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A moral theologian defends the ‘surgical’ use of drones to assassinate terrorist leaders: but is their use really intended to minimise civilian deaths?

According to some, drones in Waziristan are causing total social collapse. Who is telling the truth?

By on Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan (AP)

A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan (AP)

There has been increasing interest (the BBC’s Moral Maze did a programme about it) in the morality of the military use of what are euphemistically called “drones” — “euphemistically”, because a drone, says the Oxford dictionary, is “a person who does no useful work”; these things are hardly torpid or inactive. The dictionary, however, also defines what I am talking about as “a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile”.

One argument against using these things is that mechanisation of what used to be done by piloted aircraft threatens to make war even more inhumane. Already, it seems, the use of automatic drones which would be programmed to search, identify and fire on targets without direct human intervention is being considered. This “brave new world” prompts all kinds of ethical problems; above all, it would compound an objection already being forcibly put forward by those opposed to the current use of drones, particularly in Pakistan: that the use of drones makes warfare much easier. Sitting at a computer screen thousands of miles away isn’t at all the same thing as ordering those under one’s command to risk their lives: it’s risk-free. There are no more body bags, except in the vicinity of one’s targets.

The moral argument in favour of this deadly new technology is that since it can be so accurately targeted it seems on the face of it admirably to conform to the requirement of just war criteria that aggressive action should be “proportionate” and should as far as possible minimise civilian deaths.

Mgr Stuart Swetland puts the question, in a very interesting piece in the National Catholic Register. “Assuming the ‘war on terror’ is a legitimate application of the jus ad bellum criteria,” he asks, “does the use of drones meet the jus in bello requirements?”

His answer is interesting. “Before answering this question,” he goes on, “the decision-making procedure for a drone strike should be examined … a fairly clear picture has emerged. ‘Targeted killings’, as they are sometimes called, are authorised on al-Qaeda operatives (and their supporters or allies like the Taliban) only after they have been placed on the unfortunately named ‘kill list’. This list is drawn up at the highest level of the American political and military chain of command. Names are added only with the direct approval of the commander in chief, the president of the United States … According to the [New York] Times, he personally authorises all strikes in Yemen and Somalia and many in Pakistan. All strikes must meet strict ‘rules of engagement’ when it comes to identifying some high-value person of interest or group on the approved attack list … More often than not, the weapon of choice is a missile strike from a drone.

“Drones have several military advantages. They offer little or no risk to the US forces. They are less expensive and dangerous than maintaining manned aircraft on station. They can remain in the air for an incredibly long time, and they have proved both deadly and accurate.

“The New America Foundation, a widely accepted non-partisan analyst, estimates there have been approximately 337 drone strikes in Pakistan alone from 2004 until October 24 2012 … causing casualties of between 1,908 to 3,225 people. These strikes have killed 1,618 to 2,769 combatants, about 153 to 192 civilians and another 130 to 268 persons whose identities were unknown.

“This means the collateral damage estimates range from seven per cent to 15 per cent. Over time, this figure has decreased, as targeting methods, technology and technical skills of the remote pilots have all improved. Compared to other methods of attack and other wars, these collateral damage figures, though still tragic, are fewer. These statistics make clear that US military authorities are seriously attempting to minimise civilian casualties and make these attacks as ‘surgical’ as possible. And we know from captured documents and other intelligence that these strikes have seriously hampered al-Qaeda’s efforts to carry out terrorist activities and recruit and train new leadership.”

“Therefore,” concludes Mgr Swetland, “these strikes seem to be serving a real military purpose (just cause) in the ongoing battle to disrupt terror activity”: and since their use is proportionate and targeted, it is morally justified.

This argument seems persuasive enough to me. Its soundness, however, depends on the validity of that estimate: that collateral damage ranges from seven per cent to 15 per cent, and that that US military authorities really are seriously attempting to minimise civilian casualties. I would like to know a little more about the figures, though: how do we actually know that “these strikes have killed 1,618 to 2,769 combatants, about 153 to 192 civilians and another 130 to 268 persons whose identities were unknown”? Who says that so many of those killed were in fact combatants?

And are these strikes really designed to cause as little disruption as possible to innocent civilians? Precisely the reverse is being claimed. According to a recent article in the Independent newspaper:

More and more, while the overall frequency of strikes has fallen since a Nato attack in 2011 killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and strained US-Pakistan relations, initial strikes are now followed up by further missiles in a tactic which lawyers and campaigners say is killing an even greater number of civilians. The tactic has cast such a shadow of fear over strike zones that rescuers often wait for hours before daring to visit the scene of an attack.

