When philosophers join the kill chain

The most vehement debates on the use of force by the US surround attacks by remotely-piloted drone aircraft.

US deploys unmanned drones from Ethiopia
Drones cause uproar everywhere they are used, and among the world's ethicists and lawyers [GALLO/GETTY]

Scholars have always loved war, whether it’s chemists and engineers discovering more efficient ways to kill large numbers of people or social scientists, theologians and philosophers debating when, why and how to fight. Philosophers in particular have long thought about violence; Plato was likely not the first thinker to understand that what goes by the name of “justice” is often merely the violence and thievery practiced by those holding the reins of power. For Plato, their ability to continue to rule depended on imposing upon the weak the very rules they routinely break to maintain their position. 

Plato argued that a well-functioning society could exist only in so far as philosophers and warriors were its “guardians” (the latter under the former’s watchful gaze). To ensure justice prevailed under this system, the guardians would live in poverty and share all their possessions in common, even their children. 

Sadly – at least for some philosophers – society hasn’t progressed in quite the way Plato had hoped. 

War, drones and justice 

Most philosophers today accept the argument by the seminal inter-war philosopher Walter Benjamin that violence cannot be understood or judged except “in its relation to law and justice”. Arguments about whether a war or the means with which it’s fought are “just” in the past century have been increasingly grounded in international law, particularly international humanitarian law and the imperative of protecting civilians who are inevitably caught in the crossfire of conflicts, whether civil or international. 

 People & Power – Attack of the Drones

While there are certainly many conservative philosophers who write prolifically in support of their definitions of “just war” (the philosophical underpinnings of President Bush’s idea of “preemptive war” is among the most recent examples of this oeuvre), the profession as a whole can be said to skew towards a more anti-war sentiment. This view is epitomised by a 2003 statement released by members of the American Philosophical Association against the US invasion of Iraq. It argued that launching a preemptive war without the threat of an imminent attack “stretches the meaning of preemption beyond reasonable bounds and sets a dangerous precedent which other states may feel free to follow”. 

Today, the most vehement debates surrounding the use of force by the United States no longer surround the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but rather the use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles – more commonly known as “drones” – by the US, as one of the most important weapons in its ongoing war on terror. The use of drones has caused an uproar not just in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and the occupied territories, where they are routinely used to kill suspected militants, but also among ethicists and the international legal community. 

And now, at least one philosopher, Bradley Jay Strawser, has taken up the challenge of offering a viable justification for the use of drones. A recent hire at the Naval Postgraduate School, his arguments have caused enough of a stir to warrant a profile and opinion piece in the Guardian. Strawser now claims that the Guardian profile in fact misrepresented some of his views; but after reading two of his published papers on the subject, the profile in fact underplays the glaring problems in his arguments. When applied to US policy more broadly, they reveal just how far into a moral and ethical quagmire the United States has sunk under the Bush and Obama administrations. 

All things equal? 

Before moving to the Postgraduate School, Strawser worked at the Navy’s Centre for the Study of Professional Military Ethics and Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC). Among the research sponsored by ELAC are projects exploring “Automated, Intelligent Combat and Decision Support Systems for Command and Control” and the more prosaic issues related to determining how law, norms and institutions can prevent armed conflict in a contemporary reality – in which the supposedly “rigid dichotomies” of international law and Just War Theory have become “increasingly difficult to apply”. 

These themes weigh heavily in Strawser’s work, in particular in a 2010 article titled “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles”, published in the Journal of Military Ethics, in which he details his argument in support of using drones. The paper makes two primary arguments. First, it claims that “remotely controlled weapons systems are merely an extension of a long historical trajectory of removing a warrior ever farther from his foe for the warrior’s better protection. UAVs are only a difference in degree down this path; there is nothing about their remote use that puts them in a different ethical category”. 

Strawser’s second argument is that the use of drones is ethical, both because they reduce the risk to the “just war fighters” involved in operating them and, as important, lower the number of innocent civilians killed in strikes compared with other forms of attack. Specifically: “Other things being equal,” he writes, “using such technology is, in fact, obligatory,” if it can reduce the risk to the person on the “just” side who is controlling the vehicle. In other words, if you can avoid putting a soldier or pilot at risk by using a missile fired from a ship or drone that would have the same effectiveness as one fired from a plane overhead or the ground nearby, you have a moral obligation not to put the soldiers in harm’s way. 

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The important caveat for Strawser is that “their employment is done as part of a fully justified war effort meeting” in terms of both abiding “by both jus ad bellum [when one can engage in war] and jus in bello [laws of war] criteria”. Here Strawser makes his most important claim, that the use of UAVs is morally justified precisely because they “actually increase the pilot’s ability to discriminate” between legitimate targets and, to borrow a phrase from that great theorist of violence, Peter Clemenza, any “pain in the ass innocent bystanders” who might be in the vicinity of the target area. 

Strawser’s entire argument rests on this claim, he admits, because if he can’t demonstrate that drones produce lower civilian collateral damage than other weapons, their use becomes much harder to justify – even if they do protect the “just warfighter” back in Virginia. We might imagine, then, that he has provided proof of his claim that in fact the use of drones produces lower casualties than do other weapons systems. 

What precisely is Strawser’s evidence? Shockingly, it consists of a since deleted web brochure by an Israeli drone-maker, Rafael Armament Development Authority, a quote by an Israeli pilot about how the drones help him avoid civilian casualties contained in the document (one might wonder why this didn’t set off at least a few alarm bells) and an unpublished conference presentation that uses a “database combining reports from a variety of sources” to argue that drones in fact produce a far lower civilian casualty ratio than other methods of attacking militants. 

That’s it. A publication on one of the most important strategic political issues of the day, which is helping to shape the government’s justification of drone strikes – indeed, Strawser admits that he was hired by the Navy Postgradate School in good measure to help advance this argument – actually bases its most fundamental argument on Israeli military industry propaganda and an unpublished conference paper. What’s more, Strawser doesn’t bother addressing the numerous studies that have shown the opposite, whether it’s a Brookings Institution report that “suggests that for every militant killed, ten or so civilians also died”, or the New American Foundation study which argues that approximately 32 per cent of casualties are civilians. 

Nor does Strawser address in his Guardian interview and the follow-up op-ed the recent revelation by the New York Times that the Obama administration uses a formula for counting the number of militants killed that is “deceptive” (in the words of worried government officials) and counts any able-bodied adult male hit in a strike as a combatant. (Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post recently did a story on the issue of civilian casualties, available here.) 

We have to ask, is this really what counts as serious scholarship in the field of military ethics, never mind philosophy more broadly? One would imagine such a discipline would demand even more rigorous empirical evidence to back up any ethical claims, considering the stakes involved.

International law sidelined 

But beyond this, there is the much larger issue of international law and whether the United States can legally kill people outside of recognised battle fields in conflicts that have not been authorised by the United Nations Security Council. Strikingly, the phrase “international law” doesn’t appear in Strawser’s Military Ethics article, despite the fact that it is inseparable from the larger issues of whether drone strikes are justifiable. Nor does the UN, or the most relevant chapters and articles of its charter. Not surprising, the administration adopts a similar tactic to Strawser’s when confronted with challenges about its use of drones, offering “legal conclusions, not legal analysis”, when asked to justify their use. 

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Perhaps most important, the focus of Strawser’s work is almost entirely on the “just warfighter”. How the drones impact affected populations – what it feels like to live with the terror of the constant buzzing of drones, never knowing when one of its “precision” missiles might hit your house or car just because it contains a few adult men with beards – along with children and the elderly – is, at least in the intellectual context he’s operating in, irrelevant. 

One reason this is so might well owe to the fact that Strawser specifically “reject[s] the moral equality of combatants”, one of the cornerstones of Just War Theory, which has long refused to adjudicate the morality or permissibility of an action based on a judgment as to which of the parties to a conflict is “just” or “unjust”. Such a determination is impossible once you step out of the moral universe of the individual sides, because each side will naturally claim its cause is just. 

Yet without offering any justification for such a change in one of the most fundamental components of Just War theory, Strawser declares that “the warrior fighting for a just cause is morally justified to take the life of the enemy combatant, whereas the unjust fighter is not justified, even if they follow the traditional principles of jus in bello such as only targeting combatants and the like, to kill the justified fighter. Thus, there is no chivalrous reason for a just combatant to ‘equal the playing field’ or ‘fight fair'”. 

In another article titled “Walking the Tightrope of Just War”, Strawser declares even more directly that “a soldier’s side must have just cause for her to be capable of acting justly in war. The presumption of moral symmetry between soldiers is thus abandoned”. 

Strawser arrives at this conclusion by comparing the determination of just causes for engaging in war with whether or not an individual can justly kill someone who attacks him or her without warning. “For each of the kinds of relevant knowledge, the epistemic difference between personal self-defence and war is a matter of degree not kind,” he declares in “Moral Predators”. 

He seems unaware that people are not the same things as nations (perhaps they’re the same as corporations, but that’s a different, though related issue). You might be able to “stand your ground” in 24 states in the US, but considering how much death and destruction countries can unleash on each other, the requirements of following international law are crucial to preventing even greater hostilities when the potential for conflict appears on the horizon. 

Indeed, Strawser actually seems clueless about this difference in “Walking the Tightrope”, where he declares his support for an “evidence-relative” versus “fact-relative” view of “moral wrongdoing and permissibility”. In other words, as long as you think you’re in the right when you attack – say, you have this evidence from someone named Curveball saying that Iraq has WMD – if it turns out the evidence was wrong after the fact, you don’t have to feel too guilty, never mind worry about facing international sanction and even a tribunal at The Hague. It, might, we can assume, be nice to say you’re sorry, and promise to be a bit more careful next time. 

Thankfully, the use of drones – whether based on facts or merely evidence of supposed wrong-doing (or thinking about wrong-doing, or just playing the wrong first-person shooter video game, which the NSA apparently determines is evidence enough that you want to harm the US) is, at least for now, not an option for most people. But soon enough, the same people who refuse to leave their homes unarmed will be travelling around with armed drones hovering over them or their cars, ready to attack anyone who unexpectedly comes to close to or raises its owner’s pulse or blood pressure. Think George Zimmerman versus Trayvon Martin in the outer ring of the seventh circle of Hell, and you will have an idea of what life will be like, not in Afghanistan or Yemen, but in Texas or Colorado, once weaponised drones become only slightly more expensive than the remote controlled helicopter your child keeps bothering you to buy. 

 Pakistan expresses concern over drones

Justice in ‘Beta-world-Zandar’ 

Strawser’s arguments may seem ill-conceived when put into the context of a real-world setting, but as you read his work, it becomes clear that he’s in fact not operating in the real world at all. Instead, at least in his “drones” article, he’s operating out of a place called “Beta-world-Zandar” (that’s what he calls it in “Moral Predators”) and other “future worlds”, who are inhabited by imaginary men named “Tom”. Reality gets relegated to the endnotes of his article, where he admits that “there are many in the United States military community itself who do not question the efficacy of UAV usage but rather have principled worries concerning their use such as those mentioned above”. 

I’m not sure where Beta-world-Zandar is, but Strawser clearly believes he’s working on a “hot topic” in his professional universe. Indeed, his giddiness seems to have gotten the better of him during the interview for his Guardian profile, in which he explained of the use of drones: “It’s all upside. There’s no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there’s a tremendous value.” Those words clearly looked worse on the page than they sounded coming out of his mouth, because in the op-ed he wrote subsequent to the publication of his profile, he declared: “Unfortunately – if understandably, given the complexities of the matter – I consider some of my views were misrepresented. Most disturbingly, I was reported to claim that ‘there’s no downside’ to killing by drones. In fact, the majority of my work on drones is dedicated to elucidating and analysing the serious moral downsides that killing by remote control can pose. The Guardian has graciously offered me this space to set the record straight.” 

