MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. Photo: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt
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Opinion

Armed drones have serious ethical implications; why are we ignoring them?

Drones, like the one that recently launched a missile strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, are completely changing the rules of warfare. Luke Barrs, author of a book about the Christian response to armed drones, explains why reflecting deeply on the implications of this new technology is essential

On 3rd January 2020, a missile was launched from a US Reaper drone in Iraq. The missile struck two cars carrying nine people at Baghdad International Airport, one of whom was the Iranian, General Qassem Soleimani. Simultaneously, a second drone strike was made against another Iranian commander in Yemen, Abdul Reza Shahla'i, but this attack reportedly failed.

Among the celebration and outrage that followed the strikes, I saw few commentators pause to consider the technology that made this event possible. It’s important to analyse the impact of armed drones because they are changing the communities in which they operate, as well as the nations that use them. Since the first test-firing of an armed drone nearly 20 years ago; there have been at least 6,786 strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen alone.

We now live in a world where a missile can be launched from a drone operating in Iraq while the pilots sit in an airconditioned pod in Nevada, Texas. The ability to watch, judge, and strike while remaining invulnerable is almost God-like, and holding this power in our hands is changing us. The Ministry of Defence has highlighted concerns that using armed drones could even make war “more likely”. This is because, as history has taught us, a war becomes deeply unpopular when a nation begins to incur casualties, but with drones, no boots on the ground are required.

Because of this, drone warfare provides a kind of freedom that our governments have never operated under before. In 2011, for instance, President Barak Obama authorised drone strikes in Libya without consulting congress precisely because no American lives would be at risk. In 2020 President Donald Trump ordered drone strikes in Yemen and Iraq against Iranian citizens, again, without consulting congress. The same pattern seemingly emerged in the case of Soleimani. As citizens of these countries, we should reflect upon how comfortable we have become with drone warfare and notice how our silence enables the continuation of its current form.

It is significant to note the name of the more powerful drone system, the MQ-9 Reaper, as it explains something of the experience of those living under its surveillance. The constant buzzing a drone creates, is reported to keep children awake at night. Entire communities, especially in Pakistan, are reshaping their activities, fearful of attending funerals or weddings and of travelling alone, in case they are targeted by mistake.

Some doctors and psychiatrists have even gone so far as to claim that those who live under drones increasingly show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon reflection, their fear isn’t surprising, and it certainly isn’t helpful for cross-cultural relationships. The perception for many in these communities is that a God-like power is being employed against them.

Jesus, as we know, reshaped our view of who our neighbour is through the parable of the Good Samaritan. He made clear that the Samaritan man was obeying God through loving his neighbour and taking responsibility for his historic enemy, the wounded Jew. I find this to be a helpful paradigm when considering our interactions in the world today.

Can you imagine living under drone operations and seeing that power being used in the UK, or in a European or US context? I have little doubt that it would spark a civil war, and yet this is a reality for many communities across the Middle-East. The Lord’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves wasn’t a suggestion, but a responsibility for all humankind to exercise. It is this law that I would like to see practised more thoroughly as the US, among other nations, increasingly relies on drone warfare.

Luke Barrs is the author of Armed Drones: A Christian Response

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Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.

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