Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 3

US Unjust Drone Use

by Joshua Carson

(Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.com)

(Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.com)

In part 1 we discussed the criteria for a just war, and in part 2 we looked at the manner in which the US conducts and reports drone strikes. In this post, we will bring the two together and examine whether our use of these strikes meets the just war criteria.

Does US use of drones meet the just war criteria?

Just as there are several different criteria to be met, there are a number of different factors to consider when asking whether or not our use of drone strikes in the last decade meets the just war criteria. The just war criteria that are most relevant in answering this question are the following: last resort, due process, proportionality of cost, the immunity of the innocent, and the respect of the dignity of all humankind.

Certainly a great deal of interpretation is involved in the evaluation of these criteria. For example, in his April 2012 speech referred to in part 2, John Brennan (then the president's chief anti-terrorism adviser and now director of the CIA) consistently argued that the use of targeted killings as a means of fighting against Al-Qaeda is ethical and just, using just war terminology.[1] He said that they "…conform to the principle of necessity–the requirement that the target have definite military value." This classification is then interpreted to apply to "individuals who are part of Al-Qa'ida or its associated forces."[2] Brennan said that drone strikes "conform to the principle of distinction," which protects civilians from being "intentionally targeted."[3] He then said that they "conform to the principle of proportionality" on the virtue that the destruction that is prevented is virtually limitless–without mention of the actual civilian cost that can and has come with the use of drone strikes.[4] Brennan, without giving any additional detail or reasoning, simply said that these strikes "conform to the principle of humanity which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering."[5]

In this speech alone, which is fairly representative of other government defenses of done strikes, several problems are present. The implication that the members of an entire organization can be targeted, regardless of whether or not they represent an active threat, does not meet the criteria of the immunity of the innocent, which requires that even a combatant be an active threat in order for his or her killing to be justified. While civilians may not be intentionally targeted in US drone strikes, the data from investigative journalists cited in our last post suggest that they are dying–regardless of the government's "intent."

Regarding the principle of proportionality, Brennan's depiction of the situation only examines one aspect of the cost. He does not offer a measured evaluation of civilian casualties against the "benefit" of having killed combatants, because he does not even acknowledge the casualties. Alice K. Ross, of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, says that "the CIA has been able to use the classified nature of its operations to refuse to systematically publish any casualty recording of its own."[6] In fact, the administration's silence on civilian casualties is politically strategic: "The absence of published casualty records enables the CIA to present the strikes in a favorable light…allow[ing] the government to celebrate purported successes without accepting accountability for 'collateral damage.'"[7]

The US government cannot claim to abide by the principle of proportionality if it does not honestly and transparently demonstrate proportionality. Indeed, one explanation for the difference in the assessment of civilian casualties is likely because of the way the CIA defines the difference between "civilian" and "combatant." The method used for distinguishing between the two "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."[8] By assuming that those in the vicinity of known or suspected militants are guilty until proven innocent, the administration not only violates the due process on which the legal system of this country was built, but it also quite literally redefines terminology in such ways as to reflect its activities in a positive light.

For Brennan to say that drones strikes "conform to the principle of humanity" and do not "inflict unnecessary suffering"[9] is a statement that is incredibly shortsighted and is either ignorant of or disregards the suffering of the communities plagued by drone strikes on a regular basis. While Brennan may mean to say that the suffering of the target is minimized by a quick death, there are communities that undergo serious suffering as a result of these strikes.

The Stanford Law School and the NYU School of Law published a 2012 study, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, which chronicles in detail multiple ways in which Pakistani tribal peoples have suffered as a result of the way drone strikes are conducted in their regions. By using a method called "double tap," in which a drone will strike people who attempt to rescue or provide medical treatment to individuals within a blast zone, the US government "…deters not only the spontaneous humanitarian instinct of neighbors and bystanders in the immediate vicinity of strikes, but also professional humanitarian workers providing emergency medical relief to the wounded."[10]

Drone strikes have inflicted property damage and economic hardship on families and communities who are in poverty, many times killing the oldest male of the household, who is the only one capable of proving economic income for the family.[11] Additionally, long-term residence in areas in which drones frequently hover overhead, and can be heard doing so, has resulted in numerous health problems, including "anticipatory anxiety," or the fear that you may be attacked at any time, and post-traumatic stress disorder among civilians in areas where these psychological disorders were previously not found.[12]

Drone strikes and the impact of their presence on the civilian population have negatively impacted the support for and involvement in education, in an area in which education was already significantly low.[13] US drone strikes that have targeted public funerals have left many families and communities unable and unwilling to hold proper burials for the dead, leading to significant emotional and psychological distress for those involved.[14]

Individual and community suffering that has resulted from US drone strikes is well documented in the Stanford and NYU report and by Media Benjamin's chapter in Drones and Targeted Killing. Military tactics that inspire such environments, when viewed from the perspective of the victims, could be conceived as acts of terrorism committed by the United States.[15] While the use of drones do limit the casualties of the forces using them, while they are not the least accurate means of killing, and while they are more effective in accomplishing their task than other methods might be, their use by the US government has been, based on the criteria listed above, outside of the just war tradition.

Proceed to "Unjust Drone Warfare, Part 4: How Christian Congregations Can Respond."

(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. Read also his "Demons of the Skies," an article that looks at drones as demons.


[1] John O. Brennan, "The Ethics and Efficacy of the President's Counterterrorism Strategy," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, April 30, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ross, "Documenting Civilian Casualties," Drones and Targeting Killing, 104.

[7] Ibid., 104.

[8] Becker and Shane, "Secret Kill List…" New York Times, 2012.

[9] Brennan, "The Ethics and Efficacy of the President's Counterterrorism Strategy," April 30, 2012.

[10] International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (2012), 76.

[11] Ibid., 77-80.

[12] Ibid., 80-8.

[13] Ibid., 88-92.

[14] Ibid., 92-5.

[15] Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 466.

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