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.

Silence on the Drones: Another Moral Failure of Progressive Christianity?

With the release of the government’s memo laying out the case for the extra-judicial assassination by drones of US citizens, the media have finally begun to take a closer look at the whole drone war. Greg Mitchell has a useful summary with links.

Tom Junod’s piece is must-read:

The white paper offers a legal opinion, not a moral one, but the questions that it tries to answer are moral indeed:

Do “informed, high-level officials” have the power to kill their own citizens?

Are “informed, high-level officials” acting in the interests of the state ever liable to the accusation that they have committed murder?

These are the moral questions that the Constitution was written to address by means of a legal framework. The leaked white paper seems to address them in a different way, in a kingly way, in an almost pre-constitutional or perhaps post-constitutional way. And so when we read it, we recognize it for what it is: the kind of document that has always been proferred to power. The kind of document that always ends with somebody dead.

But there’s silence among progressive Christians. Not a word yet on Huffington Post Religion. Not a word yet on Religion Dispatches. Not a word yet from Episcopal Cafe.

My questions for all those outlets and for the people who write regularly for them: Where’s your moral and religious outrage at this raw use of unconstitutional power? Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize (remember that?). He’s been hailed as a close follower of Niebuhr. His Second Inaugural the manifesto for a new progressive American Civil Religion.

Obama has refused us as a nation the necessary conversation and come to terms with our use of torture. He has refused to make those who permitted, advocated and conducted accountable for their actions. Three days after he was inaugurated in 2009, he began using drones to kill people he and his administration claimed were enemy combatants.

Christians need to challenge his claims and his administration’s actions. We need to hold him account just as many of us want to hold the previous administration to account for all of the evil it perpetrated. We need to remind him–he is a Christian, after all–of the moral and ethical obligations of following Jesus Christ and we need to offer a clear, consistent, and loud prophetic voice against this evil program.

The Washington Post does have a piece from a Roman Catholic exploring the memo’s use of Just War Theory.

And there’s this from Lawrence Garcia (who is currently attending Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University):

We, as the followers of the unjustly-crucified Terrorist, should, of all people, be vocally against this inhumane use of military might. After all, our King was also the victim of such imperial tactics and realpolitik, and he calls his disciples to sympathize with his fellow sufferers-under-empire. Remember, the cross is not only where sin was dealt with and where Satan was defeated, but also where empire revealed itself for what it truly was,  dispenser of injustice; no matter how much Pilate continues to wash his hands