church transitioned from being a rebellious sect in the eyes of the Roman Empire to a favored place as a state religion, adherents discovered an uneasy tension between their faith’s call to be peacemakers and to “turn the other cheek” with having the levers of power that included waging war. St. Augustine developed a theory from his reading of scripture that a faithful Christian could serve the State and go to war if the conflict was waged with a “just cause,” to right a “grave wrong”. Other scholars such as Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, The Salamanca School, and Reinhold Niebuhr over the years have added flesh to St. Augustine’s commentaries. The idea that moral conduct needs to shine through even in times of violent conflict has been theorized in other cultures as well, dating at least back to the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata in which the characters discuss proper codes of conduct in war.

The current agreement on what constitutes Just War criteria is well-described in Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (Georgetown University Press, 2007):

·  The decision to go to war must have been arrived at by a “just decision/cause” (jus ad bellum)

·  The War must be waged by a legitimate authority charged with ensuring the Common Good

·  The War must be fought with a right intention

·  The War must be a last resort after all other attempts of negotiation and diplomacy have failed

·  The expected results of the war must be proportionate (i.e. given the suffering that violent conflict raises the positive results must outweigh the evils)

·  There must be reasonable hope of military success

·  The war must be fought with “just conduct” (jus in bello):
—The tactics and weapons employed must use discrimination (i.e. targeting non-combatants is unacceptable)

—The tactics and weapons employed must be proportionate 

—All internationally recognized rights of enemy combatants and civilians must be honored

After a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, it is sadly of great debate how much our nation observed rigorously any of the Jus ad Bellum or Jus in Bello criteria outlined above.  The quick defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces, the dismantling of his authoritarian Baathist movement, and his execution were achieved somewhat smoothly, but the vacuum of leadership unleashed pent-up Islamic sectarian fury and a backlash against U.S. occupation forces. The ill-treatment of prisoners at the Abu-Ghraib facility was a public-relations nightmare for the George W. Bush administration. The most serious problem, however, was that removing Saddam’s Sunni minority rule regime ushered in a new government that has become loyal to Iran. This is a result that would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago. Iran has always exhibited a more bellicose attitude to the U.S. since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and yet the actions of the invasion of Iraq have resulted in the ruling clerics acquiring a new and unexpected ally.  

Similarly, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan may have begun with unofficial world support due to the hated Taliban militants that sewed misery around the country through a certain expression of Islam. Their government was welcoming of other reactionary movements, such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The initial period went well as the outgunned Taliban were pushed aside. However, the U.S. and its coalition soon learned what other Great Powers (i.e. Great Britain and Soviet Union) had in the past: Afghanistan has never prospered as a unified country but as a collection of decentralized ethnic and tribal areas that have little in common except distrust of outside influence. The Taliban eventually rebounded to carry out guerilla attacks and the originally promising Hamid Karzai government had little legitimacy outside Kabul. Here too the US and other forces made bad missteps in “winning hearts and minds.” Neighboring Pakistan’s own battle with militant Islam (a battle that some portions of the military and intelligence services are clearly ambivalent about, sometimes even actively aiding the militants) has led to a regional crisis. Recent U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate with the Taliban appear to have made the full circle of developments. 

The American public has wearied of war and is frustrated that the bloodshed suffered by our servicemen and women have not achieved the desired results. As the draw down of troops continues, the Obama administration and the Central Intelligence Agency have increasingly turned to drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Drones have a number of advantages in that they are small, and can gather intelligence or deliver missiles, all while saving American soldiers’ lives by not putting them in harm’s way. Drones have indeed been successful in the targeting and killing of al-Qaeda operatives, but have also killed many non-combatants. Perhaps the very success of UAVs has caused a huge public outcry in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to the fear they cause, and a sense that these attacks are dishonorable since those deploying them are taking no personal risks. As far back as 2009 David Kilcullen wrote in the online publication Small Wars Journal, “Unilateral strikes against targets inside Pakistan, whatever other purpose they might serve, have an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability…(T)hey increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan.” Drones were a major issue in the recent Pakistani elections, with incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif calling for an end to UAV strikes.

