Humanizing War and the Dangers of Drone Warfare

How can new robotic technology help save lives within warfare without overriding humanity’s ability to control and limit the effects of the lethal technology it introduces?

“War is hell.” (William Tecumseh Sherman)

NO TO WAR! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” (St. John Paul II, January 13, 2003)

Though war is one of the greatest scourges of humanity, the Church has always sought to humanize war, as much as this is possible. This effort faces a new challenge with the rise of drone warfare, now in nascent stage. The USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace has just released its second letter in two years on the topic. What does it mean to humanize war? How has this challenge become more difficult? I will briefly examine these questions before introducing the important contribution of these two letters from the bishops.

Charity and justice in warfare

It is very telling that war appears in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae within his treatment of charity. Aquinas understands war as a vice opposed to charity, but also recognizes that war can proceed from a rightly ordered will. When asking the question “whether it is always sinful to wage war,” Aquinas relates that war can be necessary for the common good and even for the good of the aggressor. Responding specifically to an objection based on Christ’s teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, Aquinas replies:

Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. 138): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will.” (ST II-II, q. 40, a. 1, ad 2)

How does the Church “humanize” war in this case? If war fundamentally constitutes a sin against charity, the Church attempts to correct the will of combatants, making war at least an act of justice, if not charity itself. In the next article, concerning the lawfulness of clergy fighting, Aquinas notes that the Church directs warfare toward a higher spiritual good:

Every power, art, or virtue that regards the end has to dispose that which is directed to the end. Now, among the faithful, carnal wars should be considered as having for their end the Divine spiritual good to which clerics are deputed. Wherefore it is the duty of clerics to dispose and counsel other men to engage in just wars. (ad 3)

The Church’s efforts to direct warfare toward justice and even spiritual advantage found its most intense form during the Crusades. St. Bernard’s In Praise of the New Knighthood, written to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar (a military order which employed lay brothers in battle), demonstrates the extent to which war could be seen as a spiritual mission:

The knight of Christ may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently, for he serves Christ when he kills, and serves himself when he dies. Nor does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister to punish the evildoers and to exalt the good. When he kills an evildoer, he is not a murderer, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil.

Just war and the proper exercise of chivalry were ways in which the Christian tradition sought to humanize war, bringing it under the influence of reason, virtue, and faith.

Following Augustine, Aquinas listed three conditions for just war: the authority of the sovereign, a just cause, and a right intention in the belligerents. The Catechism in paragraph 2309 states the conditions for just war in a more developed form (stemming in part from the influence of Francisco de Vitoria): 1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be grave and lasting, 2) other means of ending conflict must prove ineffective, 3) there must be serious prospects of success, and 4) war cannot inflict graver evils than it seeks to resolve.

On this last point it mentions something quite relevant to the discussion of mechanized warfare: “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” The potency of war to inflict destruction, and the ease by which it does so, has increased exponentially.

Conscientious objection

The theory of just war and its use in the defense of Christendom exists alongside of a parallel tradition of religious pacifism. Before speaking of the need to wage war for the common good Aquinas related that precepts of the Sermon on the Mount “should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense” (ST II-II, q. 40, a. 1, ad 2). Some early Christians saw military service as incompatible with the faith, such as the martyr St. Maximilian, whose refusal to enlist cost him his life.

The ancient account of the life of St. Martin of Tours relates that during a barbarian invasion Martin refused to continue military service even for a defensive cause. He spoke to his commander: “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God: let the man who is to serve thee receive thy donative: I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight” (iv). Though he was accused of cowardice, he determined to show his bravery by advancing before the enemy without arms.

Catholic pacifism regained prominence in the 20th century through the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day explained the Movement’s position in an editorial during the Second World War: 

We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.

Conscientious objection appears briefly in the Catechism in paragraph 2311, calling for the protection of objectors: “Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.” This terse statement does not attempt to reconcile pacifism with just war, but recognizes its legitimacy within the tradition. Pacifism witnesses to the necessary inhumanity of warfare, even when fought for the right reasons.

Changes in warfare

In contrast to the Church’s humanizing efforts, as the “art” of war has progressed through time, it has become less and less human. It has increasingly been fought on a less human scale, relying less on human judgments, and therefore depending less on human virtue. Reading Homer’s Iliad, for instance, how can one not be awed by the ability of great warriors to rally the courage of their troops and to tip the scale of battle with their physical and tactical excellence?

The Church recognized a fundamental change in warfare that occurred with the rise of advanced weaponry. The Second Lateran Council (1139 AD), in what may now seem an astonishing statement, anathematized the crossbow and archery: “We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on” (Canon 29). Why would the Church undertake this action? I think the Council Fathers recognized the inhumanity of a weapon that resulted in, relatively speaking, rapid fire by untrained soldiers. The crossbow dealt a death blow to chivalry, through which warfare centered on highly trained soldiers, trained both in military tactics and social etiquette, and who saw their role in idealized religious terms.

The Church’s teaching on nuclear arms stands as the closest continuation to the anathema of the crossbow. Pope St. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris stated clearly that “nuclear weapons must be banned” (112). The Second Vatican Council condemned indiscriminate destruction and killing in any form: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, 80). Pope St. John Paul II, witnessing the large scale death and destruction of World War II firsthand, condemned the use of atomic weapons during the War and spoke of the need for disarmament following it.