“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone strikes, told The Independent. “In the past it used to be a one-off, every now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

The expansive use of “double-tap” drone strikes is just one of a number of more recent phenomena in the covert war run by the US against violent Islamists that has been documented in a new report by legal experts at Stanford and New York University.

The product of nine months’ research and more than 130 interviews, it is one of the most exhaustive attempts by academics to understand – and evaluate – Washington’s drone wars. And their verdict is damning.

Throughout the 146-page report, which is released today, the authors condemn drone strikes for their ineffectiveness. Despite assurances the attacks are “surgical”, researchers found barely two per cent of their victims are known militants and that the idea that the strikes make the world a safer place for the US is “ambiguous at best”.

Researchers added that traumatic effects of the strikes go far beyond fatalities, psychologically battering a population which lives under the daily threat of annihilation from the air, and ruining the local economy. They conclude by calling on Washington completely to reassess its drone-strike programme or risk alienating the very people they hope to win over. They also observe that the strikes set worrying precedents for extra-judicial killings at a time when many nations are building up their unmanned weapon arsenals…

Reprieve, the charity which is trying to challenge drone strikes in the British, Pakistani and American courts, said the report detailed how the fallout from the extra-judicial strikes must be measured in terms of more than deaths and injuries alone.

“An entire region is being terrorised by the constant threat of death from the skies,” said Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith. “Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meeting or anything that involves gathering in groups.”

The source of this story, the not-so-Independent newspaper, should be noted; but I would like nevertheless to know a bit more about those “double tap” attacks. Is this an established tactic? Is it how drones are really being used? If so, the supposed proportionality that has been claimed for their use is just a cynical joke. I would like to know more about all this. If you know anything, let’s hear it. In the meantime, in the old cliché, the jury is still out. The question is, has it heard all the evidence?

  • paulpriest

    Confused: Just War is mandatorily defensive/protective against an unjust aggressor – without that, any other consideration of jus ad bello is automatically negated. The authority of the state to declare war lies solely in that it is an appellant to natural justice [i.e. the state is forbidden in being hypocritical or engaging in double-standards in its actions].[ Like the unforgiving servant it cannot continue to act unjustly and make an arbitrary appeal to justice on other grounds]

    Jus in Bello demands any action must be non ‘malum in se’ , proportionate, committed against an immediate, lethal unjust aggressor and most especially – critical in necessity [i.e. this intrinsic moral disorder can only be performed to prevent a grave objective moral evil - not for mere beneficial ends]

    Mgr Swetland’s equivocations are redolent of Protagoras & Johnnie Cochrane.

  • Nat_ons

    A just self-defence and passive aggressive assaults are not the same moral case, if being judged with sound reason (not opinions of popular ‘judgements’ in vengence for wrong suffered).

    Mgr Stuart Swetland’s case seems to rest on the first, an attempt to reason through the problems of killing from a distance others – who threaten our lives, wellbeing, and commonwealth.

    Sadly, neither surgical accuracy nor incidental harm alter the end desired and enacted - and hence the prime source of considering right from wrong is removed by a means of achievement.

    One need only consider the passive aggressive anger motivating the use of V weapons in the last war, and, of course, the wholesale destruction of otherwise non-military targets by aeriel bombing .. however heroic, ingeneous or upright its protagonists. The end desired was wholesale death and destruction as a means to an end, victory (or at least politically useful retribution); killing one soul or hundreds of thousands does not remove that aim .. only salving the conscience of those doing the killing. Killing a tyrant – like fighting a bully or stopping a murderous mad-man - is not a passive aggressive assault, it is (smply put) a form of pre-emptive self-defence .. although it involves killing, and all killing is wrong per se (in terms of moral reasoning) even where it may be justified; every other avenue must be considered, or tried, but if these proportionate responses do not succeed and the tyrant undetered ..

    Terrorists are novel tyrants, issuing threats, death sentences and stealthy devastation; however, they too may consider their terror attacks as those of self-defence against a tyrant - as Guy Fawkes and co seem to have done, or the July Bomb Plot conspirators against Hilter, and as the IRA etc has repeatedly claimed .. giving their actions a minimal covering of (self-)justification. So if the precisely targeted attack on the Wolf’s Lair, 20th July 1944, is deemed justifiable in its aim (if not its actual means) - being a desperate measure to end a tyrant’s unjust (if legal) threats to life - well then, a precisely targeted attack on a cabal of terrorists whose illegal (and unjust) means of political action cannot be lightly dismissed as ‘unjust’. Rather then the problem – as with all just war theory - rests chiefly on who decides between such tyrannies and their unlawful, unjust and unbridled mayhem; it is most usually the victors who decide on justice not the reasonable (let alone the well-intentioned moral theologian).

