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Last month Lawfare co-founder and Harvard Fellow Benjamin Wittes participated in a formal debate hosted by the Oxford Union on the resolution, “This house believes drone warfare is ethical and effective.”
In his followup column, Benjamin correctly observes that embedded within the drone debate are several separate issues. How many and what these specific issues are is a matter of opinion, but his list will do for starters:
- The platform question: Is the use of drones ethical and effective relative to other weapons given a decision to use force?
- The policy question: Should the United States be engaged in lethal targeting of terrorist suspects in countries like Yemen and Pakistan and under what circumstances?
- Platform/policy interaction: Does the availability of drones enable lethal missions we would otherwise eschew, and if so, do we consider that incremental enabling to be a good or an evil?
This sort of gradual refinement of issues and questions (a kind of collective Platonic dialectic) is exactly what needs to happen. So kudos to him for this part.
The substance of his actual argument, however, is another matter. Benjamin made the rather undesirable prospect of arguing the “pro” position (drones are ethical and effective) by restricting his attention to the first issue above. Nevertheless, even in that narrow sense defending drones is not the ethical slam dunk he made it out to be. There are several important arguments against *any* use of attack drones, i.e., ethical and practical concerns that pertain to unique features of the drone platform:
1. Proliferation. Other countries (China, Iran, N. Korea) can easily build drone weapons. Would not our eager use of drones invite their use by other countries, perhaps even against the US and her allies? Would it not be wise now to foresee this imminent danger, and to proceed more slowly and carefully?
2. Mission creep. If we are using drone strikes to neutralize al-Qaeda or other terrorists in Pakistan, what is to prevent us from using this as a convenient (but illegal under international law) opportunity to extend our conventional war in Afghanistan against the Taliban into Pakistan? Indeed, I strongly suspect this is what is happening now, as it appears that far more drone strikes are launched against Taliban militants than al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
3. Hygienic execution. Do we, and if so where, draw the line on a killing technology which is so efficient and ‘hygienic’ that it is simply inhumane? The pilot of a manned attack aircraft has, arguably, some direct sense of the horror of his actions. Human conscience and feelings, a gut-level aversion to killing, still operate. But is this true of a remote drone operator in an air-conditioned office? And what are the psychological effects on the drone operators themselves? Another peculiarity of drone strikes is that the faster-than-sound missiles strike their victims with no advance warning. One second you’re walking around, the next you’re toast. If you’d planned on making any final prayers, you’re outta luck.
4. Public sentiment. As the recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of Farea al-Muslimi suggests, drone strikes may potentially produce greater public outrage than conventional military actions. For one thing, the drones circle for hours, creating a climate of general terror. Living in constant fear of ‘death from the skies’ is a pretty terrible thing.
So we see that there is significant doubt that drone weapons can clear even the lowest ethical hurdle, namely whether the technology itself is ethical and effective. Clearly even more problems are evident when we consider their specific use in Yemen and Pakistan, and whether having attack drones promotes injudicious military interventions.
5. Operator remoteness. The operator of a manned aircraft arguably has access to more contextual cues that enable him to discriminate combatants from non-combatants. A remote drone operator is more likely to mistake civilians for militants, or fail to notice cues that might alert to the presence of children.
Again in 2013, the White House has proclaimed a National Day of Hubris.
An ancient tradition, brought to America by the Puritan settlers from Great Britain and exercised regularly here since, is to set aside certain days, especially in times of war, danger, or extreme hardship, for public fasting, humiliation, and prayer. An integral part of this tradition is to reflect as a nation on our failings and to “implore the forgiveness of all our transgressions [and] a spirit of repentance and reformation.”
For many years the presidential proclamations of a National Day of Prayer have made scrupulous reference to the principle of repentance. However both presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have consistently omitted any reference to a penitential spirit in their proclamations.
So apparently the United States has done no wrong since 1993. The irony is that apparently we still believe in God, and that God can change our condition from ill- to good-fortune. But not that ill-fortune might just possibly have something to do with our own errors, negligence, or selfishness.
