The Ethics of Taking the Risk Out of War

War is an inherently unethical pursuit. Even a “just” war involves death on a massive scale. Even if you believe that some people should be killed, the too politely named “collateral damage” kills innocents. But at least in war each side puts its youth at risk. Anyone on a battlefield can die at any minute. The hope has always been that this crushing reality will make political leaders pause for at least a moment before sending their troops out to kill other people.

But as military technology has evolved, risk has also been transformed from the face-to-face peril of ancient and medieval combat to the danger of bayonets and bullets in the Civil War. The introduction of tanks and warplanes in WWI provided more protection for some warriors, but pilots and tank crew could still be wounded and die. Only the invention of long-range missiles provided no risk to the perpetrator of war (unless it was the risk of retaliation by a foe’s missiles, but that only counts as a risk if your enemy has missiles).

So, what are we think today of the use of drones? Has military technology finally evolved to the point where it makes war too easy? To their credit, military thinkers are pondering the issue. The Washington Post reports on a British study and recent American conference on the topic. I want to say that the answers to those questions are easy, but the path of goodness here — the ethics of the situation — are tangled, to say the least. The story reports a study conducted under the direction of the British Chiefs of Staff:

The British study said it was essential that military officials not “risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely” by using armed drones. It also asserted, however, that the laws of war call on commanders on both sides of the fight to limit loss of life and that “use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.”

So, the ethical thing to do is to save as many lives as you can by putting as few soldiers at risk as possible. That makes sense. And the equally ethical thing to do is to make war less likely. While saving the lives of our pilots, risk-free drone technology may well make war more likely. Should we use drones?

Perhaps the answer is that these are the wrong questions. Drones aren’t the issue. Our priorities are the issue. The United States spends billions to create ever-more-efficient means to kill people, yet the budget for research into conflict resolution has got to be a drop in that ever-expanding bucket of defense spending.

I’m thrilled that the military is pondering the impact of drones, but why aren’t the rest of us doing something about war? The military’s job is to find the best way to engage in war. They’re doing their job by creating drones. Why aren’t the rest of us working to find the best way to engage in peace? Better yet, how can we make this a campaign issue and a national priority?

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2 Responses to The Ethics of Taking the Risk Out of War

  1. It seems to me that in the US, we’ve used the drones and even the idea of wars that are primarily fought with overwhelming air superiority as a way to sell our people on the conflict by not putting very many American lives at risk. But the people on the ground are still getting killed. While I tend to think that there are times when we should do something — I’m not sure the efforts in relation to Libya are going to work, but sitting by and watching what was going on without outside help was agonizing — I do think we’re lying to ourselves in a way when we manage to intervene militarily without much risk to our own people.

    At this stage in human development, I fear there are times when violence may be the only solution. But I think we reach for it way more often than we have to.

  2. Linda Herzberg says:

    Diane,
    You bring up a good question. However, it brings up many more questions, such as how can people who have never been in war, understand the risks and quagmires of war? When is it appropriate to intervene in another country’s conflict and when should we stay out? I think there are some instances when peace cannot be brokered. Both sides need to want peace for that and you may have splinter groups so that you cannot talk to all parties.

    I do believe war should be the last option and that we don’t always do that as a country. I also believe that the government picks and chooses which conflicts in which to get involved. On the other hand, I find it interesting that the United States was considered interferring in Arabian politics when we were involved before but now we are blamed for not intervening sooner. It appears to be a no win situation.

    As far as drones, they may take the operator out of the war area, but I do not believe they will eliminate having people on the ground.

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