  • Anon

    Are we at war with Pakistan now?

  • Kevin

    “Who says that so many of those killed were in fact combatants?”

    Regardless of the tactics used, civilian casualties are always lower when the President is a Democrat.

    Compare, for example, the Iraq War, which at one point was estimated by the The Lancet to have caused 654,965 excess Iraqi deaths, with the Libya War, which on current estimates has led to 0 civilians being killed, with no margin of error.

    Given the difficulty of obtaining reliable data on this subject, perhaps it would be easier to focus on the justice of particular strikes, such as the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

  • Parasum

    “Just War is mandatorily defensive/protective against an unjust aggressor…
    Jus in Bello demands any action must be non ‘malum in se’ , proportionate, committed against an immediate, lethal unjust aggressor and most especially – critical in necessity [i.e. this intrinsic moral disorder can only be performed to prevent a grave objective moral evil - not for mere beneficial ends]”
     
    ## How who Dubya’s invasion of Iraq fit into that ? By that argument, the aggressor would seem to be Dubya – not Saddam.

  • paulpriest

     Remind me: Clinton’s ‘peacetime’ bombing and genocidal economic sanctions killed how many more Iraqis than during and since the Iraq War?

  • paulpriest

    a] It doesn’t
    b] Go figure! Considering Saddam Hussein was a hired thug provided with the majority of his arms from where exactly? I distinctly remember being in the US on the day they caught Saddam Hussein and the video of them checking his teeth was played against a backdrop of the plane crashing into the second tower with the title ‘we’ve got him!’ – wilful mendacious propaganda – not one of the fifty plus associates I was with would believe me when I said Saddam was not responsible for 9-11…
    c] Yes it does- we’re human beings with dignity, conscience and volition – let Heaven and earth fail but let right be done and truth remain forever upon our lips…
    d] No – it’s not useless – at present we’re going through a maniacal ultra-barbaric phase…please God it can change if we remain true to our principles.

  • Cestius

    I think you should forget ideas about drones being robotic killers for the time being – that’s not what it’s about.  They’re just weapons most likely only a very small part of the operation against terrorist organizations. Most of the work is probably infiltration of the terrorist network by agents and local intelligence gathering (at considerable risk to the individuals involved).  The radio controlled drones are only the last link in the chain – a means of assassinating the identified targets which is anonymous enough not to be traceable to the people supplying information on the ground.  It seems to be a successful strategy that the terrorists have little or no answer for.

    No doubt there will be robotic killers in the future, but this is not what this present conflict is about. 

  • Yankee

    Both British and American governments have been complicit in supporting each other’s expansionist and interventionist foreign policies. The right policy would be to stay out of other countries’ business unless we or an ally is directly attacked. However, our large military-industrial complex won’t allow this which is why we bear the burden of large fiscal debts while huge war profiteering occurs. The solution is to stop voting for politicians that are bought and paid for. In the US, only Congressman Ron Paul has admitted publicly to this.

  • W Oddie

    The argument is that the terrorists are precisely the unjust agressors, and that what the drones are doing is in self-defence. I can’t see that that’s all that ‘confused’, or that to call Mgr Swetland an equivocator, i.e. one who uses “ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself”. To say that he is being dishonest is both discourteous and unjust, as well as being clearly not the case.

    Mgr Swetland is entitled to put his case without being called a liar, a case which makes as much sense and probably more than yours does. If he is right in arguing that the use of drones is defensive (and it is certainly arguable), whether it is in fact proportionate  is surely what needs to be ascertained.

  • W Oddie

    That should read “or that to call Mgr Swetland an equivocator, i.e. one who uses ‘ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself’ is in any way defensible”.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Whatever the moral problems I do wonder about the legality of these drone strikes.  You have people in a foreign country whom you unilaterally decide to be terrorists and you go in and kill them without any judicial process.  Supposing the man whom we recently extradited for terrorist offences to the USA had not been so extradited because our judges had taken the view that evidence obtained by waterboarding in Guantamano bay might have been used in a USA court.  Would the USA then have been legally justified in sending a drone to kill him in London with the result that perhaps an innocent passer-by in the street had been wounded?  Think of what we would have said.  Then why is it okay to do so in Pakistan or the Yemen?

    I am uncertain of the answers to these questions.  Personally I think we ought to concentrate on threats in our own home country and export people like Abu Hamza.

    I think bombing people in other countries just makes the situation worse and makes people hate us even more.

  • Petertheroman

    Didnt christ say offer the other cheek? How far from his works has this world become including the church. You cannot kill and say you love God. To kill means you know better than God. God can change or convert the heart of any person. Love thy enemy even if you are persecuted by them. Pray not murder. I do not believe there is one time a killing can be justified. People have learned nothing in the works of Christ and I pray that his truth and love enters the hearts of you all. People can argue as much and justify by their own means as much as they will, but this is not Gods will. You think like men, not God.

