Drones, Moral Injury, and Christian Ethics

Moral injury is defined in various ways, but at its heart, the term is a recognition that trauma and other psychological terms used to address the experience of war do not fully capture the moral stakes, nor consequences, of combat. Defined to explain the experience of soldiers (and U.S. soldiers, specifically), a moral injury is, basically, the loss of one’s felt ability to be a good person, or a feeling that the world is no longer, perhaps never was, a good place or one where good might truly thrive. This definition passes over a number of differences between definitions currently out there in psychology and philosophy, but it should provide a gist of what moral injury as a concept hopes to capture. That is, war harms not only the mind and body but also the soul, damaging the moral development and perhaps the felt human dignity of those who fight.

Drone technology might be seen as a way around this danger. Piloted from continents and oceans away, soldiers are removed from battle’s intimate geography. As Bradley Burroughs illustrates in his recent piece, however, drones in themselves are only one piece of a much larger infrastructure. Identifying and targeting individuals for drone attacks takes months, perhaps years, involving on the ground surveillance, intelligence gathering, and combat. At least, that is how the system should ideally operate. As Brad points out, however, signals intelligence – gathering information in a manner more like the NSA – seems to be the overwhelming source of information that guides such missions. People are still involved on the ground, however, leaving them vulnerable to the experience of war, yet even drone pilots do not seem as shielded from the psychological harm of war as their physical distance from the combat zone might suggest. Several pieces have addressed the high degree of stress and burnout that drone operators experience. This arises out of human resource issues, such as inadequate staffing, but it also comes from the incredible intimacy that drones give a pilot. One can come to know the daily routines not only of the potential target but of his family and neighbors. A possible simile might be to a sniper team, where the sniper must watch the details of his killing through a telescopic lens. The difference may be that the drone pilot must first become almost like a neighbor, learning the day-to-day life of the community in which they will kill.

Moral injury can help capture what trauma misses in such a situation. Although this will not happen to all, and maybe not to most, for some this will raise profound moral questions. Such profound uncertainty can arise from experiencing the cognitive dissonance of war coming from the intense exhilaration and boredom of such work, the fear of having killed a child (or of never knowing in some cases), from having high standards of personal responsibility within a bureaucratic institutional context, and even the betrayal of one’s moral ideals that can sometimes occur in combat and that can be exacerbated by the odd lifestyle of such operators. Submerged in a war thousands of miles away, at the end of their shift, the operator leaves, drives down a neighborhood road, and returns to American life. The difficulties of homecoming, where one has to learn to return to the expectations of a “normal” American life after a combat tour of duty takes place for such operators several times a week. This double life and the multiple, competing consciousnesses this can create is one that few, if any, can relate to. Such tensions and isolation of experience can fray one’s mental and moral fabric.

This, however, is only one side of the coin. Although writers such as Jonathan Shay have appealed to the universality of moral injury through interpretations of ancient Attic literature and tragedic theater, such comparisons have been made in writing on moral injury to discuss U.S. veteran experience, and moral injury remains a term largely designed to capture the experience specifically of U.S. veterans. As a term, this leaves out the majority of those living in a combat zone. What of those caught within U.S. combat or drone operations, those who survive such attacks, or witness them, or come to fear the seemingly ubiquitous lethality that drones provide a militarized U.S. foreign policy?

To approach the situation this way, moral injury would have to expand to capture the many ways in which war, and maybe more broadly, political violence, can harm the moral imagination and one’s moral architecture. This is yet to be done but such a move may provide us with a more accurate understanding of how such technologies and related policies not only affect social futures and foreign policies but the ways in which such technologies transform subjectivity and the ways in which individuals and communities perceive themselves, others, and the moral nature of the world going into the future.

Some of that work has already occurred. In what the U.S. military calls the war theater or combat zone, an area that others call “home,” a few pieces have investigated the effect of constant drone activity over a community.1 Drones, in this regard, are experienced primarily not as a weapon with surgical precision, where one or two people are killed. Instead, the sound of drones, which at least in certain areas of Pakistan can be a constant buzzing, is also a constant reminder that death is possible at any moment, transforming one’s daily aural landscape. Little, if anything, can be done to change this situation for those caught in it. How does this effect a parent, who can not fulfill the duties and ethics of care to protect and shield from fear their children? What does this do to the moral imagination of those is such droned environments where the sky becomes a symbol of possible terror, and where people are afraid to gather, lest it be seen thousands of miles away as indicative of a terrorist of Taliban gathering?

My sense is that present frames in Christian ethics that deal with war, peace, responsibility, and power do not fully account for the way in which such violence not only kills and maims but malforms that about the self we call “the soul.” Just war theory may help some soldiers feel less responsible for the violence they commit, although that will depend on the individual soldier. Philosopher Nancy Sherman argues that moral injury is mostly an issue of soldiers who feel overly responsible for events and actions over which they had very limited power. Just war theory seen as a therapy, and not just a legalistic calculation, may help certain soldiers who suffer in this way. 2

This is only helpful, however, for those wielding violence as agent-instruments of a militarized foreign policy, such as soldiers and mercenaries (that we now euphemistically call military contractors). If we look at the broader ways that war, and in this case drone policy, affects felt character, particularly the many individuals who live in combat zones and who call such areas home, just war theory does not seem to address this aspect of violence adequately and would need to expand so that its principles would reflect such suffering. I am not sure exactly how that would look, but it would need to take into account the possibility that large segments of a population would be harmed not only bodily but in their ability to feel capable of goodness.

This expanded understanding of moral injury, although tentative, raises an important question for Christian ethics. How does this change our understanding of the criteria for a just war? Can such harm ever be properly called “just?” If drone policy needs to act in such a way that moral devastation is the outcome, can it ever be legitimated by an ethic called Christian? My initial thought is that attack drones, both as technology and as militarized foreign policy, are currently creating not so much unjust events as a restructuring of the very social environment that cannot help but also be a restructuring of the conditions that allow for certain moral subjectivities and curtail others. This is Foucault with a vengeance. It is hard to see how any such approach could ever be seen as just when the outcome is so morally and socially devastating. And although one could argue that it isn’t the technology but its usage that is problematic, a technology that allows such a high degree of surveillance; such a great impact on locales who are deemed to be suspect because of their location, religion, and ethnicity; and such power to take out suspected individuals and groups without endangering citizen soldiers, such technology seems far too seductive and too easy to generate anything short of a suspect policy. It would seem that any technology would be inherently corrosive of attempts at responsibility, even with more transparent methods of selecting targets. It allows for a power over remote populations – populations already carrying a legacy of colonialism and racism – and their moral lives that makes it very difficult for me to see how drone warfare can ever be morally justified.

  1. James Cavallaro, Stephan Sonnenberg, and Sarah Knuckey, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, Stanford, Calif.: International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School; New York: NYU School of Law, Global Justice Clinic, 2012.
  2. Sherman, Nancy. Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Joe Wiinikka-Lydon

About Joe Wiinikka-Lydon

Joe Wiinikka-Lydon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Birmingham Southern College. He is interested in the ways in which the study of religion and ethics, and particularly virtue ethics, can help us better understand issues arising from the effects of violence on subjectivity, such as moral injury.

Joe Wiinikka-Lydon

Joe Wiinikka-Lydon

Joe Wiinikka-Lydon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Birmingham Southern College. He is interested in the ways in which the study of religion and ethics, and particularly virtue ethics, can help us better understand issues arising from the effects of violence on subjectivity, such as moral injury.

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