Home » Drones Have Changed the Moral Calculus for War

Drones Have Changed the Moral Calculus for War

On August 29, as American troops were accelerating their pullout from Afghanistan, the US military ordered its last drone strike in the 20-year war. The missile destroyed a parked car that military officials said was operated by an Islamic State sympathizer and contained explosives for a suicide attack on the Kabul airport, where American forces and civilians had gathered for evacuation. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told a news conference, “We think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike.”

Last week, separate investigations from The New York Times and The Washington Post questioned those assertions, reporting that the driver was Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime engineer for the California-based aid group Nutrition and Education International. The supposed explosives, said the Times, were canisters of water Ahmadi was bringing home to his family because Taliban’s takeover of the city had cut off his neighborhood’s water supply.

The Times also reported that 10 members of the Ahmadi family were killed in the Hellfire missile attack, including seven children.

General Milley told reporters, “We went through the same level of rigor that we’ve done for years. Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know. We’ll try to sort through all that.”

The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has counted that the US military conducted more than 13,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan over the years, with at least 4,126 people killed, including at least 300 civilians and 66 children. Drone policies changed over the years under during different presidencies, as did the way the US counted civilian deaths by drone strikes. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has a dramatically higher count for civilians killed in Afghanistan by drones: more than 2,000, with more 785 of them children. If accurate, that would mean that about 40 percent of civilians killed by drones in Afghanistan were children.

It appears that drone warfare will continue to play a major role in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden promised Islamic State—or ISIS-K, “We are not done with you yet. … We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price.” But without troops in the country, that hunting will almost certainly be done mostly through unmanned aircraft.

Back in 2011, CT ran a story asking “Is It Wrong to Kill by Remote Control?” This week, we want to revisit that question.

Joining CT executive editor Ted Olsen and managing editor Andy Olsen this week is Paul D. Miller, a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He earlier served in the US army, the CIA, and on the National Security Council staff as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. These days, in addition to his post at Georgetown, he is a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and is author of Just War and Ordered Liberty, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. Among that book’s chapters is one one on the ethics of drone warfare. Quick to Listen listeners may also remember Miller from our January episode on Christian Nationalism.

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Music by Sweeps.

Quick to Listen was produced this week by Ted Olsen and Matt Linder.

The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu.

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #281

Is the threat to civilians worse with drone strikes than it is with other forms of military action that are not unmanned aircraft?

Paul Miller: No. The opposite is true. Drone warfare matched with precision-guided ammunition is among the most discriminating and surgical forms of aerial bombing in the history of warfare. They have enabled us largely, with mistakes and exceptions, to initiate military operations again, in a more targeted surgical and discriminating fashion. In World War 2, when we had conventional aerial bombing, we killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Sometimes deliberately, but oftentimes not. We would try to bomb a factory and instead, the bombs fell on a neighborhood and just killed tens of thousands of civilians. There are some problems with drone warfare, but it does not pose a greater danger to civilians than other forms of warfare. This is one of the good things about drones and targeted munitions; that it is more discriminating than other forms of warfare.

How should we interpret the last few days of this description of a “righteous strike,” and the counter-narrative of a guy who was an aid worker moving folks around and working for this aid organization?

Paul Miller: The problem with the strike on August 29th wasn’t the drones, but it was the intelligence guiding the drones. Any kind of military operation works when it is guided by good intelligence about where the bad guys are that we’re trying to get at.

So, drones always need intelligence for targeted and precise strikes. In Afghanistan, we had withdrawn almost all of our troops. The only troops remaining were at the airport. That means we had also withdrawn almost all of our intelligence assets. When you withdraw the military you also, by definition, are withdrawing most of your intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets. That means when we undertook that drone strike, we were doing so, I presume with far less reliable intelligence. They did so, I’m guessing because it was a chaotic situation, thousands of civilians around the airport were believed to be in danger and they had some intelligence suggesting that there was going to be another suicide bombing and so they took action based on incomplete information and faulty intelligence. Again, the problem isn’t the drone, the tool used to carry out the strike. It’s the underlying information that led to the faulty targeting.

From a Christian ethics perspective, is there a way to balance in warfare the tactical need for decisive action based on the intelligence that we have, with the Christian ethic of humility, a healthy skepticism of what we think we know because the consequences are especially dire when using unmanned remote vehicles?

Paul Miller: This is a question about intelligence, more than about drones per se. All military operations are indeed more effective when they’re driven by accurate, timely, relevant intelligence. When military operations are more targeted, they’re also more defensible because they are targeted at the correct people, the enemy on the battlefield, they’re more militarily effective. You call for an epistemological humility. What that means is, we ought to have a greater appreciation for what it takes to gain good intelligence around the world. What it takes oftentimes is a ground presence. The military and the intelligence community are far more intertwined, when you pull the military out, you’re also pulling out intelligence.

