Other Voices

Stop drone strikes and the moral injury of their pilots

A Predator drone, armed with missiles, flies over Afghanistan.
A Predator drone, armed with missiles, flies over Afghanistan. NYT

If you think drone kills are “clean” and “surgical,” think again. They are terrifying for people in places where drones operate, and they are often highly traumatic for drone pilots and even others who only watch the kills from half a world away.

Until military thinkers, faith leaders and citizenry can have a serious discussion on the ethical, moral and legal dilemmas raised by lethal drones, it is time for the U.S. to halt their use.

As I returned recently from a first-ever Princeton Seminary Conference on lethal drones, I remembered an article I read not long ago in Breaking Defense.

In “War Is No Video Game – Not Even Remotely,” Scott Swanson described two experiences. The first was in September 2000, when he saw Osama bin Laden framed on the screen, but all he could do was watch because Predators at that time were not armed.

His second experience came after the switch to armed drones. After the missile was fired, he writes that he saw a “bright white bloom of light. As the bloom dissipated, we saw an object move quickly across the screen, flailing like a rag doll tossed in the air. It was a body, twisting and contorting and glowing from the heat of the blast. … That fleeting image remains burned in my memory.”

As a retired combat chaplain, I found that account and what I learned at Princeton both informative and troubling.

I have, for five years, been working with Rita Nakashima-Brock to set up the “Soul Repair Center” at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. The center is a response to research that identified and defined war-related trauma as moral injury.

The center leads research and public education on this topic.

We are studying drone pilots who had almost never experienced war in a combat zone, yet many of them suffered from post-traumatic stress, including moral injury.

The most crucial questions about drones relate to their morality as weapons of war and the damage they may do to those who operate them, to the values and codes of conduct of the military forces that employ them and to the society that accepts them uncritically.

A formal military force has a system of values. That value system is markedly different from civilian society’s value system but is nonetheless a system of morality that guides behavior. That behavior that makes it possible to survive on the battlefield and afterward.

We need courage to persevere in the face of the horror of war, not allowing fear to obscure our judgment or conduct on the battlefield.

The drone operator faces no physical risk and requires physical courage. So what kind of courage does this operator need to make the right life-and-death decisions despite strong, human counter-urges to dehumanize/demonize the enemy?

He or she must possess the value of loyalty to leadership and to fellow combatants, the value of acting justly, the value of self-control so acts will not be deflected by passion or emotion, and the virtue of practical wisdom.

Can these essential military values extend easily to the new arenas of remote and robotic war?

At Princeton, I did not agree with everything said by the 150 assembled faith leaders and scholars. But I do agree on this: Before we do unintentional and irreparable damage to others, to our military values, and to our own society, we should halt our use of lethal drones and engage in serious research and dialogue on their use.

We owe that to our soldiers.

Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer Jr., U.S. Army, retired, is Director of Chaplains, Christian Reformed Church of North America, Emeritus, and was the co-founding director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.