NPR ran a story on a former drone pilot today. Among the things he said:

“I felt numb. This is the reality of war.”

“I saw five photos on the wall when I walked into work. I asked myself, ‘Which one of these !!@#$$’s is gonna die today? That’s not me’.”

He’s been diagnosed by PTSD, and is essentially homeless (“couch-surfing”). The full story is here.

After listening to it, one should read Robert J. Lifton’s reflections on drone warfare. It’s a must-read and offer insight into the experience of the pilot profiled in the NPR story (here and here). Lifton examines our desire for technologically precise killing machines and the effects such machines have on our ethics, our personalities, and one might add, our souls:

We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing. This extreme psychic numbing enables us to kill while distancing ourselves from the significance, the meaning, of that killing.

From a review of Medea Benjamin’s new book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control:

That such extra-judicial killing is illegal is not in doubt – as has recently been reconfirmed by the UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson. Obama’s justification is similar to Bush’s – that those killed are actively threatening the security of the US. But the crucial issue is an ethical one: the pilot of a drone tracking the movements of a Waziri villager and making a life-or-death decision to fire a missile may be sitting in a control room in a US air base in the Nevada desert. That’s when many will agree with Benjamin, a founder of the women’s anti-war movement CODEPINK, that a moral line has been crossed.

Is firing a missile from a drone morally worse than dropping a 500lb bomb from 10,000ft? Or pressing the button that launches a cruise missile? Perhaps what is repugnant is the unique combination of deliberately firing at a specific individual, combined with distance and the knowledge that you yourself are invulnerable to retaliation. Time to reprise the ancient Greeks with their contempt for archers. Despite some loose editing and repetition, Drone Warfare is both a justifiably angry sourcebook and a call to action for the growing worldwide citizen opposition to the drones.

Did you know there was a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill this week concerning drone warfare? The most compelling testimony is here.

Steve Coll recently wrote a lengthy piece on drones for The New Yorker.

Silence on the Drones, revisited

Well, Archbishop Tutu has spoken (and was acknowledged by the Episcopal Cafe) but still from progressive American Christians, little else.

Teju Cole in The New Yorker writes:

We now have firsthand testimony from the pilots who remotely operate the drones, many of whom have suffered post-traumatic stress reactions to the work. There is also the testimony of the survivors of drone attacks: heartbreaking stories of mistaken identity, grisly tales of sudden death from a machine in the sky. In one such story reported by The New York Times, the relatives of a pair of dead cousins said, “We found eyes, but there were no faces left.” The recently leaked Department of Justice white paper indicating guidelines for the President’s assassination of his fellow Americans has shone a spotlight on these “dirty wars” (as the journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly calls them in his documentary film and book of the same title). The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.

Also in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer explores the differences between torture and drones:
In some ways, what’s most disturbing about the Obama white paper is not that it tried to set limits in order to ensure that the drone program was within the laws of war. Rather, what seems more worrisome is what it didn’t attempt to figure out, and which no one else seems to be addressing either: namely, whether conventional laws of war should still apply to America’s unconventional counterterrorism program, particularly now that it is over a decade old, and is seemingly morphing into an endless worldwide lethal manhunt. Drones per se are weapons, and they are not so much the problem as the parameters of the war in which they’re being used.
Mayer’s position notwithstanding, Kelsey Atherton points out something quite obvious though it’s been overlooked by almost everyone, including myself. The so-called “drone memo” isn’t actually about drones at all. It’s about “targeted killing,” in other words assassination. The use of drones is only one possible way in which the US targets suspected terrorists from afar:
We may talk about the “drone war” and debate the drone memo, but we’re not really looking at the use of a specific technology. Instead, the “drone debate” is about policy, and how the United States chooses to attack its enemies in the War on Terror. Fancy as modern drones may be, it’s the policy that makes this kind of war new.
By the way, President Obama refused to deny that he had the right to target an American citizen on US soil with a drone strike.
If Atherton is write to say that to debate drones is to debate the technology and not the underlying policy, then we have an obligation as Christians to engage that deeper debate, whether our nation should assassinate those we proclaim to be militantly opposed to us, without recourse to any legal or judicial framework for making those judgments. It seems to me that such policy is untrammeled, unchecked power which always leads to abuse.