The question, then, is this: do drones have any place in fighting a “Just War”? This is a pertinent question for not only citizens of faith concerned about public policy and the common good, but also because no lesser authority than President Obama himself has referred to utilizing Just War principles throughout his tenure in office. At his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway he made references to Just War to the gathered dignitaries and laureates. One of his most memorable lines was that mankind continues to expand the “capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another.” But the New York Times first reported in May of 2012 that Obama hosts bi-weekly “Terror Tuesdays” in which he personally reviews and approves terror suspects who may be targeted by drones. [1]
This non-public ongoing meeting was also discussed in Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: the War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. One thing we can say for sure is that Obama is not shirking his role as “legitimate authority” by personally being involved in the decisions rather than pushing the job onto lower-ranking military bureaucrats. But can one man and a clutch of advisors sit as essentially judge, jury, and executioner while supposedly holding to Just War principles? Obama’s announcement, for instance, that bin Laden had been “brought to justice” would seem to suggest he had been captured to face charges, not killed on the spot. This reminds one of John Wayne’s caustic line in the Vietnam era film The Green Berets in which his character said “Out here due process is a bullet!” Pithy quotes aside, do wanted terrorists have no legal remedy prior to execution? 

How many radicals and terrorists have been killed by drone attacks? And how many civilians have been killed along with them? This is difficult to determine since the CIA has reported numbers using methodology to portray the UAV strikes in the best possible light according to The New York Times article cited above as well as by research performed by Philip Alston of New York University School of Law in Harvard National Security Journal. [2] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has figures for possible numbers of drone strikes on their website. [3] Using mid-range figures for Pakistan, there have been at least 650 strikes resulting in the death of approximately 3,050. Of these roughly 27% or about 835 have been civilians, including children. In Yemen there are pretty fair signs of at least 50 drone attacks killing roughly 300 persons, with about 35 of these likely to have been non-combatants for a rate of about 12%, or a one in eight failure rate. There is, however, a separate category for a “possible extra” 90 strikes in which an additional 370 persons were likely killed, with perhaps 50 more civilians among these. These figures of course speculate on the failures of more precision-guided attacks. We certainly can reckon that non-combatant deaths in more conventional types of war were higher. The Iraq Body Count website tallies anywhere from 113,000 to 123,000 total deaths, but for the purposes of this article the writer will not attempt to extrapolate how many of these might be non-combatants of all types including children. In Afghanistan anywhere from 16,000 to 19,000 civilians have died from all sources, whether by pro or anti-government forces, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University. All of these situations call attention to whether civilian deaths are “disproportionate” meaning that the Obama administration is failing to observe “Just Conduct” in war. 

The seductiveness of UAVs is in the cost savings and the lack of need to place military personnel in harm’s way. Does a possible dystopian future await in which we can simply dispatch drones anywhere in the world where we choose to target someone? The ease with which enemies can be dispatched suggests a model of practice in which war never concludes, while according to the precepts of “Just War” there must be a defined objective.  Tobias Wright of Saint Louis University and Mark Allman of Merrimack College, authors of After the Smoke Clears: the Just War Tradition and Post War Justice, note that UAVs give no option for surrender. Besides the potential for disproportionate civilian deaths, proportionality also calls us to look at the short-term and long-term outcomes of using particular tactics and weapons. Surely the outrage in Pakistan and Yemen, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that there have been many unintended consequences from drones, as well as short-sighted conventional warfare decisions. 

Where do we go from here? Faith groups have led the opposition to the secretive policy regarding drones, and are encouraging Americans to demand more accountability, moral and political, from the Obama administration over drones and targeted killings. A letter with co-signatories from the Society of Friends (Quakers), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Mennonites and others addressed to Obama in April demands a clear understanding of whether drone strikes are an actual declaration of war, since they are being launched in sovereign countries. They also questioned whether the UAVs would address any of the root causes of terrorism.  Similarly the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice took a similar tack. Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines said that targeted killings raised “serious moral questions” in relation to all aspects of Just War, including discrimination, imminence of threat, and probability of success. Americans must continue to hold our elected leaders to task when overtures to war arise. We must never accept a rushed decision to war without attempting peaceful means of conflict resolution. If no other options remain and military aggression becomes necessary we should expect nothing less than just conduct and reasonable objectives, without prolonged or disproportionate suffering. We can also initiate more peaceful initiatives worldwide by advocating for organizations that are trying to extend just and sustainable development, advance democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, and through cooperation with voluntary associations and international organizations on human development.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is the National Committee Chairman of the American Solidarity Party

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