Therefore, you’re losing your eyes and ears and if you try to do a strike in that context, it may be less reliable. My impression is, over the past 20 years, we have often got it right because we had sufficient presence in the theater, whether you’re talking Iraq and Syria, or we’re talking Afghanistan, Pakistan. We’ve had people on the ground; Americans and allies, Iraqis and Afghans who have helped provide that intelligence, which makes the drones targeted surgical and effective. As we’ve withdrawn from both places, we lose those eyes and ears, and our subsequent military operations are less reliable.

Andy Olsen: We often tend to think of drones as these solo operations when in fact they’re often used in larger operations as well.

Have drones changed the way that the military and the American people, in general, think about targeted killings though, as we think of this more stereotypical concept of how we use drones?

Paul Miller: Yes, and I think it’s also caused American presidents to think differently about the use of force. Drones are cheap, easy, risk-free, and convenient. That makes it tempting to use them not as a last resort but use them when convenient and use in place of other tools of warfare that might be more appropriate to fighting and winning in a just way.

It’s hard for me to make the judgment as to whether we’ve done that or not over the past 20 years. I do see evidence that we have not fought in a way to facilitate peace and justice in the region, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan. We haven’t facilitated that, which says to me we’ve probably have relied on these kinds of tools of warfare, like drones and special forces raids that are easy and convenient for taking out individual bad guys but don’t resolve conflict.

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They don’t create conditions of peace, which is what just war is supposed to be.

A number of listeners are familiar with some of the Christian origins of the just war theory, but help us understand, on one hand, there is Christian prohibition on killing and on the other hand there is this Christian mandate for peace, especially in the government bearing the sword. Balancing that is just war theory. Can you explain that and briefly, ways that drones may change some of that equation?

Paul Miller: Just war theory is largely a Christian response to the question; is it ever just for the state to kill people? Passivists say, “no,” realists say, “of course and it needs no justification other than the needs of the state.”

A Christian just war thinker says, “maybe under certain conditions it is just to kill specifically for peace and justice.” That’s why we understand domestic policing to be just, even if it requires force. That’s why it’s just to use force internationally against international criminals, those who wage aggressive warfare or violate international law or crimes against humanity, what older thinkers would call crimes against nature. So, it is just to use force in those conditions, but for it to be just it has to meet a number of criteria.

You have to be fighting for justice and peace, in the origination of the war. You have to fight for justice and peace in how you fight, the tools you use, the people you target, the kinds of weapons you use. Finally, you have to fight for justice and peace in how you end a war, how you bring it to a conclusion, and in the kind of aftermath, the peace and justice that you build in the aftermath of a war.

So, it’s not a simple question about whether a war is just, or not. The question has to be asked throughout the beginning, the duration, and the end of that war. How do drones play into this? Generally speaking, some tools have been really good in helping us fight more justly because they often are more discriminating, more targeted, more surgical, and more proportionate.

They allow us to use violence on a smaller scale and presumably we try to make them target just the bad guys. The kinds of missiles that drones drop are smaller, usually, the kind of bombs and missiles dropped by conventional airplanes. That’s a good thing about drones and it contributes to wars being fought in a more just manner.

The concern I raised earlier is that they make war feel easy, cheap, convenient, and risk-free. When war feels that way, presidents might be tempted to use them when not necessary, or they might be tempted to rely on them exclusively and not fight for true justice and peace in the aftermath of conflict.

People complain about the endless wars. I’m concerned about endless drone wars that never actually achieve peace. We’re killing individual combatants and I think it’s just for us to defend ourselves against terrorists. It is just for us to target enemy combatants. I don’t have a problem with that, but if that’s all we ever do, we’re not achieving justice or peace. We’re just sustaining an endless war without any attention to the underlying root causes of conflict. I feel that’s exactly what’s happened again in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, Libya where we’re sustaining this kind of indefinite campaign of targeted killings, while we allow these societies to continue forever in conditions of insecurity, violence privation, misery, poverty and so forth and there’s no end to this. I think that’s the wrong way to approach our effort to fight justly and for peace.

The war on terror isn’t like other wars, like the American Civil War, for example, because the Civil War had an end in mind while the terrorist war does not. It focused on killing rather than peacemaking. How are drones shaping that problem and the perceived solution?

Paul Miller: They don’t create the problem. I know some people do attribute the problem of terrorism as a reaction to unjust American foreign policy. I don’t believe that. If you look at the terrorists, the jihadists, Al-Qaeda Islamic state, their justification for their terrorism shifts over the years depending upon the most convenient argument. It used to be about the so-called American occupation of the Holy Land and then it shifted to the war in Iraq, and then it shifted to something else. The only consistent feature is they want to kill Americans, which is wrong and unjust, and they have no just cause.