Silence on the Drones–updated

By and large, the silence continues. There are reposted articles on Christianity Today and Religion & Ethics from years ago (I won’t link to them because it can’t be that difficult to find someone who can write 1000 words on Just War Theory and Drones in light of the new information we are receiving.

But a few voices are beginning to be heard (not on religion sites, on the Washington Post, for example, but they’ve not exactly exercised responsible journalism on this issue (or on the larger issues of war and terrorism). Huffpo Religion promises a conversation on drones tomorrow afternoon. And total silence from the Episcopalians, so far as I can tell.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite writes in the Washington Post:

One of the most inspiring and even profound speeches on both Just War theory and Just Peace theory I have ever heard was President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In that speech, I argued, “The president said that the ‘old architecture’ of thinking about war and peace is ‘buckling.’ What is required now, argued the President, is to ‘think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of just peace.’” I called this the “Obama doctrine.” I was wrong.

David Gushee of Mercer University, in the Post:

The United States would never accept it if another militarily sophisticated country-China or Russia come to mind-developed a policy in which they routinely launched “targeted” attacks on our soil seeking the deaths of those they identified as “imminent threats” to their national security, accidentally killing innocent Americans on a regular basis.

There is a disturbing combination of American arrogance and self-righteousness at work here. We alone, the exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice, can be trusted with the power to kill our own and others around the world in the name of national self-defense (and global security). And then we concentrate the execution of that policy in the hands of individual officials in the executive branch not subject to external review. This sounds like a people that have forgotten the old biblical claim that “no one is righteous, not one.” Every nation and every individual needs someone looking over their shoulder and checking their exercise of power. All are fallible. Even us.

If you want to understand a little bit of why I am so angry about this, note that today in the hearings for John Brennan, Senators cracked jokes about waterboarding.

Outside of the Christian community, progressives and human rights activists are speaking out. David Cole has 13 questions he wishes the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would ask John Brennan during his nomination hearing.

An earlier piece by David Cole on the released memo addresses moral  and legal questions raised by the use of drones:

In fact, the capabilities of drones raise a number of related questions that go entirely unasked in this paper. Drone technology has made it possible to use lethal force in many situations where we could not or would not have even considered it in the past. Unlike conventional military operations, drone attacks require no “boots on the ground,” and therefore do not pose a risk to American lives. Unlike bombings, they have pinpoint accuracy; they therefore reduce the collateral costs of killing and may be easier to disavow. Because drones can effectively travel the world while being controlled remotely from home, they permit the “war” to move far beyond the battlefield. And drones have made it possible for the US government to do something that was unthinkable before, and should be unthinkable still—to kill its own citizens in secret. In short, drones radically reduce the disincentives to killing. And that may well make a nation prone to use military force before it is truly a last resort. That certainly seems to be what has happened here.

A little cold water to throw on Obama’s speech yesterday

From Tom Junod: The War Obama Forgot:

I am not speaking, of course, of the wars that the president spoke of yesterday, in his second inaugural speech — the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he spoke of without naming. I am speaking of the war that is currently being prosecuted in countries where we are not supposed to be at war, like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. I am speaking of the perpetual war, the shadow war, the invisible war against invisible enemies, the war whose latest manifestation came just two days ago, when three men identified as militants, names unknown, were killed by an American drone. I am speaking of the war that the president did not speak about, even though his Administration has never called it anything but a war, and it has killed thousands of people.

Read every word of it.
But here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed. That’s what seems to have happened with the U.S. Army or with the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen. The overuse of drones and the costs they impose upon the civilian population have been carefully and persuasively documented in the Stanford/NYU Clinics’ report, Living Under Drones. I will focus on only one striking example of how the moral criteria have been relaxed in order to justify the overuse and the costs. According to an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, President Obama has adopted “a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that makes it much easier to call drone attacks “proportionate.” In effect, it “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants.” If the targeted insurgent or terrorist leader is surrounded by, or simply in the vicinity of, a group of men who are, say, between the ages of fifteen and sixty (and even drone surveillance can’t be precise about that), an attack is permitted, and everyone who is killed is counted as a legitimate target. But this isn’t targeted killing.