The Drone Wars and Just War


[1]   One of the remarkable developments over the last decade of war is the advent of weaponized drones.  While drones have had military applications since at least World War II, only recently in the midst of the global war on terrorism have they come into their own. Indeed, not too many years ago a US ambassador declared the US opposed to lethal drones, equating their use with Bell_250.jpgextrajudicial executions.[1] But, alas, that was before 9/11 “changed everything,” including America’s moral compass regarding such things as preventative war, torture, indefinite detention, domestic spying and lethal drones. Drones are the centerpiece of the US counterterrorism strategy.[2]

[2]   Weaponized drones are a major technological advance and they clearly offer significant benefits over more conventional alternatives.  At or near the top of the list of benefits has to be the fact that drones enable the projection of force with reduced physical risk to soldiers.  The noted military ethicist Martin Cook has spoken of the American dream of immaculate war, where force could be projected without risk of harm to US soldiers.[3]  Drones clearly represent a significant step in that direction. The benefits of force projection by remote control, however, are not limited to soldiers.  Drones are lauded for enhancing the security of civilians as well, first by extending force projection where conventional forces may not be able to go, thereby reducing the space in which “bad guys” can harm civilians with impunity. Secondly, drones are praised for their precision strike capability, which allows the military to better discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and limit the application of deadly force to the former.

[3]   In what follows, I will check these advantages against several parameters of the just war tradition.  Such a moral assessment results in a decidedly more complex evaluation of drones in general and raises grave concerns regarding current US practice of drone warfare in particular. While drones may not be intrinsically unjust, as some claim, their licit use requires more robust moral parameters than appears to be the case currently. In particular, drones, as part of the rise of robotic warfare, call for renewed attention to moral courage and character.

A distance that is not safe….

[4]   The just war tradition embodies an effort to restrain and limit the harm done by war, both to soldiers and civilians.  This is the basis of the obvious advantage of drone warfare.  Yet as the celebrated just war thinker Michael Walzer has noted, one indication of how serious a people is about just war is the measure of risk their soldiers will bear in order to protect civilians.[4]  In other words, for a just war people, force protection takes a backseat to discriminating between combatants and civilians.

[5]   Yet there are signs that the current use of drones places a premium on force protection at the cost of discrimination. First, the physical distance involved in the operation of drones can lend itself to dehumanizing the enemy and consequently loosening the just war restraints of discrimination and proportionality.  Drones have been associated with a "play station mentality to killing," with the dead and those fleeing for their lives referred to as "bug splat" and "squirters."  Likewise, the footage they provide of killing contributes to the popularity of what has come to be known as "war porn," with death and destruction cheered as if it was a Saturday evening in March Madness.  In other words, drones make it easier to dismiss the moral responsibility to carefully distinguish combatants from non-combatants and to restrict the amount of force and killing to only what is necessary to pursue the just cause of the war.

[6]   Second, even as the technological innovation embodied in drone warfare is lauded, the distance associated with the use of drones brings to the fore technological limitations that reduce rather than enhance the soldier’s ability to discriminate. Put simply, drones can kill from a much greater distance than is possible for a human operator to make a positive identification of a target.  Camera resolution is not always sufficient to distinguish between a legitimate military target and a non-combatant. Similarly, the “soda straw” optics of drones may inhibit the ability to discriminate appropriately because they exclude the surrounding context.  For example, I was once told of a drone being used to take out a bridge. The narrow field of view of its optics did not include a passenger train that was approaching the bridge and did not have time to stop.  Add to this the problem of time-lag between an image being captured and then transmitted half way around the world, along with weather, and altitude and suddenly the distance involved in the drone wars is not an unmitigated moral benefit but a significant challenge to a people dedicated to discriminating between combatants and non-combatants.

