To Drone or Not to Drone

The Air Force Times recently ran an ad signed by forty-five veterans declaring that drone warfare missions violate international law and that drone pilots and support personnel are obligated to refuse to fly. They did not paint with a broad brush by saying that all missions are wrong or that drones are inherently evil, but they spoke against “surveillance/assassination missions” that threaten “rights to life, privacy, and due process.” They then cited the Nuremberg tribunals which affirmed that an immoral order is illegal and must be disobeyed if a moral choice is available. In terms of this call for morality, we can all jump on the perceived moral high ground and call for an end to war. But reality is not that simple, and for those willing to look, the strategic analysis in favor of drones is easy to find from reputable sources.

The scientific method allows us to understand the world, our place in it, and what the effects of our actions will be. Science as a process is arguably the greatest human achievement. War is among the ugliest and most brutal of human achievements. As those many natural phenomena and disasters of our uncaring universe conspire to torture and destroy us, humans occasionally turn on each other to do violence in the pursuit of resources that don't seem abundant enough. And then there is technology, the practical and amoral expression of science that is often as noble as it is brutal. Drone technology has found both moral and immoral applications, and the United States in particular is struggling with the ethics of this new technology. The alternative to war drones is not peace in the world. The alternative is not an end to surveillance or targeted strikes (or "assassination," if you like). The alternative is boots on the ground or at least pilots in the sky performing the same missions. While the moral outrage against war is legitimate, the outrage against drones is misplaced. A pilot or soldier in place to perform the mission of a drone requires fuel, food, runways, housing, and what is, on the whole, a much larger and more vulnerable supply chain that includes resources and people. Carrying out a military mission deemed “just” with a drone is much more efficient. The missions are more effective as well. Human pilots in fighter aircraft suffer from familial separation , lack of sleep, limited visibility, fear, and bad living conditions. They are there in person, but understood to be at limited potential for all the difficulty of being in a warzone. Drone pilots are often home with family after shifts, have good working conditions, and have the opportunity for additional personnel to provide oversight, opinions, and corrections as necessary even in the thick of battle. If anything, they need more stimulation. All these factors don't necessarily result in a more effective fighter performance versus a human pilot, but they do result in a more calm, controlled, and conscientious combat strike or surveillance activity. This means a just military mission is less likely to have immoral strikes due to stress or fatigue, and whatever happens, good or bad, is fully documented. So it seems this all goes back to the so-called just military mission. Just war theory is an ugly business, but this new drone technology is not inherently evil; it is just a new medium of war. Drone pilots should absolutely refuse immoral orders, just as traditional pilots in the air and atheists in foxholes should. Contrary to some derogatory popular opinion, troops don't just “follow orders.” All military personnel are taught to refuse an immoral order, but when killing is one's business, the moral option can be very hard to see. This is the same in drone combat. It may be hard for a drone operator to know whether firing a missile at a building is moral or immoral. If the drone operator knows only that the military intelligence indicates a military target is in the building, then moral choice would seem to be to fire. There are a number of anti-drone websites and the arguments seem more anti-war than specifically anti-drone. The stories are about civilians killed or displaced by drone attacks. In that sense, the technology becomes the scapegoat for war in general. The implication is that limiting drones will limit the devastation of war. Scott Shane, a national security reporter with the New York Times, and others have presented statistics showing the opposite, that using drones is the least devastating way to wage war. That means that in a “just” war, we may be morally obligated to use drones as a first and most prevalent option, before traditional pilots and before boots on the ground. But in the final analysis, the most important option is to carry out just war, and I think anti-drone advocates would agree (assuming they agree that just war can exist). Even as humanists, we are morally obligated to see the need for and to do the hard work of waging war for humanitarian purposes—such was the conclusion of the Oslo World Humanist Congress on “Humanism and Peace.” We have a long, hard war of words to wage against our human history of imperial, religious, and commercial warfare. We should not distract from that conversation by focusing too much on one piece of technology, in this case, drones. Rather than overselling their danger,  I think it is better to co-opt drones as a technology that can more quickly and humanely move us through the ugly business of war to the humanitarian outcome any just war seeks.Tags: