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IDEAS | John Kaag and Clancy Martin

Drones and the conscientious objector

A Yemeni boy walked past a mural depicting a US drone.MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images/File 2013

“When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD.”

Over the course of American warfare, the battlefield has grown increasingly less intimate. If the soldiers at Lexington and Concord had to be within 100 feet to seriously injure their British foes, killing by drones allows US troops to be half a world away from their targets. The psychological toll, however, has not necessarily dissipated in kind.

The words above are from an open letter to the Obama administration, crafted by four former Air Force servicemen, each of whom played a role in the nation’s targeted killing program. The moral pang of the letter reflects a very basic ethical tenet, in the words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Every man has a conscience and finds himself observed . . . by an internal judge . . . [that] follows him like his shadow when he plans to escape.”


Concluding the letter, the former soldiers write that after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, “We were cut loose by the same government we gave so much to — sent out in the world without adequate medical care, reliable health services, or necessary benefits. Some of us are now homeless. Others of us barely make it.”

Drone warfare has largely been absent from this year’s presidential elections so far, with most of the national security debate focused on the threat of the Islamic State. Yet the next commander-in-chief will undoubtedly be forced to deal head on with a rapidly evolving military, one that increasingly depends on unmanned aircraft to target enemies. To date, Donald Trump has not outlined his policy on drones but has advocated for broader aerial offensives against the Islamic State. Hilary Clinton, who was involved in the Obama administration’s drone operations in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, has repeatedly endorsed the targeted killing campaign overseas as a way to combat terrorist threats. Nonetheless, whoever assumes the presidency in 2017 will have choices to make regarding the scope of the Unites States’ drone war, and — perhaps just as importantly — the way that it is overseen by both the armed forces and the American public.


At the center of this decision-making must be the soldiers being asked to fight it. Indeed, now is the time for American citizens to reevaluate the moral standing of war on terror but also to revisit longstanding norms regarding conscientious objection, whistle-blowing, and military loyalty.

Several years ago now, The New York Times published an op-ed by one of the authors titled “Drones, Ethics, and the Armchair Soldier,” which argued that the physical remove of drone warfare would give pilots the space to engage in moral reflection in real time, the type of careful reflection that the urgency and danger of traditional warfare often preclude. This argument did not depend on the strange syllogism that philosophy begins in leisure, that warriors now have leisure, that therefore warriors are now philosophers. It was a more modest — and logical — claim, that the standoff capabilities of drones will place operators and military personnel in morally vexed situations (that is the case with all war-fighting, we assume) but also give them unprecedented freedom to consider the moral and legal status of their decisions.

Consider the case of Jim, a drone operator who has been ordered to execute an airstrike on a known terrorist camp in a foreign country. He can see the terrorists in the camp preparing for a suicide bombing, and his missile strike is the only sure way to stop the attack. But he can also see that there are children playing within the likely kill-zone of where the missile will strike. They may or may not be severely injured or killed — it’s going to be a close call. Everyone in the so-called kill chain — the series of people who must be consulted for legal authorization of the strike — has been consulted and signed off on the missile launch. These are high-value terrorists and, as Jim watches their underlings don suicide vests, an imminent threat. Jim has been ordered to make the strike. But he can see those children playing, and he just can’t bear to pull the trigger. What can Jim do?

In the United States, conscientious objection to engaging in war is permitted on secular and moral ground — but only if the individual objects to war on the whole, in what Carol Ficarotta, professor of philosophy at the Air Force Academy, calls “global conscientious objection.” Members of the US armed forces are not allowed to engage in selective conscientious objection: That is, refusing to engage in particular wars or, more specifically, particular military assignments on the basis of a moral objection to that course of action.


On the face of it, this policy makes good sense. It is the nature of warfare that soldiers will be required in battle to do things that they would find morally repellent in their ordinary lives — most obviously, killing another human being — and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the kind of discipline necessary to conduct a war if each soldier were free to follow his or her conscience before deciding whether to follow an order. Most of us agree that war is morally necessary at least some of the time, and the purpose of just war theory is to provide us with secure moral footing for the kind of warfare we can conduct.

Just war theory does distinguish between acts of war that are morally justified and those that are not, allowing room for debate about the morality of forcing a soldier to engage in a particular action or assignment that he or she considers to be immoral. Before drone surveillance and strikes, this moral problem did not arise in quite the same way because the person dropping the bomb or firing the missile would likely have had neither the knowledge of the immediate consequences of the strike nor the time to contemplate those consequences and consider alternative courses of action. Drones allow for both, opening up both moral dilemma and moral opportunity, including Jim’s selective conscientious objection to performing this strike. “A morally reluctant soldier ought to be treated no different than, say, a physician who cannot in good conscience perform an abortion,” Ficarotta concludes, “We should not compel people to act contrary to their most deeply held convictions on such important matters as life and death.”


