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: 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

Initial reflections on the death of Osama bin Laden

After turning in early last night, I learned the news this morning. Like many, I was troubled by the celebrations that broke out spontaneously. Many of those most affected, whose loved ones were killed directly or indirectly bin Laden or Al Qaida had a natural emotional response to news of his death. But I wonder why a celebration of this sort turned into what one commentator called a “Frat Party.” And there were other comments and actions that put this event on the level of a sports team’s national championship. We haven’t won by any stretch of the imagination. The wars that were unleashed in response to bin Laden’s actions continue; terrorists continue to plot attacks, and our freedoms diminished in the name of these wars.

About rejoicing over the death of one’s enemies:

Susanna Brooks has some brief comments

Rabbi Schmuel Herzfeld asks: “Is it wrong to feel joy at Bin Laden’s death?” and points to the talmudic story that God rebuked the angels for excessive joy when Pharaoh’s army was destroyed while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

My Facebook newsfeed was filled with friends posting verses from scripture about loving one’s enemy or Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” There were also prayers for peace and prayers for our enemies.

I’ve been thinking again about just war theory–Nato’s actions in Libya have raised the issue again. The use of drone aircraft raise significant questions about the exercise of war. Paul Zahl asked whether their use was just in the context of Afghanistan; that they are now being used in Libya as well is perhaps more troubling.

Osama’s death will overshadow the news that Nato made a targeted attack on a site where members of Muammar Qaddafi’s family were staying, resulting in the death of family members. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this is a significant step beyond the original UN mandate.

One of the things that concerns me most, both about the bin Laden attack and the events in Libya is that we continue to abrogate human rights and the rule of law.

An appropriate, Christian (or even human) response to bin Laden’s death is difficult to gauge in light of our competing loyalties to family, friends, nation and Jesus Christ, and the real emotional responses we have to the news. James Martin, SJ, writes on America’s In all Things:

So the question is whether the Christian can forgive a murderer, a mass murderer, even–as in the case of Osama bin Laden–a coordinator of mass murder across the globe.  I’m not sure I would be able to do this, particularly if I had lost a loved one.  But as with other “life” issues, we cannot overlook what Jesus asks of us, hard as it is to comprehend.  Or to do.

For this is a “life” issue as surely as any other.  The Christian is not simply in favor of life for the unborn, for the innocent, for those we care for, for our families and friends, for our fellow citizens, for our fellow church members or even for those whom we consider good, but for all.  All life is sacred because God created all life.  This is what lies behind Jesus’s most difficult command: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The whole thing is well worth the read.

Just War in Libya?

The last months have seen protests throughout the Arab world. In some cases, as in Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful protests have led to the downfall of regimes. Elsewhere, including Syria just today, and Bahrain and Yemen in past weeks, protests have been put down with violence.

The most dramatic military action against protests occurred in Libya where protests turned into rebellion and what seems to be civil war. After a relatively brief debate in the international community, the UN authorized military action to limit the Libyan military’s response.

The use of military force raises moral as well as political questions. Just War theory has a long and controversial history in Western thought. Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, presents a thoughtful case why the allied action is just. Derrick Crowe questions two of the principles by which military action might be justified in this case: probability of success and discrimination.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald writes in opposition to the use of military force in Libya: Opposing the Use of Force in Libya. His essay gives some of the background to his position including how he came to be a Christian pacifist.

The debate over the political and legal legitimacy of the action in Libya is well-represented on the daily dish, with Andrew Sullivan leading the attack against the attack as well as on advocates of taking action, both here and abroad.

I’ve never been comfortable with Just War theory, in part because of my personal background in the Anabaptist tradition, but also because it seems that the principles by which war is judged seem very slippery indeed. More important still is that Just War theory is often used by political leaders as justification for their decisions, and once made and justified, the moral question is resolved, allowing political and military leaders to do whatever they want and brook no continued opposition.

This raises for me again, the question of the relationship of Christians and the political sphere. It’s a question I’ve been struggling with intensively in the last month. I’m groping toward a new understanding of that relationship, or at least of what I see my role to be.


Obama’s Nobel speech

There was considerable controversy over the selection of President Obama as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Many saw irony, or perhaps a desire on the part of the selection committee to influence events, in the confluence of the award ceremony with the decision to increase US troop presence in Afghanistan. Obama took his critics head on in the speech.

He did more. He addressed the just war theory in the opening paragraphs. Later in the speech, he argued that no war waged as Holy War could be just: “For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith.” Alluding then to the “Golden Rule” that has its parallels in most of the world’s religions, Obama continued,

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

He strikes a rather Niebuhrian tone is these paragraphs, recognizing both the fallibility of human nature, and the importance of striving for a goal that lies beyond the natural and obvious.

I am deeply troubled by a number of Obama’s choices in foreign policy and in combating terrorism–among them the reluctance to come clean on torture and especially to prosecute those who tortured, and advocated the use of torture, the defense of the Bush Administration’s justice department, and the reluctance to come clean on what happened overall during the Bush administration.

I don’t know what the answer is in Afghanistan. I doubt whether this expansion of US military presence there will be successful. It seems to me that there are only difficult choices there, and overall in dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. But I suspect Obama’s hands were tied by many factors, including the generals and the hawks on Capitol Hill. It will be interesting to see if he can extricate the troops from that place in 2011.

Having invoked just war theory at the beginning of his speech, the question of whether Afghanistan conforms to just war theory is valid. I think that question would make for a lively debate, even on the limited definition Obama provided. This is what he said. A war is just “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” I’d be curious to hear his arguments defending Afghanistan’s conforming to those criteria.