Why Our Drone Warfare Campaign Is Right and Moral

Mark McKinnon wrestles with the ethics of our new high-tech war machine.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

War is often about making the least-worst decision. The same could be said about politics. But the stakes are higher in war, when the commander in chief is called upon to defend the nation. And make no mistake, al Qaeda is at war with us still. That is why I support the Obama administration’s policy on the use of unmanned drones to kill terrorists—even if those terrorists are U.S. citizens—even as I, like many Americans, find myself conflicted about its morality.

I will not argue about the hypocrisy of an administration that supports drone attacks on American citizens at war with us while calling for trials in the U.S. court system of captured foreign enemy combatants. And I will not dwell on the shocking silence of the media who would be “up in arms” if the Bush administration took a similar position. Nor will I linger on the likelihood that a presidential candidate Obama would not have supported the policy.

Instead I will argue that there is a rational and a moral case for the use of drone strikes—in general.

From a totally American perspective, I can think of three justifications. Drone strikes are less costly in terms of dollars. And budgets, we are told, are moral documents. So less money spent on war can go toward human needs, in education, in health care, even in foreign aid.

Second, drone strikes are less costly in terms of lives lost. In a drone warfare world, there is no GI returning with posttraumatic stress, none back with limbs missing. It means less of the kind of knocks on the door that every mother or father or husband or wife who has someone serving overseas dreads. And the technology of precision strikes means that fewer innocent lives are lost among foreign populations living near the field of battle.

Which leads me to my third justification—that drone strikes are less costly in terms of objections in the court of public opinion. Insulated by technology, the strikes appear to us—and more important, to those around the world—on our TV screens as little more than a scene from 24.

And I believe there is also a moral case for the use of drone strikes in many of the specific cases we have heard about, including that of American-born terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki. By declaring himself an enemy of the state, calling for a violent jihad against the United States, I believe he ceded his rights to the protections of our legal system.

While drone attacks fit within the view that America has a role to play in making the world a safer place for democracy, I believe there is also a moral case against the use of drone strikes. Drone attacks subvert the rule of law—we become judge, jury, and executioner—at the push of a button. This seems an acceptable risk right now, when the technology for drone strikes is ours, not the enemy’s. And when those strikes have not occurred on American soil. When that changes, so too do the arguments.

I would not wish this authority on a moral man—or an immoral man, for different reasons. But terror in the guise of nonstate actors creates terrifying new realities. And so we should have this debate as a nation.