Drone Warfare and Moral Choice

July 26, 2012

I begin with a clarification: this reflection is not about creating and using robotic aerial drones for arguably useful purposes, like mapping hard to reach parts of the planet, or watching the activities of endangered reclusive animal species like tigers, or searching a rugged terrain for lost hikers or a downed airplane. Or even tasks related to security or law and order, like border surveillance to identify drug runners, or identifying human traffickers. This reflection is about the manufacture, sale, and use of aerial robotic drones to kill human beings at a distance.


One of our most distinctive and powerful human traits is the ability to imagine. Another is the ability to empathize, to understand and sympathize with the plight of others. So imagine if you will that some country wants to kill “enemies” that are living somewhere in your own country. And to do that, they launch unmanned aerial spies that fly over your head, looking for those enemies. Day and night these aerial, unmanned spies circle above you. Sometimes you can see and hear the buzz of their engines. Most often you can’t know if they are way up there or not….but they might be.

And when “authorities” in the far away country who control these flying spies decide that they have found the enemy or enemies they are looking for, they rain death from the sky. And if you—or your child, or husband, or your mother, or anyone else—has the misfortune to be mistaken for the enemy…they die. Just like that. No judge, no jury, no going back. No fixing mistakes.

Grieving After Drone Attack

You send someone you love out in the morning, and before nightfall they are dead. Day, after day, after day you live with the anxiety of not knowing when, or if, someone you love may be blasted to bits….or even that it might be you, attending a wedding party some miles from your home where people who might be the targets of those far away authorities also happen to be a guest. How, exactly, does that thought make you feel?

With just a bit more imagining, can you get in touch with how you will feel when some other country—perhaps China, Russia, Iran, Israel, or the USA—someday begins to fly such drones over your skies. Because if we continue on our present path, that day will come.

Something deep inside all of us knows that using drones on others is immoral. I can explain remarkably simply why this is deeply immoral. In his book, Living Beyond War, artist and teacher Winslow Myers provides a list of a truth held sacred by many great leaders, thinkers and cultures:

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

Hinduism: Do naught unto others what would cause you pain if done unto you.

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.

Christianity: To unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desire for himself.

Sikhism: I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.

Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.

These are almost universally considered to be the essence of morality.

Drone Warfare – Medea Benjamin

In the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control by Code Pink founder and peace activist Medea Benjamin, the essayist Barbara Ehrenreich begins her foreword by saying that drones present the same moral issues as any other action-at-a-distance weapon: they allow warriors to kill at a minimal risk to themselves. And she recounts how, in the Iliad, the Greeks taunted the Trojan Prince Paris for his reliance on bows and arrows. The Trojan unwillingness to engage in the hand-to-hand, face-to-face combat of a hero was cowardly, the Greeks said.

Drone Pilot

We have progressed through history in the invention of ever more deadly, and relatively risk-free, weapons. Sling, bow-and-arrow, catapults, guns, bombs, Tomahawk missiles, and now drones. Drones are the perfect kill-at-a-distance weapon; they can be launched from a safe bunker half a world away.

The project I work on, A Future Without War, is dedicated to the knowledge that we could move beyond war if we so choose. And to do that, we will have to dig deep, get in touch with our innate morality. We will have to eventually make the decision to abandon any legitimacy to the idea that it is ever okay to impose our will on other people by killing the people they love; any people they love, male or female, young or old. We need to give up our addiction to killing. And adopting drones as our newest killing-at-a-distance weapon is an enormous step backward.

As appealing as it has always been to warriors to be able to kill the “enemy” very efficiently and from a distance that removes some of the risk, that choice is not a moral one. It’s certainly not a heroic one. It is a coldly practical and essentially cowardly one. It is generally true, and certainly understood, that where there is no risk there can be no honor.

Predator Drone

In Living Beyond War, Meyers explains why war has become obsolete, meaning that it is maladaptive and dangerous for us in the technological world we have created. And he also makes clear the case that if we want to get beyond war, we have to start making hard moral choices and following through with them. Having seen the incomprehensible devastation visited on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear bombs, we’ve had the wisdom to avoid their use, and to establish treaties against their use, and we are even working to eliminate them. We have not yet mustered the moral courage to succeed in eliminating nuclear weapons, but we are at least moving in that direction.

But what about drones? Are we going to eliminate one immoral weapon only to hug to our bosom another?

The people of the world who love peace should demand NOW that their leaders establish treaties against the use of killing robots in the skies. And the growing numbers of global citizens who have grasped the vision of permanently moving us beyond war should take the lead in speaking with a loud and unified voice urging that we treat others as we would like to be treated.

Benjamin, Medea. 2012. Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. New York: OR Books.
Myers, Winslow. 2009. Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. p. 81.


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