So, we should not spend time blaming ourselves for the creation of terrorism. We should blame the terrorist for that. It’s very clear to me that they’ve made a conscious choice. They’ve invented a theology that justifies them for murder and there’s no compromise with that.

We are fighting a just war against them. I think drones make it easier to fight justly on the criteria of discrimination and proportionality. Drones are a good tool of warfare when used to target individual terrorists and individual leaders, but they cannot be a strategy, which is precisely what I think we probably have done. When I look at the record last 20 years, it seems to be the only strategy that we’ve stuck with over 20 years.

While other strategies have come and gone, they succeeded or failed, we just keep on doing the targeted killings.

Do you think that we have been using drone strikes as a cure for terrorism? Are we likely to continue to see them as a cure for terrorism, especially in some places where we don’t have much ground presence?

Paul Miller: Yes. At the same time that President Obama ramped up drone strikes, and it spiked pretty dramatically under his watch at the same time that President Trump’s sustained drone operations, the United States reduced and cut back the money we spent on civilian reconstruction assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama had just simply decreased foreign aid worldwide and he decreased democracy assistance funding worldwide. So, he’s using more drones and less foreign aid. I also observed that over the same timeframe that he’s using more drones, he’s withdrawing combat troops.

So, there are fewer boots on the ground, there’s less attention to defeating the enemy through conventional military means, more reliance on pinprick attacks where possible with less reliable intelligence since we have fewer and fewer boots on the ground over those years.

So that’s the pattern I see, more drones, less foreign aid, fewer troops, probably less intelligence. That paints a troubling picture of the kind of warfare that the Obama administration gravitated towards and that I think the Trump administration continued. I think the Biden administration is likely going to continue even further.

The full, complete pullout from Afghanistan is part of this. I think it was a grave mistake. It was morally inexcusable. You also see the drone strike in the final days which again is an example of a mistaken drone strike because it was fed by faulty intelligence, which is more likely when you have withdrawn the boots from the ground.

I think the Biden administration seems set to continue that same style of warfare; of relying on one-off strikes by drone or whatever else, in the absence of boots on the ground and no foreign aid and worse intelligence. That’s not a style of warfare designed for justice and peace.

We want to stave off conflict as much as we can to protect American lives but at the same time, to your point about the Augustinian just war theory, having as much to do with what we do after the conflict, as it has to do with what we do during the conflict or before the conflict, what is the lesson for the American people?

How do we manage that tension as Christians who are subject to a government and trying to help our leaders make good choices?

Paul Miller: It’s as important for us to keep in mind the difference between a policy, which is popular with the American people, and a policy that is morally defensible and strategically effective.

Drones are probably popular. I think most people like the idea and would voice public support for the idea of risk-free cheap, easy military strikes against bad guys around the world. What can be bad about that? It sounds great.

The injustice is doing so without attention to broader conditions of peace and justice, which is precisely what we have done. We ought to try to communicate that to the American people. Presidents ought to communicate that at the beginning, before dropping a bomb so that the American people understand along with the bomb comes with a responsibility to invest in broader conditions of peace and justice in the society in which we’re dropping bombs and in our society.

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In a just war you fight for just peace for ourselves, our enemies in the world, that’s the responsibility. I think the American people probably don’t want to hear that because we’re tired of being told of our global responsibilities. We sat through a half-decade of rhetoric about the evils of globalism and the evils of nation-building.

I get that a lot of people resonate with those critiques and I think what I’m trying to do is push back on that and say, if you take that to its logical conclusion, you will turn America into the nation that is known for nothing more than drone striking at will and then going home.

Is that what you want our country to stand for? Is that what is the best of our moral aspirations? I thought, and I think that we ought to stand for liberty, peace, justice, and equality for all. That does mean as we have done for most of the century, try to fight when we have to fight in a way that respects those values and those ideals and that does mean helping our enemies and the societies in which our enemies find a haven.

What would be an example of getting it right where war is undertaken with the idea of peacemaking rather than just kill the bad guys?

Paul Miller: Remember the difference between how World War 1 ended and how World War 2 ended. I know that people are deeply skeptical of nation-building but if we recall, we won World War 1 militarily, and then we lost the peace. We lost the peace because after the treaty of Versailles was defeated in the Senate, Americans turned against the war. They went along with a victor’s peace that imposed a vengeful burden on Germany, which sowed the seeds for the next conflict. It was part of what caused the Great Depression and then the rise of fascism.

