Reports emerged last week that the White House will make it easier for the United States to launch drone strikes, potentially opening the door to attacks that could kill civilian bystanders.
Compared to another travel ban, a new health-care law and an investigation into Russian interference in our democracy, this new drone policy attracted little public attention. But this critical policy shift in American defense stands in stark contrast with the religious values of many of our nation’s citizens.
Since the first reported drone strike took place in 2002, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been a key tool for ensuring our national security. However, while they have been used more than 600 times over the last 15 years, their use has been strictly regulated under clearly delineated rules. Based in international law and political guidelines, these rules are also formed in part by “just war theory,” an intellectual tradition with a rich theological history.
Just war theory is the product of more than 1,500 years of thought. The primary Christian contributors to this intellectual tradition were St. Augustine in the 5th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. Drawing from scripture and ancient philosophy, Augustine and Aquinas most fully articulated the ways Christians could justly participate in combat, detailing what could be considered jus ad bellum (justice before war) and jus in bello (justice in war).
President Trump’s new approach to drone warfare threatens to violate both principles.
Already, drone warfare has pushed the bounds of this doctrine. By allowing a drone operator to be an ocean away from a battlefield while pinpointing a precise target, UAVs take classroom hypotheticals to their limits, testing what can still be recognized as ethical in conflict. Indeed, drones have initiated a heated debate in universities, think tanks and congregations worldwide, with scholars and religious devotees quarreling over what this new technology means for just war theory.
At issue first and foremost in jus ad bellum is whether a state has a right to launch an attack. The chief questions asked in this phase are whether that state has a just cause for going to war, whether the person approving the attack has the proper authority to do so and whether all other means of accomplishing a particular goal have been exhausted.
Trump wants to give the Department of Defense increased autonomy to order drone strikes without executive oversight—undoing a safeguard that was initially implemented by the Obama administration to ensure DoD was following approved procedures. This calls into question whether the current administration is abiding by the just war tenet of right authority. By just war standards, targeted killings should be authorized by the president and not the Pentagon, to say nothing of the obstacles posed by allowing the CIA to conduct more drone strikes.
Jus in bello constrains action in conflict itself. Aquinas and Augustine emphasized the need to avoid harming noncombatants and to limit bloodshed. They taught heads of state to think very carefully before initiating an attack. Later generations gave their maxims a secular basis, which ultimately came to inform contemporary international law.
The White House’s relaxation of who qualifies as a combatant runs directly counter to the minimization of noncombatant casualties that is the essence of just war theory. By making it easier to categorize someone as a combatant, Trump runs the risk of harming innocent people who merely resemble a violent threat.
Although of course nations do not govern themselves by medieval Catholic theology, just war theory doctrines have permeated our broader political and legal spheres. Regardless of how these principles fit into citizens’ personal religious beliefs, it is clear the Trump administration’s recent shifts in drone operations could have severe ramifications for our international relations. These changes risk destabilizing our alliances, setting dangerous precedents as UAV technology becomes more pervasive around the globe.
To be sure, the United States has a right to safeguard its citizens. But the changes that the Trump government is making in the way we conduct our defense will make it difficult to determine if our actions adhere to just war theory.
As a religious person myself, I do not take the prospect of war lightly, and it seems that undoing the Obama-era guidelines on drones may allow too much room for error in an increasingly volatile world.
Instead, the general public and our elected officials should openly debate how this technology ought to be used in conflict, a task that requires staying mindful of the reasons just war theory exists today. In this instance Augustine and Aquinas are instructive for religious and irreligious people alike, offering a valuable perspective for drone use in the future of warfare.
Jacob Marthaller holds a master’s degree in religious ethics from the University of Virginia, where he studied theology and politics.