Of course, he doesn’t deny that he actually said what was written, merely that is was “disturbing” – and rightfully so. But again, rather than “setting the record straight”, he merely repeats his claim that drones kill fewer civilians than other options. He goes on to reiterate that “my claim about drones is entirely conditional: they should be used only if the mission is just. As with all conditional claims, if the antecedent is false, then the entire claim is invalidated”. 

But this is of course disingenuous. Neither the media nor the Navy would be paying any attention to Strawser if the drone debate was merely about whether, “other things being equal”, it was no worse to kill someone with a drone than with a gun or cruise missile. Instead, the very power of drones – their seemingly godlike omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence – sows confusion, even among philosophers who should know better. 

Thus Strawser argues that “the kind of change I’m proposing may already be occurring. Take NATO’s present counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan. NATO forces engage the last vestiges of al-Qaeda quite differently from the way in which they engage Taliban fighters. The former they attack ‘with prejudice’ and, where possible, kill via drone airstrike. The latter they engage more cautiously, avoid high death tolls and use extreme restraint to avoid non-combatant causalities”. 

In fact, hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in US drone strikes on suspected Taliban members, and this leaves aside the even bigger problem of how a person gets defined as being “Taliban” and whether being a Taliban, whatever that may be, is in and of itself enough to warrant one’s being blown to bits on the hunch of a drone operative in Virginia, or in some cases, the White House. 

 US defends drone use for targeted killing

What would Kant say? 

Strawser considers Immanuel Kant among his greatest influences. Thus his homepage contains a well-known quote from the master moralist, who declared that “morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we make ourselves worthy of happiness”. Kant certainly felt that philosophers should impact important public debates, arguing that if political leaders would heed their – or at least his – advice, a truly peaceful world order could be created. 

But he also knew well how far humanity remained from the minimum level of civilisation or morality required to achieve what he termed “perpetual peace” (“We are civilised – perhaps too much for our own good – in all sorts of social grace and decorum. But to consider ourselves as having reached morality – for that, much is lacking”, he famously wrote in his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View). 

For this to happen, individuals and states would need to behave according to the “categorical imperative”, which states that one should only “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”. It’s not the Golden Rule (in fact, it’s far more universal because its standard is set at the level of society, not the individual). It’s a powerful moral constraint on actions which might negatively impact other people, including the use of new technologies to kill people in far away lands who quite possibly haven’t done anything to harm you. 

The implications of the categorical imperative for US drone policy couldn’t be more clear. As ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi writes, the US must ensure that its use of drone strikes “comports with international law, or it will set a dangerous precedent that could be used tomorrow by nations with less respect for the right to life in particular, and human rights in general”.   

If philosophers are going to join the kill chain and help formulate policies for the use of violence by their countries’ militaries, it would be nice if they spent a little less time thinking about how things work on Beta-world-Zandar where “just warfighters” can ply their trade with complete moral confidence, and more time helping to figure out how to transform the fundamental policies of governments on this planet towards supporting a global political economy that encourages peace, democracy and sustainable development. That shouldn’t be too much to ask from a tradition that, for 2,500 years, has interrogated the most fundamental questions about human nature and society. 


Update August 8, 2012:

Since publication of this column I have recieved new information about the casualty rates for drone strikes in 2012, data for which was not included in the studies cited above. According to the New America Foundation, the number of drone strikes so far this year is less than half the number for 2011, but there is significant confusion about how many civilians were killed in these strikes. On the one hand, the latest report states that only a handful of civilians have been killed, yet when it breaks down the numbers by individual incident, in every single case it describes the number of non-militants killed in an attack as “unknown”, which raises the question of how the authors could come up with a total when they admittedly have no data for the individual strikes. If US government data was used, that raises the issue of how victims are classified as militants or civilians discussed in the article. Moreover, if it is true that drone strikes are improving their civilian kill rate (and I certainly hope it is), this fact could nevertheless lead to an increase in the frequency of strikes, which would ultimately produce more civilian deaths than other methods of attacks which, because they are more indiscriminate, are used more infrequently. 

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.