  • paulpriest

     Dr Oddie I’m afraid you don’t seem to be understanding that the argument is invalid – you can ONLY use lethal action against a direct, immediate unjust aggressor – in other words you can only act defensively and lethally while the axe is being swung or being made ready to be swung…not merely because the enemy has an axe in their belt or has used it previously or is simply a viable target and has signed their death warrant by simply being a member of the enemy side.

    …otherwise one is legally and morally obliged to neutralise, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate…with a continuing defensive action against any hostility while actuating that procedure. Certainly one’s own side’s lives are put at a greater risk – but it’s the moral response.

    Yes those who are in an installation/training camp etc are automatically complicit and are axiomatically a viable target for defensive retaliation against their ‘making ready to swing the axe’ – and ONLY IF that was the purpose of the drones would it be morally acceptable – but it blatantly isn’t – and irrespective of this the Monsignor IS equivocating – imposing this paradigm on a scenario which doesn’t fit the moral criteria – and frankly – stuff courtesy – this is morality about which we’re dealing and the monsignor IS appealing to the gravely unjust as being acceptable.

    What part of you can’t go round killing killers except to stop them killing while they are trying to kill – doesn’t he get?

    The use of drones is provenly not merely the eradication of bases, installations, armouries etc and the ‘collateral damage’ [regrettable loss of life [however malevolent]] as a consequence of that action…it is merely a clinically concentrated version of carpet bombing over limited areas where the extraneous population is always unknown….and the very concept of a ‘double-tap’ – where one directly targets combatants not resources – is heinously immoral

    ..when the use of drones is aimed at direct killing of the enemy – an act of lethal aggression – it cannot be equivocated away as defensive measures when they are NOT defensive in either nature or end.

    Preventative measures against a provisional threat can only have lethal consequences as a last resort when all other means have been exhausted – it cannot be the first recourse on the excuse of financial or personal security of our own side…

    It’s only a century ago that the articles of war made it a criminal offence to shoot an enemy in the back…

    …and frankly I’m getting a little bit sick of this John Wayne no-holds-barred Spellman blessing atom bombs and Avery Dulles justifying capital punishment mentality sweeping through the traditionalist Catholic sphere…

    Taking life is ALWAYS intrinsically morally disordered and it can only be justified when preventing a lethal direct immediate grave unjust moral evil – that’s the remit of the negative double effect of moral dilemma – and we can’t opt out of it for our own benefit – otherwise we revert from virtue ethics to preference utilitarianism.

  • W Oddie

    You patronisingly say that I “don’t seem to be understanding”: you assume that if there’s any disagreement with you it’s because those who disagree are just too stupid. Does it occur to you that I may have understood you argument perfectly well but think that you are just WRONG? But I don’t intend to engage in argument with you; it’s just not worth it with someone so convinced of his own inerrancy. 

  • paulpriest

     Wasn’t patronising – you were arguing after an assumption was made by an authority – you appeal to that authority assuming a] he’s an informed source & b] he is fully aware of the nature and end of drones and both their normative use and extraordinary use.

    It’s not arrogance to say whoah! – hold on – yes the Church might teach if x then y , but we haven’t got the criteria or conditions for x to justify the y – and even if we had – y is not what’s being implemented but y+z…

    IMgr Swetland should be fully aware of the criteria for Jus ad bello and the non-contrary appeal to natural justice [which cannot be contravened,confounded or thwarted by simultaneous praxes of the appellant]

    …and even after that the Jus in bello – PLUS a drone’s potential to be ‘malum in se’..automatically demands reticence.

    It’s Church teaching – and has bugger all to do with either the arrogance, narcissism or limitations of myself.

    Denouncing the messenger as ‘not worth arguing with’ doesn’t stop the message being delivered – or the accuracy of it.

  • W Oddie

    I didn’t say you weren’t worth arguing with: I just said I wasn’t prepared to do it; the tone of the whole thing is just so deeply unpleasant. 

  • paulpriest

    Not as unpleasant as endorsing judicial murder though; and the tone is 90% misperception – the rest is shock at the premise and incredulity that yet again I’m seen as some monster.

  • W Oddie

    I don’t know if you’re still there, I’ve only just seen this. I do not think you are a monster at all, but someone of passionate honesty who just needs to remember that his interlocutors have feelings and therefore ought to be  treated perhaps a little more gently. But we ought not to quarrel, you and I; we are both doing what we can to be faithful Catholics, let us save our arrows for the enemy. Pax tibi.