[7]   The distance that is characteristic of drone warfare also raises concerns with regard to proportionality.  In waging war, the just war tradition calls for consideration and weighing of the costs of war.  Focusing on the clear advantages in terms of physical risk and harm represented by drones may overlook the costs represented by the moral and psychological effects on drone operators.

[8]   Let’s call this the problem of hidden wounds. Physical wounds are easy to recognize and acknowledge.  In contrast, the psychological and moral impact of remote control killing is not as immediate and obvious. While I previously noted that drones may promote dehumanization of the enemy, they can also intensify the moral and psychological effects of killing and battle insofar as drone operators may have a more immediate and uncensored visual exposure to the effects of strikes and battle than many, including soldiers on the ground. They may see up close and personal the terrible harm done in battle to both foe and friend. Likewise, lengthy surveillance of targets may humanize them in ways that increase the moral and psychological impact of killing. Lastly, drone operators face the unique psychological challenge of spending a shift in the midst of war and then at the end of that shift, perhaps separated by only 30 minutes and a few miles, being immersed in domestic life.[5] Indeed, reports are beginning to appear of drone operators suffering PTSD, survivor’s guilt and moral injury.[6] At the same time, it is clear that many resist recognizing other than physical wounds.[7]

Immaculate war becomes endless war

[9]   One dimension of the just war tradition is the conviction that one should not engage in practices that make a just resolution of the conflict less likely. In this vein, some have questioned whether drones are "tactically smart but strategically dumb."[8]

[10]   This is to say, notwithstanding the obvious tactical advantages with regard to force protection and the increased ability to reach the enemy, at the big-picture, strategic level drones may actually make the successful conclusion of the war less likely. Indeed, at its worst, the current use of drones has been likened to “a piece of technology substituting for a strategy."[9]

[11]   There is a sense that the drone wars are driven by domestic political expediency rather than sound moral and military strategy.  As noted, drones minimize American losses. They are much easier to deploy than troops, avoiding the political hazards of putting boots on the ground.[10]   Moreover, the use of drones gives politicians a way of “doing something” visible when and where more substantive actions are less visible, media-genic or even possible. Finally, drones avoid the political difficulties of the capture, detention and prosecution of terrorists and suspected terrorists.[11]

[12]   When one considers the big-picture, drones may be a significant contributor to what has come to be called “insurgent math” in some military circles, whereby coalition forces’ escalation of force against the insurgency is accompanied by an exponential increase in the size of the insurgency.[12] Analyzing decades of Israeli use of drones, Gross suggests that while drones might reduce the quality of insurgent leadership by taking out specific individuals, they tend to enhance recruitment, numbers of attacks and the will to fight.[13]

[13]   Drones are supplanting Guantanamo in insurgent recruitment propaganda.  Their use is nurturing resentment and hostility that play into the hands of Al Qaeda and other extremists.[14] Drones are exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of foreign populations, including people who are not sympathetic to Al Qaeda or the insurgents.[15] Moreover, their use is frequently interpreted as a sign of cowardice, of unwillingness to risk boots on the ground, and so as a lack of honor, thereby creating a disincentive for insurgents to quit the fight. When the enemy does not respect us, the hope for a lasting peace is greatly diminished.[16]  Furthermore, the use of drones in regions where otherwise we might not have engaged militarily may contribute to a local problem metastasizing into a regional or even international one. For example, the use of drones in a place like Somalia may incite what was initially a nationalist movement to redirect its anger outward toward the U.S.[17]

[14]   Part of waging war in ways that do not hinder a just resolution includes avoiding doing things that make post-war peace and stability more difficult.[18]  After all, as Augustine noted long ago, the aim of a just war is to bring the benefits of a just peace to the defeated.  In this regard, drones are proving quite destructive of civil community, as the report “Living Under Drones” details.[19]  It is perhaps easy to forget that the high flying technology of drone wars still depends on human intelligence and the proliferation of informers as well as an easily corrupted “bounty program” increase brutality in the form of reprisals and fracture communities in ways that may be sowing the seeds of discord for decades to come.[20]

[15]   At a key point in the war in Afghanistan a commander told his troops that "we cannot kill our way out of this." The best insights of counter-insurgency theory argue for a shift from an “enemy-centric” approach that focuses primarily on destroying an elusive enemy to a “population-centric” approach that focuses on protecting civilians and communities from harm.[21] The drone wars of recent years are oddly out of step with this insight and to the extent that they make a just conclusion of the war more difficult, they runs afoul of the just war tradition.

