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Deliberating on Drones and Just War

Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M., in his article, “Intervention, Just War, and U.S. National Security,” which appeared in Theological Studies 65 (2004): 141-157, observed: “As has often been the case with jus in bello deliberations, the engine driving the debate is new technology” (152). A mere seven years later, the military technology du jour is the unmanned aerial drone–a topic I hope to think and write more about in the near future. I thought of Himes’ quote about jus in bello (justice in the conduct of war) in this connection because, on the one hand, the drones are precision guided and, as a recent article in the New York Times reports, “administration officials say [drone technology] has helped paralyze Al Qaeda in the region” of Pakistan; yet, on the other hand, others have expressed concerns about the data we actually have about casualties from drone strikes, including civilian deaths and injuries. In the aforementioned New York Times article, one military ethicist instead focuses on jus ad bellum (justice in embarking upon war) and, indeed, on only one criterion, just cause:

“There’s a kind of nostalgia for the way wars used to be,” said Deane-Peter Baker, an ethics professor at the United States Naval Academy, referring to noble notions of knight-on-knight conflict. Drones are part of a post-heroic age, he said, and in his view it is not always a problem if they lower the threshold for war. “It is a bad thing if we didn’t have a just cause in the first place,” Mr. Baker said. “But if we did have a just cause, we should celebrate anything that allows us to pursue that just cause.”

As a Catholic moral theologian, I find Baker’s perspective problematic from a just war standpoint. In the Catholic just war tradition, just cause is indeed an important criterion, but so are all of the other jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria (and, of course, I would add jus post bellum). Simply put, just cause is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion. Each and every criterion should be taken into account to govern a just war, if a war is indeed to be considered just. Whether or not the use of drones is congruent with just war theory is a question I’ll continue to ponder, and I welcome your thoughts here.

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