We should remember a subtle distinction between conscientious objection and disobeying an illegal order. As Whit Kaufman, an expert in the Just War tradition, recently noted: “Every soldier is in fact required to disobey illegal orders (to deliberately kill civilians, for example). This applies where it is clearly an unjust action, like the My Lai massacre.” But this is different from conscientious objection, where there is a personal moral objection to an action, which is not obviously illegal. In Kaufman’s words, “This goes beyond the law and enters the realm of personal morality.” This situation seems to describe the experiences of Jim quite directly.

In Jim’s case, and in general, drone warfare is justified on the basis of imminent threat to national security: The high-value terrorists are going to launch another attack, or (as in Jim’s case) the suicide bombers are donning their vests. But we should recognize that often imminent threat is at best vaguely and ideologically defined, and reasonable minds may differ about what constitutes an imminent threat. This is what a kill-chain is meant to address, but at the very end of that kill-chain is Jim, with his finger on the trigger, who bears the most immediate and onerous responsibility for the consequences of the strike. Maybe if the threat is that imminent, we should put some boots on the ground.


But suppose that we don’t want to allow selective conscientious objection, perhaps because we recognize that someone — even if it isn’t Jim — is going to have to make the missile strike, and we don’t want soldiers deferring moral responsibility in that way. We’d be right to be worried about soldiers who actually wanted to launch a missile that might kill children or other innocent bystanders, and we’re relieved to learn that Jim does so only with grave moral reservations.

Another interesting case is provided by the recent movie “Eye in the Sky,” when a colonel (Helen Mirren) asks one of her soldiers to recalculate the likelihood that a child within a missile’s likely kill-zone will die as a consequence of the strike. Her higher-ups in the kill-chain have informed her that unless she can get the likelihood of the child’s death close to 50 percent, she cannot order the strike. She stands over her soldier until he massages his computer into giving him something close to the statistics she wants, although everyone in that command center knows that nothing has really changed for that child on the ground. After the strike, she warns the distraught statistician that he will file his report with the statistics needed for launching the missile.

This distraught statistician is now in the notoriously awkward position of the whistle-blower: Should he break the chain of command and tell the truth in his report — “I was ordered to massage the statistics so that we could order the strike” — or should he do what he was told? Again, the fact that drone strikes provide us with much more time and information for moral reflection than older forms of warfare raises the ethical stakes. If the colonel knew that there was robust protection for whistle-blowers in the case of drone strikes, she would probably not have ordered her soldier to massage the statistics or file what he knows to be a fudged report. Because the use of “kill lists” in particular and drone strikes in general are highly controversial, it may be morally appropriate to enhance the protections for whistle-blowers involved in this kind of warfare. Carefully protected whistle-blowing might be the best way to provide the possibility of transparency in what is necessarily a practice conducted in secrecy.

The culture of the military does not encourage whistle-blowing, and indeed sometimes whistle-blowing is morally blameworthy. Depending on the particular military circumstances, it may even count as treason. Blowing the whistle is always a last resort, in part because it is a clear violation of loyalty, which most of us consider a moral virtue.

Loyalty, however, is one of the most important but also the most degenerate of virtues, what we might call an ambivalent virtue. We want our soldiers to be loyal soldiers, and we applaud their loyalty to the military and our country, but we don’t applaud the same attitude of unquestioning loyalty when we see it displayed by terrorists or others committed to unworthy or immoral causes.

What standard should we use to evaluate the loyalties of military personnel who object to military actions that may violate the Constitution? This is the case of some drone operators who object to striking American citizens abroad. But even that narrow scope may be degenerate and possibly morally repugnant. After all, it depends on in-group/out-group evaluations (your life matters if you are in the group of American citizens, but not if you are out of that group) rather than a general regard for innocent human life or, in some cases, basic human rights.

As the presidential campaign heats up, it’s important to note the disturbing disjoint between first-person testimonials of soldiers and the political rhetoric that is often used to gloss over the damage that drone warfare has already done to local populations abroad. Hillary Clinton, for example, in marked contrast to the October open letter, spoke to the Guardian in 2014 about collateral damage in drone strikes: “The numbers about potential civilian casualties I take with a somewhat big grain of salt,” the presumptive Democratic nominee remarked, “because there has been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties. But also in comparison to what?”

It appears that some of the men and women carrying out the missions that Clinton referenced could not, in good conscience, take on their duties with the same “big grain of salt,” and their concerns could not be set aside by appealing to the false dichotomy of drone warfare and traditional warfare. Drone warfare increases our opportunities for moral deliberation, and thus, for doing the right thing, even when all of the options seem undesirable. But it also brings with it the burden of all moral deliberation: asking tough questions that have no easy answers.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy in the University Missouri Kansas City’s College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of business ethics at the Bloch School of Management.