I’ve just completed a new White Paper on public higher education policy in California. Here is an abstract:
For the last 50 years, a belief that building a robust and competitive state economy should predominate California’s public higher education goals has become increasingly prevalent, and today it is taken as an unchallenged assumption. This White Paper emphatically rejects that assumption, and argues that broader cultural and social goals are of equal, if not greater importance for Californians’ well-being than purely economic ones; and that to achieve these broader social goals we must place more emphasis on humanities and the classical model of liberal education.
The magnificent paragraphs below must surely rank among the best writings of the Anglo-American peace movement.
Their history is interesting. They come from a sermon delivered by the Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761–1831) of Cambridge on March 12, 1800, on the occasion of a General Fast associated with hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleon’s France. The sermon made a great impression on the renowned jurist, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), who by chance happened to be in attendance. Through Montagu they found their way into the annals of the British Parliament (London, 1814). Montagu later, describing the words as “abounding with deep thought,” quoted them in a letter to his friend, Sir James Mackintosh, which appeared in Mackintosh’s published Memoirs (Mackintosh, 1836). There they were read by the eminent statesman William Gladstone (1809–1898), who quoted them in his book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1841), remarking of them: “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.” Possibly from the same source they also came to the attention of the American Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore (1864–1934), who quoted them in his work, The War with Mexico Reviewed (1850, pp. 281), the prize-winning submission in an essay competition sponsored by the American Peace Society for the best review and analysis of the much hated Mexican-American war. Still later we find them reproduced in an installment of A Christian Treasury (Bonar, 1878); there the author is simply given as ‘Old Christian’, marking the passage of these profound and edifying words to the realm of cultural lore.
Gladstone would be heartened to know that the sermon was in fact published – once shortly after its delivery (Ramsden, 1800) and later in a collection (Ramsden, 1827).
Based on an exegesis of the vision of the four beasts in the Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, Ramsden likens the nations of the earth to great beasts of prey that fight against and seek to devour one another. Nations are by nature amoral, just like lions and tigers: they have no innate law beyond that of self-interest. We today might describe them as operating in a purely Darwinistic framework, governed by the rule of survival of the fittest. This is the political universe of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and modern neoconservativism and realism.
Were this all to the story, it would be a bleak and nihilistic picture. But Ramsden sees something more, and points the way to a solution suggested by Daniel 7:3-4.
 And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
 The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Dan 7:2-4; KJV)
Ramsden then proceeds explain how a “a man’s heart” may be given to nations, to soften and humanize them and mitigate their beastliness. First he describes how, in God’s mercy, a human heart may come to a nation:
“It comes by priests, by lawgivers, by philosophers, by schools, by education, by the nurse’s care, the mother’s anxiety, the father’s severe brow. It comes by letters, by science, by every art, by sculpture, painting, and poetry; by the song on war, on peace, on domestic virtue, on a beloved and magnanimous King; by the Iliad, by the Odyssey, by tragedy, by comedy. It comes by sympathy, by love, by the marriage union, by friendship, generosity, meekness, temperance; by every virtue and example of virtue. It comes by sentiments of chivalry, by romance, by music, by decorations, and magnificence of buildings; by the culture of the body, by comfortable clothing, by fashions in dress, by luxury and commerce. It comes by the severity, the melancholy, and benignity of the countenance; by rules of politeness, ceremonies, formalities, solemnities. It comes by the rites attendant on law and religion; by the oath of office, by the venerable assembly, by the judge’s procession and trumpets, by the disgrace and punishment of crimes; by public prayer, public fasts; by meditation, by the Bible, by the consecration of churches, by the sacred festival, by the cathedral’s gloom and choir; by catechizing, by confirmation, by the burial of the dead, by the observance of the sabbath, by the sacraments, by the preaching of the Gospel, by faith in the atonement of the cross, by the patience and martyrdom of the Saints, by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost.”