Targeting and discrimination

[16]   Perhaps the single greatest concern with the current use of drones has to do with targeting. As previously discussed, a just war people carefully distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians.

[17]   A significant debate exists regarding civilian casualties related to the use of drones during the last decade of war, with some estimates of civilian casualties exceeding the number of US combat deaths over the same period.  The percentages of civilian causalities in drone strikes are all over the place, from preposterous claims of a 0% civilian casualty rate all the way to a 98% rate. Part of the difficulty is that coalition forces have expended little or no effort to track civilian casualties for much of that time, and have prevented or hindered others from investigating civilian casualties as well.[22] 

[18]   Having misplaced my magic ball, I cannot resolve the numbers debate but I can point out the oddity of a people who claim to be concerned about waging war justly not attending carefully to civilian casualties.  Indeed, it is precisely this lack of concern that contributed to the problem that gave rise to “insurgent math.” Civilian casualties fuel insurgencies and as Walzer noted, careful attention to civilian casualties is one marker of a just war people.

[19]   The moral assessment of the drone wars, however, is more complex than a debate over numbers. Much is made of the enhanced technology and precision strike capacity of drones. Indeed, this capacity is frequently rendered synonymous with discrimination. However, enhanced technology does not simply and easily equate with appropriate discrimination. Put bluntly, claims that drones are discriminating are simply false.  They are a faulty generalization.  Drones do not automatically reduce civilian harm. Rather, the veracity of such a claim depends on how they are used, on the protocols, human judgments and so forth involved in their deployment and operation. In other words, capability does not equal responsible use.  Potential for precision is not synonymous with precision in use. 

[20]   There are times and places where a drone might be more discriminating than, say, a  B-52 bomber, but that does not mean that drones are sufficiently discriminating.  Depending on the weapons employed, drones may not be permissible to use at a wedding, a funeral or on the rooftop of a home.

[21]   Indeed, drones might actually increase civilian harm when they enable attacks where in their absence, no attack would be contemplated.  For example, drones have made civilians less safe in the hinterlands of Waziristan because in the absence of drone technology, there would be no military assault.

[22]   Walzer notes that military objectives tend to expand to technological capabilities.[23]  This may be the far more morally significant impact of drones – that they increase opportunity, access, reach, and range of military action. As such, drones do not automatically translate to less risk to civilians but may portend the opposite. In this way, drones are of a piece with air power historically – increasing reach while presenting new challenges with regard to discrimination.

[23]   And there are all kinds of red flags that suggest those directing the current drone wars are failing to rise to that challenge.  Specifically the criteria for targeted killing appear to fall far short of any responsible application of discrimination.  In recent years a plethora of morally deficient parameters for justifying drone strikes have surfaced, such as “suspected militant,” “contingency threat,” “signature strikes,” “military aged males,” “children of terrorists in the line of fire.”[24] Along the way, the category of permissible targets has expanded to include propagandists and US citizens – this last category, it is worth noting, being immune from judicial challenge according to both the courts and the Obama administration. 

[24]   Granted, the administrators of the drone wars will protest that they do not target civilians.  Such claims are the foundation of the zero civilian casualty numbers.  However, I suspect this is but another instance of “compliance by redefinition.”  Just as the US could assert it did not torture by redefining what torture was, so too in the drone wars, civilians are spared by redefining what a civilian is. This is a suspicion I am not alone in holding.

