In Drones We Trust: The Moral Impact of Drone Warfare

This post is the third part of a trilogy by Bradley Burroughs on the ethics of drone warfare. To read the rest of the series visit part one and part two.

Among the most passionately held convictions in the liberal ethos that so deeply shapes American culture is the belief that human beings shape their own actions. Most of all, we use, employ, or manipulate inanimate objects; they do not do so to us. One need not spend much time on social media to realize, for instance, that the claim “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” makes a kind of visceral sense to a great many Americans.

And yet, this received common sense threatens to mask a profound level at which we are in fact shaped by external forces, even inanimate objects. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams shone a light on this level when, following the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, he noted, “People use guns but, in a sense, guns use people too. When we have the technology for violence easily to hand, our choices are skewed and we are more vulnerable to being manipulated into violent action.” This is the wisdom encapsulated in the dictum of Maslow’s hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Merely possessing a particular object—whether it be a hammer, a gun, or an aerial drone—can shape what one does. Even more than that, it can shape who one is. Having and regularly employing a hammer teaches us to view the world through the lens of the hammer such that we come to believe that the solutions to a great many of the world’s problems are effectively variations on the theme of hammering.

If this is the case, then we ought to be circumspect about the manner in which we use various objects, for in the process we too are being used, being shaped and formed. And we must be especially vigilant about the use of objects that have destructive and deadly potential. In October 2015, The Intercept published a collection of previously secret documents that give unprecedented insight into the United States’ use of one such technology—aerial drones. In addition to raising serious questions about the indiscriminate character of drone strikes and the problematic contexts in which they are being carried out, which have been the subject of previous posts, these documents suggest that the drone program is shaping Americans in noxious ways, most of all by cultivating a moral callousness, that Christians should find especially worrisome.

Aside from persons living in targeted areas, whose experiences Joe Wiinikka-Lydon has explored, among those most directly impacted by the use of aerial drones are drone operators themselves. And there is strong evidence to suggest that drones are having a powerful and deleterious effect upon these soldiers. A study published in March 2013 by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that, despite their distance from the battlefield, drone operators exhibited symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at rates comparable to traditional pilots. Many factors contribute to such symptoms, including the heavy burdens placed upon operators as the United States military has become increasingly reliant upon aerial drones. But a crucial component is the inherently violent nature of drone warfare. As Jane Otto, the study’s co-author put it, the very nature of their job demands that drone operators “witness the carnage” of their strikes in ways that exact a psychological toll that ramifies far beyond the job.

More recently, former drone pilots have shed further light upon the impact of drone warfare on operators. In a November 2015 interview and press conference, Staff Sargent Michael Haas, Senior Airman Brandon Bryant, Senior Airman Cian Westmoreland, and Senior Airman Stephen Lewis declared themselves “horrified” by the drone program. Among other things, they alleged a shocking level of callousness among drone operators, who referred to children who found themselves under the gaze of their drones as “fun-sized terrorists” and likened deadly strikes against suspected insurgents to “cutting the grass before it grows out of control.” Moreover, Haas claimed that he was non-judicially reprimanded when, in his role as an instructor, he failed a student who exhibited what he described as “bloodlust.” Such is the callous culture in which drone operators are being formed to dehumanize others and to quash questions of conscience.

The drone program’s cultivation of callousness extends well beyond operators themselves and appears to be powerfully influencing America’s political and military leaders. As drones have proven themselves capable of eliminating at least some potential threats to the security of the United States, the Obama Administration has come to rely upon them ever more heavily. Whereas there were 38 drone strikes between 2006 and 2008, the final three years of the Bush presidency, Obama’s Administration carried out 41 strikes during his first nine months in office. By October 2015, that number had grown to 491. As if the numerical explosion were not itself troubling enough, it has come in the light of growing evidence that drone strikes are plagued by a disturbing lack of precision. For instance, the military study of Operation Haymaker revealed that nearly 90% of those killed by aerial drones were not the intended targets. Despite this, last summer the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon plans a 50% increase in the number of drone flights by 2019. All of this suggests that Jeremy Scahill is right in his judgment that the drone program represents the “normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy” even as many of the assassinated are not those targeted for assassination.

