Drone Warfare and Just War

Those of you who watched the last of the presidential debates, dealing with foreign policy, probably remember the topic of drone warfare being discussed briefly. While Governor Romney gave a quick answer before moving to a different topic, there’s actually a good deal of ethical questions which can arise from a closer look at this issue.

I know; it’s boring and nobody cares, but that’s my specialty and it’s my blog, so we’re doing ethics. Let’s start by looking at the theory of Just War.https://i1.wp.com/si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/P1-AS938_Drone_G_20091216205401.jpg

So, if you’re unfamiliar with Just War theory, you’re fixing to learn an extremely condensed version. To get a better explanation, look at this.  The doctrine of Just War is often attributed first to Augustine and Aquinas, although there are many others who have contributed to the theory over the years, all of whom attempted to outline moral guidelines for war. It has, naturally, evolved over time, and many nations, including the United States, continue to claim adherence to the doctrine (again, questionably, especially considering that it’s almost impossible to engage in a legitimately “just” war, but that’s a topic for another day). Just War deals with all aspects of conflict; including declaring, carrying out, and ending a war. These are referred to as jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum, respectively. Although there’s plenty to debate in regards to all three, our discussion will focus on jus in bello.

Jus in bello
lays the groundwork for how combatants should conduct themselves in war. Basically, it restricts a state from acting in a way that infringes on the human rights of the people they’re fighting. In the context of drone warfare, we need to look specifically at the conditions concerning non-combatants and military necessity.

One of the primary concerns of Just War doctrine is the protection of non-combatants. It’s understood that, in order to conduct a just war, combatants must ensure the safety of civilians and direct their attacks only towards those who are directly involved in the engagement and/or actively projecting hostility (this aspect is oft debated as the lines between civilian and combatant are becoming more and more blurred). Civilian casualties have always been an unavoidable reality in warfare; but, do drones help to lessen these casualties? According to a study performed by the New America Foundation, 6-8% of casualties resulting from drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2012 were civilians and 7-9% were unknown. This percentage has dropped drastically from 2004-2012, falling from around 60% in the period from 2004-2007 to 0% in 2012. However, I should note that a report released by Stanford/NYU takes issue with the data collected by the New America Foundation and feels there has been an underreporting of casualties both in that report and by the US government. However, regardless of the extent of these casualties, we should be asking how many, if any at all, civilian casualties are acceptable before violating conditions of the doctrine of Just War.

Another important condition within the doctrine of Just War, which I see as most important to this discussion, is the condition of military necessity. This tenet dictates that a state can only use as much force as is necessary to achieve their end goal. It’s basically the principle of minimal force, or, put simply, don’t bring a tank to a knife fight.  Is the use of drones in violation of this principle? Are drones really necessary? The use of remote-controlled aircraft striking vastly outgunned targets would seem, according to this principal, to be an unethical use of weaponry which is disproportionate to that being deployed by the opposition.

Looking at this strictly from a bare bones ethical perspective, ignoring Just War completely, it’s still fairly easy to arrive at the conclusion that drone warfare isn’t quite ethically sound. The psychological effect on drone operators, possible violations of national sovereignty, amount of civilian deaths, and violations of the tenets of Just War doctrine combine to lead one to feel that there is little solid ethical grounding for the use of drones in combat.

Even so, we shouldn’t forget why there remains strong support for the use of drones.  One of the most prominent positive aspects of drone warfare is that it keeps our own soldiers and pilots out of harm’s way; but, is that adequate justification for the negative aspects associated with this type of warfare? Of course, looking at this from a purely ethical perspective completely ignores the military and strategic aspects of drone warfare, which provide a strong case for support. This leads to a question of teleological versus deontological ethics. In other words, this is the question of whether or not we should be focused only on the end results of the decision to use drones regardless of possible violations of ethics (teleological view), or on the actual ethical implications of the decision itself, regardless of the consequences, good or bad (deontological view).

No matter which approach you take, the fact remains that the United States claims to be a model for other nations in terms of morality. So, my question is, if we’re engaged in drone warfare, which can definitely be argued to be in violation of Just War doctrine as well as other moral precepts, can we really claim to be a nation of high morals or do we only do damage to our reputation among other nations?


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