[25]   What is my point? Continuing the fiction that enhanced technology necessarily and automatically equals enhanced discrimination is morally suspect to the extent that it glosses over and provides cover for the grave moral problems with the way that technology is actually being deployed and that precision capability squandered.  It short-circuits the need for clarity regarding the moral parameters of drone usage as well as transparency and accountability for adhering to those parameters in actual usage.[25]

Conclusion: Technology as substitute for character

[26]   One of the remarkable features of the last decade of war has been the rise of the drones.  We are dazzled by the technology and seduced by the promises of security through immaculate war waged with precision weapons.  And the dazzle and seduction are only beginning, for the drones are just the first ripple of the coming wave of military robotics.[26]

[27]   But technology will not save us and technology will not make us morally better.  Rather, technology is only as good as the people who use it.  Thus, if we – or the people who rule us – do not care enough about foreign civilian casualties to bother to count the dead or think that “signature strikes,” “military aged males” or “contingency threats” are legitimate targets, then drones, far from being a moral advance only illumine our moral bankruptcy. Indeed, as Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Pryer suggests, they are emblematic of our dehumanization.[27]

[28]   In this regard we would do well to exercise caution with technologies that hold out the illusion of economizing on virtue.  Indeed, one military officer has referred to drones as part of a move toward “virtueless war.”[28]  Drones appear to require less physical courage, selfless-service and sacrifice. But such moral savings are not without hidden moral, psychological and physical costs, as I have argued here.  

[29]   Thus, if drones are to live up to their moral potential as more discriminating and less destructive forms of warfare, then we must attend to the particular requirements of moral formation that accompany these technologies.  What kind of character is necessary to resist viewing shadowy blips on a computer screen as mere avatars or bug splat instead of as persons, and possibly non-combatants? Perhaps we are at the dawn of an era when moral courage will surpass physical courage as the distinguishing mark of soldiers.  What kinds of moral communities are necessary to resist the politics of expediency that renders drones so tempting to our political leaders? Perhaps churches that embrace just war need to speak up and remind those leaders that, as Walzer said, we are willing to bear the risk, the cost, the sacrifice necessary to avoid killing civilians and shattering short we are willing to bear the costs of waging war justly.  ​

Daniel M. Bell, Jr. is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, holds the General Hugh Shelton Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and is the author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State.


[1] Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations,” Journal of Law, Information and Science (2011) 10.5778/JLIS.2011.21.OConnell.1 EAP (9).

[2] Daniel Byman, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice,” Foreign Affairs, 92.4 (2013). [Accessed 8/26/2013]

[3] Martin Cook, The Moral Warrior (NY:SUNY Press, 2004), 117.

[4] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 17.

[5] A memorable statement of the challenge was put to Peter Singer by a drone operator, “You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car and you drive home. And within 20 minutes, you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.” See Peter W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (NY: Penguin Books, 2009), 347. See also M. Shane Riza, Killing Without Heart (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2013), 89.

[6] For a good summary of the research, see Scott Fitzsimmons and Karina Sangha, “Killing in High Definition: Combat Stress among Operators of Remotely Piloted Aircraft,” paper presented at the CPSA 2013 Annual Conference. [Accessed 4-10-14]

[7] Consider the uproar in the spring of 2013 when a new medal was created for drone operators and the ongoing debate regarding awarding the Purple Heart to soldiers suffering PTSD. See Nancy Sherman, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers (NY: W.W. Norton, 2010), 174-5.

[8]  Martin Cook, “Ethics and Unmanned Vehicles” Paper presented at the International Society for Military Ethics, January 2011.

[9]  David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum, “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below,” Op-ed, The New York Times [Accessed 11/27/2012].  At worst, it has been suggested that the current use of drones has morphed into “remote-control repression.” See Audrey K Cronin, “Why Drones Fail” When Tactics Drive Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 92.4 (2013). [Accessed 8/26/2013].  In this regard, retired Col. Douglas MacGregor has observed that “politicians frequently substitute a fascination with direct action in the form of air strikes or special operations killings for strategy.”  See  MacGregor, “It’s Time for Us to Leave Afghanistan,” Defense News, May 25, 2009.