It would take a particularly hardened cynic to conclude that this callousness towards other human beings does not aim in some degree to save innocent lives. Nevertheless, it would take an ethereal optimist not to recognize that there is a political calculus at work, as well. Eliminating genuine threats to US interests is likely to save some innocent lives; yet the undeniable imprecision of the drone program means that those will be American lives saved at the cost of innocent lives in other parts of the globe. This is why Obama’s former director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, has noted that drone strikes are “the politically advantageous thing to do—low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.” And, particularly judging by the strong support for drones in Washington and the rhetoric of candidates in the primary elections, US political leaders appear determined to continue utilizing drones to make short-term gains.

The fact that political calculations tilt in this direction stands as evidence of the broader impact of the drone program upon US citizens. I do not doubt, as Adam Smith long ago noted, that most persons are naturally far more troubled by minor misfortunes that might befall them than by enormous catastrophes that affect only distant others, that for most it is the case that “[i]f he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.” 1 Yet the drone program strengthens this proclivity both through its secrecy and its uniform depiction all those ruined in the flames of Hellfire missiles as “EKIA,” enemies killed in action.

Not only does this further obscure the identities of those killed, but it also reinforces regimes of formation that are desensitizing and deactivating citizens. In this as in many other areas, the habits of active citizenship appear to be dispensable; we are instructed simply to trust our political leaders, who refuse to share with us the most basic facts about government policy—ostensibly for our own good. Hence, as Philip Bobbitt has ominously forecast, politics is no longer understood in terms of active engagement and demands for transparency and responsibility but becomes reduced to “who’s winning and who’s losing, or, as shown by the little arrows in a popular news magazine, who’s up and who’s down.”2 And the metric of winning and losing can only be our own comfort and self-interest, rather than any larger conception of the common good, such as that demanded by the Savior who declared his solidarity with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the imprisoned.

Throughout this series of posts, I have in various ways argued that the United States’ use of aerial drones fails to measure up to the criteria of Christian just war theory. Yet it is here—as we confront the callousness cultivated by the drone program itself—that we might find the cause for greatest concern. As Paul Ramsey has noted, the chief question facing just war thought “is not what are the moral limits upon the just conduct of war, but where are these principles, i.e., where are the men [sic] in whose minds and where is the community of men [sic] in whose very ethos the propelling reason for ever engaging in war also lays down intrinsic moral limits upon how the defense of civilized life should proceed?”3 If such a community ever existed, the nature of the drone program promises to further sap its moral energy.

Yet we ought not to interpret the (de)formative power of the drone program as presaging an unalterable fate. Any defensible understanding of free will must recognize the difference between inclination and determination, between disposition and causation, between vulnerability and inability. Even as the drone program is shaping drone operators, political leaders, and citizens, we retain the ability to choose a different path, one of greater transparency, moral sensitivity, and fidelity to Christ. To the extent that we continually refuse to take that path, we might rightly worry that the drone program will be deadly not only for our brothers and sisters in distant lands, but for us as well. For, as Jesus forces us to ask, “what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).

  1. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984), 136.
  2. Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 231.
  3. Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1961), xxii. Gerald Schlabach makes a related point in arguing, “What we do not really have is a just war tradition in the sense of which Aristotelians … speak, a living tradition with operative practices shaping a community through time.” Gerald Schlabach, “Warfare vs. Policing: In Search of Moral Clarity” in Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence, ed. Gerald Schlabach (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2007), 72.
Bradley Burroughs

About Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

Bradley Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Dr. Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. Integrating his research in contemporary Christian ethics, modern social theory, and understandings of virtue, his first book project analyzes competing understandings of politics in contemporary Christian ethics. Brad lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

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