The drone operators sit at consoles on military bases around the U.S. They track their targets and when the moment is right, they send the command to fire. And then people die.
Drones have been in the news a lot over the past month as Congress has considered the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan has been the chief architect of the drone policies of the Obama administration.
The constitutional questions have gotten quite a public airing, but drones raise deeper moral questions about what constraints there are on weapons of war.
Yes, drones are efficient, effective, and economical. But what do they do to the soul of this nation, to the psyches of those who push the buttons from half a world away? If they are moral for the U.S. to use at will in any nation of the world, are they moral for other nations to use against us?
The dramatically increased use of drones to kill people identified as terrorists – and to also kill innocent bystanders as “collateral damage” — got almost no debate during the presidential campaign last fall. The American public seems mostly content with the drone wars because they hold no physical risk to those pushing the buttons and seem to neatly eliminate people our government considers threatening.
But what’s the moral framework for their use? One standard measure in Western society has been something known as a “just war.” Is a war is sufficiently necessary and is it properly waged? It’s a check on the might-makes-right mentality.
Some of the parameters of a just war include responding to an imminent threat, not just to a long-standing opponent. They include protecting civilians. They include a sense of proportionality between the force used and the extent of the threat. It’s hard to make a compelling case that the drone attacks meet those standards. Eight years of drone strikes in countries we are not at war with have killed hundreds of civilians. Is this worth the moral cost?
And what does this to the drone operators? They work in a very safe environment in places like upstate New York and southern Nevada. Yet as Col. D. Scott Brenton told The New York Times, you pull the trigger, walk out to your car, drive home and help your kid with homework. “It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “No one in my immediate environment is aware of anything that occurred.”
When we so disconnect our warriors from the realities of war, what does that do to their souls and to our collective soul? Do we lose sight of the horrible human cost of war? Do we become arrogant in our perceived ability to rule the world from a computer terminal?
As commentator Bill Moyers said in an essay on Feb. 7, our recent wars in Vietnam and Iraq and now with drones all share a “blind faith in technology, combined with a sense of infallible righteousness.”
That’s a recipe for an illusive short-term victory at the cost of the moral high ground that ought to set our nation apart. It’s a policy that is increasing animosity in the nations we target, opens us to counterattacks in the future and corrodes our inner selves.
Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., a suburb of Madison. This column first appeared in The Capital Times.
Photo: Drone aircraft, Paul Fleet  / Shutterstock.com