[10] A fuller treatment of drones and just war would include what is called the “threshold problem” and the extent to which drones represent a temptation to go to war too quickly, which is related to the just war criterion of last resort.

[11] Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (NY: OR Books, 2012), 133, 200.  Byman, “Why Drones Work.” Critics point out that this approach may deprive the US of valuable intelligence and alienate allies.

[12] Sean D Naylor, “McChrystal: Civilian deaths endanger mission,” Marine Corp Times (May 30, 2010) [Accessed 3/14/2013]

[13] Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 114-9.

[14] The reporting on this phenomenon is widespread.  See, for example, Kilcullen and Exum, LTC Douglass Pryer, “The Rise of the Machines,” Military Review (March-April 2013): 14-24; Jeffrey A. Sluka, “Death from Above: UAVs and Losing Hearts and Minds,” Military Review (March – April 2013): 89- 95.  Michael Gross, pp. 114-9

[15] See references in preceding note. See also the much discussed study, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” released in September 2012 by International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law)

[16] See discussion of this point in Shane Riza, Killing Without Heart, 118-21.

[17] cf. Benjamin, Drone Warfare, 128, 201-2. 

[18] The US Army’s leadership manual, FM 22-100, states this clearly, “The Army fights to win, but with one eye on the kind of peace that will follow the war.” §1-74.

[19]“Living Under Drones.”

[20] For a heartbreaking example of the corruption of the bounty program that supplies drones with targets, see Clive Stafford Smith, “I Met a 16-Year-Old Kid. 3 Days Later Obama Killed Him,” the Guardian (June 14, 2012). Accessed from [Accessed 11-25-12]. It is worth noting that Michael Gross suggests that the fracturing of community is related to the character of the insurgency. Fracturing is more serious in national liberation struggles (Palestinian-Israeli conflict) than in situations where the insurgency is foreign (AQ in Iraq and Afghanistan). See Gross, Moral Dilemmas, 114-9. David Kilcullen's work on counterinsurgency supports this insight.  He point to AQ’s tactic of moving in to an area and provoking an indiscriminate foreign response in the hopes of inciting local hostility toward coalition forces.  In this situation, carefully targeting AQ is not actually fracturing local community. See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (NY: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[21] See, for example, the aforementioned work of David Kilcullen, as well as John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport CT: Praeger Security International 2006).

[22] Benjamin, Drone Warfare, 184; Bob Dreyfull and Nick Turse, “America’s Afghan Victims,” The Nation 297.14 (October 7, 2013): 13-25.

[23] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (NY: Basic Books, 2006), 20.

[24] See Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret Kill List Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times (May 29, 2012). [Accessed 7/1/12]; Nick Turse, “Lethal Profiling,” The Nation 297.14 (October 7, 2013): 27-33; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Analysis: Obama embraced redefinition of ‘civilian’ in drone wars,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (May 29, 2012) [Accessed 9/4/2012]  For a helpful treatment of international law and who constitutes  a combatant, see Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Combatants and the Combat Zone,” Notre Dame Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-39.

[25] I am reminded of a conversation I had with aa drone operator.  He was troubled by the fact that as he worked, the protocols under which he operated were constantly changing. Some things he did under the auspices of the DOD while other things were done under the auspices of “other agencies.” As he expressed it to me, that he was required to juggle disparate ethical protocols as he went about his task was intentional, an effort to undermine moral constancy and hinder accountability.

[26]  See Peter W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

[27]Pryer, “The Rise of the Machines,” See also the thoughtful work by the Air Force command pilot, M. Shane Riza, Killing Without Heart

[28] Singer, Wired for War, 332.

© June 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 14, Issue 6