He next describes what this heart does, or, in his words, “how its exercise, or affection appears,” and with particular attention to tempering the warlike tendency of a nation:
The exercise of a nation’s heart appears, in its imposing on its own ferocity restraints, in its submitting to checks on the levers and limbs of its strength, in its consenting to be one of the aggregate commonwealth of nations, in its conforming to a public, general law…. It appears in the sending and receiving of embassies, and in the forming of treaties of intercourse. It appears in allowing the soldier to judge of the pleas of humanity, in not putting to death the prisoner taken in battle, in alleviating the horrors of the prison, in healing the wounded enemy, in shewing the white banner, in signing of capitulations.
It deepens the lines of the impression, it has received. It goes to the temple before battle. It prays against the visitation of the sword, as a plague of God. It mourns over that, which it is about to take into its hands. It prays for forgiveness of the breaches of the public law, it has consented to be under, though not bound to such consent. In this sense it prays against its own ambition, injustice, and love of rapine. It appoints fasts before battle. It fasts against its own strength; it weakens itself, and then, so weakened, lies prostrate before the superior strength of God. It seeks in this humiliation and acknowledgment the anointing from above, before it descend on the plain to wrestle.
The human heart of a nation improves itself by promoting virtue:
Like the heart of a man, this heart of a nation inculcates on itself, what promotes the habit of its virtue. It brightens the polish, it has taken. It cherishes the science, law, and religion, by which its softness comes.
Finally, Ramsden describes whose responsibility is the moulding of this heart, or “from whom this heart takes its texture and shape”:
“Whence the heart of a nation comes, we have perhaps, sufficiently explained. And it must appear, to what most awful obligations and duty are held all those, from whom this heart takes its texture and shape, our King, our Princes, our Nobles, all, who wear the badge of office or honour; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law; all instructers of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness and polish to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle, as that a child may lead it….
“How ought they then to consider, what their temper and conduct are; how ought they to reflect, that by mistake, by folly, by rudeness, by bad example, by corrupt sentiment, by false philosophy, by heresy, by impenitence, by contempt of law and religion, by any sentiment or action, which is base, mean, or evil, they are fostering the brutishness of the nation, keeping up contention and strife throughout the world, encouraging war and shedding of blood, barring from God’s mercy their fellow men, the poor, their own dependants, their own sons and daughters, hindering the descent of the Holy Ghost upon earth, delaying the reign of him, who died to save and bless the world.
“How ought they to reflect on the guilt of such conduct, which is not confined to one little spot or corner, but reaches and touches by links, which go round the globe, the happiness, the refinement, the peace, the salvation of all mankind now living, and of all future generations. How ought they to reflect on the blessing and reward of a contrary conduct, which is ever contributing to banish to their own place, all malice, wrath, jealousy, envy, revenge, cruelty, which heaps coals of fire on every hard mass, and from iron brings out gold, from brass silver, from stones gems; the gold, the silver, and the gems, which form the walls, the gates, and the battlements of the last city to be built, the city of God and of his Christ.”
* * * *
Ed. Bonar, Horatius. The Christian Treasury. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1872. (see p. 395).
Gladstone, William. E. The State in Its Relations with the Church. Fourth edition. London: John Murray, 1841. Vol. 1. Section 3.2.23. (see pp. 169-171).
Ed. Hansard, T. C. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time. Vol. 28 (June 7 to July 30, 1814). Appendix. London: 1814. (see pp. 137-140).
Livermore, Abiel A. The War with Mexico Reviewed. Boston: American Peace Society, 1850.
Ed. Mackintosh, Robert James. Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh. Vol. 1. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. (see pp. 158-161).
Ramsden, Richard. Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility: A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 12, 1800, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast. Cambridge: J. Burges, 1800.
Ramsden, Richard. War and the Final Cessation of all Hostility. In: Richard Ramsden, D. D., Twenty-Six Sermons, London: 1827, pp. 237-256.