Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 1

Drones & the Just War Tradition


(Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.com)

by Joshua Carson

The United States' use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, has increased greatly in the last decade. While the development and use of new technologies can provide significant benefits to humanity and the rest of creation, their use should not go unevaluated or unchallenged. A growing concern has arisen over the United States' use of drone strikes in the fight against extremist terrorist groups operating out of the Middle East.[1] This concern has to do with the transparency with which CIA and the executive branch conduct these strikes and the legal, moral, and ethical implications that accompany them. Specifically there is concern about whether or not the ways in which these drones are used agree with the just war tradition by which the Obama administration has promised to abide.

In this post we will be discussing the criteria for a just war. In future posts we will examine how the US government conducts drone strikes, how this practice fails to meet the just war criteria, and how Christian congregations can respond to our unjust practice of drone strikes.

What are the criteria for a just war?

This is admittedly a difficult question to answer precisely, because the just war tradition is very old, diverse, and open to interpretation. As John Howard Yoder says, "There is no one version [of just war criteria] to which all [scholars] have subscribed."[2] A simple internet search will reveal this fact. According to Christian ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee the just war tradition "originated with Ambrose and Augustine in the fourth century."[3] It has, of course, been expanded and interpreted since then, with the result that the just war tradition is one that has no specifically codified boundaries but rather has common characteristics people have generally agreed upon and that show up consistently in its articulation.

The just war criteria generally appear in two categories: jus a bellum ("the right to fight") criteria that govern the decision to engage in a conflict and jus in bello ("fighting right") criteria that govern the means by which a conflict may be fought.[4] It is the second of these two categories that is of primary concern in this series–whether or not drone strikes, as the US government has used them in the last decade, are a just means of engaging in a conflict.

While the second category is our primary concern, I will use John Howard Yoder's When War is Unjust and Stassen and Gushee's Kingdom Ethics to provide a summary of the major just war criteria in both categories. Yoder gives 11 criteria for a just war, with the first four relating to jus a bellum, the decision to engage:[5]

  1. War may be waged only by a legitimate authority (e.g., a ruler of a nation-state).
  2. A war must be fought only for a just cause.
  3. A war may be fought only with right intention in an objective sense (usually the goal of the global common good).
  4. A war may be fought only with the right intention in a subjective sense (excluding hatred, love for violence, and vengeance from just motivation).

The remainder of Yoder's 11 criteria relate to the just means by which a just war can be fought:

  1. Due process–a war is illegitimate unless the criteria apply with procedural integrity (the processes or standards by which a war is fought by just means).
  2. Means must be indispensable, the only way, or "necessary" (only as much violence as needed to accomplish the just goal may be used).
  3. Means must be proportional (it cannot inflict more damage than it would prevent).
  4. The means used must respect the immunity of the innocent.[6]
  5. The means used must be discriminating, that is, subjected to measured control.
  6. The means used must respect the dignity of humankind as rational and social.
  7. The means used must not be forbidden by positive law or treaties.

Stassen and Gushee give eight criteria for a just war:[7]

  1. Just cause.
  2. Just authority.
  3. Last resort (all nonviolent options to prevent the imminent evil have been exhausted).
  4. Just intention (to secure a just peace).
  5. Probability of success (it is unjust for a party to enter a war in which it knows it will lose).
  6. Proportionality of cost (the good accomplished by the war must be greater than the evil it brings about).
  7. Clear announcement (of the war and the terms by which it can be avoided).
  8. The war must be fought by just means.

Stassen and Gushee specify that "just means" includes the application of proportionality of cost and that violence cannot justly be used on noncombatants. Using these perspectives on just war criteria provides us with a more complete picture of the circumstances in which a conflict can be considered just within the just war tradition. Because the use of drone strikes is a means of engaging in a conflict, this series will be primarily concerned with the criteria that define the just means by which a conflict may be fought.

Proceed to "Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 2: How the US government conducts drone strikes."

(See this bibliography for a helpful list of introductory materials, many of which are cited in this series.)

Josh Carson is Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, PA, and is a Sider Scholar & Ayres Scholar with ESA while working on his M.Div. at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.  Please also read his article "Demons of the Skies" which looks at drones as demons.


[1] The use of the phrase "War on Terror" is inappropriate because terror, by definition, is an emotion and one cannot wage a war on an emotion. Similarly, "terrorism" is a tactic, and one cannot wage war on a tactic, but rather on those who employ it. To use the phrases "War on Terror" or "War on Terrorism" is to dehumanize the parties involved in the conflict. To their credit, U.S. government officials have begun to use the phrase "War on Al-Qaeda" in recent years, which is much more specific. This, as will be noted below, is significant in the context of the just war tradition.

[2] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 2.

[3] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 158.

[4] Yoder, When War is Unjust, 2-3.

[5] Yoder devotes an entire appendix to the defining of just war criteria. Ibid., 147-61.

[6] Yoder notes that "the innocent" are typically identified as: "women, children, the aged and the infirm, clergy, religious, foreigners…[and noncombatants]…Even combatants may be killed only when they are a threat…" Yoder, When War is Unjust, 157-8.

[7] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 158-64.

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