After World War 2, policymakers understood that imposing a vengeful peace on Germany was not a good idea but instead we actually should do the opposite. That’s why we stayed for 10 more years in Germany, and we spent untold billions of dollars rebuilding the place. People like to say that we shouldn’t fight forever wars. We should have a clear exit strategy and an endpoint like World War 2 that rewrites the history of World War 2. We indeed got a surrender document on the given day but that did not end the military intervention, which lasted 10 more years in Germany, 7 more years in Japan.

It was open-ended. We didn’t know how long it would take, nor did we know if it was going to be peaceful or violent. We had prepared for the possibility of violent resistance to the military occupations there and yet we stayed because that was the obligation and the strategic necessity of building conditions of lasting peace and justice.

We knew from the experience in World War 1 what would happen if we didn’t do that. So, we stayed, and we rebuilt. That I think is how you effectively end a war and win the peace as well, which is something we essentially haven’t done, maybe we did it in Korea, but we haven’t done it since.

We briefly mentioned the killing by remote control at the beginning of the podcast. Is there anything for us to be concerned about in terms of the distance aspect of it? Should we be concerned about the unmanned aspect of drone warfare?

Paul Miller: No. I think this is a good thing because it does reduce risks to our troops, at least. There is an alternate view of war that says you have to expose yourself to danger, to give the enemy a fair chance, and to demonstrate your vulnerability. That’s best described as the Viking theory of just war, not the Christian one. They saw war as a chance to prove their manliness and courage, and they had to expose themselves to risk and that’s never really been part of the Christian just war tradition. In fact, in the Christian tradition, the virtue is to fight a war so effectively and efficiently that you win it and end it quickly to minimize the killing. In the Viking theory, there’s an incentive to prolong the war to give yourselves more opportunities to prove how courageous and manly you are. I don’t think there’s any Christian virtue in that at all.

So, the fact that we can fight wars from a distance is generally a good thing and I don’t feel any more qualms about minimizing risk to our soldiers in the course of fighting wars efficiently and quickly. My concerns are elsewhere, the other things we’ve talked about so far.

Church leaders are cautious or nervous before addressing matters of foreign relations in general which just feel very distant and otherworldly, for example, the pullout from Afghanistan. It’s hard to talk about those things in concrete ways within a church community.

Are there ways that church leaders, clergy, or laity can offer church folks better ways of thinking or navigating this in the future?

Paul Miller: We probably don’t need a sermon series on the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, a sermon or a Sunday school series on the Christian just war tradition would be appropriate if you’re preaching through Romans 13 (Rom 13) or Genesis 9 (Gen 9). It would be a good place to educate the congregation about how to think like a Christian where war and peace are concerned.

The church ought to be a place where away from the Sunday morning pulpit, but in the small groups and the fellowship hall, people actively talk about these things. There’s this weird sense that you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion in polite company because you don’t want to offend people.

I think that’s terrible advice. I think we should talk about politics and religion especially with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be unafraid of talking about hard, sensitive things together because if we can’t do it, no one can. If we who have Christ in common, can’t talk about these things there’s no hope for anybody. So, we should talk about it without fear.

What is the church’s role? I wonder if pastors should recognize part of their role in preaching a Sunday morning sermon when they preach the gospel, to then draw an application of the gospel to our lives as citizens, our lives as members of groups, our lives as people who live in communities, neighborhoods, states, counties, and nations. I’m sorry if that’s a bit abstract, but what I’m getting at is, sometimes you hear a Sunday morning sermon where you hear the gospel, and then the application point is to live a holy life and love your family and raise your kids. But I think the gospel has more implications than that. It has implications for how we live in community with our neighbors and how we understand our citizenship in a secular polity and how we understand our responsibilities as members of other institutions like our workplaces.

We Americans have such a firm individualism drilled into us. It’s almost as if we need remedial education on how to be a member of a group of any kind. I think this is where the church’s role is, to reform us, reshape us as members of groups, including nations, teach us what responsible Christian citizenship looks like in those contexts. If the church teaches us how to be responsible citizens, there’s a whole lot of things that flow from that, including how we hold our government accountable, how we educate ourselves about certain specific political issues, how we agree with or disagree with our nation going to war, what the war is about and how to end that war.

That’s all part of responsible Christian citizenship, but we’re not being taught that by anybody, not by our schools or churches, or families.

Andy Olsen: Yeah. Paul, I think one of the reasons that we’re perhaps not being taught is that we live in an era that is decades into a post-draft era.

This isn’t the ’40s or the ’60s, when everyone who is sitting in the pew to your right or your left had someone in their family or knew close friends serving in the armed forces overseas somewhere. I think it speaks to the nature of drone warfare and everything it symbolizes. This idea that conflict each year seems more and more of a distant thing, something that’s conducted by remote control which to your point can have great benefits, but I think it makes it even harder for average people to know how to engage the topic.

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