Rapid automation of war

The introduction of drones in the War on Terror greatly advanced the impersonal and inhuman tactics of modern warfare. Not only are the craft unmanned, but technology is emerging to allow the weaponry to act autonomously. We still have not fully understood and debated the implications of robotic war. Statistics on drone warfare indicate that although the technology is meant to kill terrorists through precision strikes, it does so at a great cost to civilians (hundreds of civilian casualties thus far, more than we have been admitting).

The rise of drone warfare is creating a new arms race. Russia, despite its economic downturn, is currently constructing automated weaponry and robo-soldiers, which are slated for the battlefield in only a few years. China has already produced prototypes of unmanned armed vehicles. And as you would expect, America remains at the cutting edge. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on its own robotics projects, such as self-guided bullets, robotic pack animals, and drones which can stay in flight for five years (as well as a project to enter into the brain and alter memory). If the crossbow replaced the skills of a soldier, advanced technology aims at replacing the soldier altogether with machines.

Nicholas Carr’s recent book on automation, The Glass Cage, may be the best book to help us to think through the implications of the rise of automated machinery. In the chapter “Your Inner Drone,” he reflects on the future of automated, robotic warfare, and references an important article from Thomas Adams, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, “Future Warfare and the Decline of Human Decision Making.” Adams argues:

Once this progression of ever more capable machines began, the US armed forces, and those of other advanced countries, started down a road that will probably remove warfare almost entirely from human hands. … [and] even further out of “human space.” … More and more aspects of warfighting are not only leaving the realm of human senses, but also crossing outside the limits of human reaction times. 

Adams essentially argues that “weapons and other military systems already under development will function at increasingly higher levels of complexity and responsibility—and increasingly without meaningful human intervention.” War is crossing a line, leaving the limits of human movement and even decision making behind.

Two letters from the USCCB on drones

This serves as a long introduction to the two recent letters addressed to the National Security Advisor from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on drone warfare. My hope is that the context of the Church’s tradition on war and the increasing impersonalization of tactics demonstrates the urgency of this message.

The first letter, written by Bishop Richard Pates on May 17, 2013, invokes just war principles in its criticism of drones:

Even when viewed through the prism of just war principles, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for targeted killings raises serious moral questions. The Administration seems to have focused narrowly on the just cause of protecting citizens, but other elements of the tradition pose significant questions, including discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality, and probability of success.

Further, the letter claims that the strikes “violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms.” It raises questions of double standards for collateral damage (would the consequences of these strikes be acceptable in the US?), the immanency of risks, and the violation of the sovereignty of other nations. Really, it is the use of new technology which overrides these considerations: “Given the relative low cost and ease of use of military attack drones, might our leaders fall prey to the temptation to use the weapons to excess?” If drone technology was not so cheap and easy—and I would add so removed from our experience—would they be used so readily?

The second letter, authored by Bishop Oscar Cantú earlier this month (May 11, 2015), notes that the concerns raised by Bishops Pates “have not abated,” but rather “drone technology is growing rapidly.” Bishop Cantú’s letter offers specific criteria to determine the legitimacy of drone strikes. It applies just war theory and international law to the particular and novel case of drone warfare. 

Using armed drones for targeted killings should be limited to those areas of intense, active, and protracted conflict where there have been declarations of war, where there is multilateral agreement that such action is needed to counter extreme violence being perpetrated on non-combatants, and when the target is a combatant who is likely soon to launch an attack. Armed drones may be used outside of areas of open and protracted fighting if it is determined that the person targeted poses an imminent threat, if the use of lethal force is proportionate and there is no other means to prevent the threat to life (i.e. “last resort”), and if civilian casualties can be avoided as much as possible. Otherwise targeted killings are considered assassinations, extrajudicial killings which the United States has itself condemned since there is a lack of due process.

The letter also calls for more transparency with drone attacks, particularly in regards to the criteria for judging targets and the risks taken in regards to civilian casualties. Without clear ethical guidelines, the letter rightly points out that the advancing technology will lead to greater use of drones, including the inevitability of future attacks against the United States.

After repeating Pates’ concerns on the lowering of the threshold of war, Cantú ends with an extremely important point, directly related to the need to keep humans and human judgments central to the decision-making of warfare:

Humans should always be involved in the use of armed drones, because “pre-programmed, automated technical systems” lack the ability “to make moral judgments over life and death, to respect human rights and to comply with the principle of humanity.” … The use of fully autonomous killer drones raises serious questions of moral accountability: In wrongful deaths, who is morally responsible? The persons who deployed the drone? Those who programmed it? Those who manufactured it? Who is morally culpable in wrongful civilian deaths from an autonomous drone? (Quoting Archbishop Tomasi, Holy See’s Permanent Observer, UN in Geneva, November 14, 2013)

With the rise of drone warfare, there is a clear moral dilemma which has been introduced. How can new technology help save lives within warfare without overriding humanity’s ability to control and limit the effects of the lethal technology it introduces? In finding solutions, maintaining “the principle of humanity” will be essential.


The rise of drone warfare calls for the Church to continue its twofold effort to humanize war, first by seeking to limit the use of warfare to just causes, which meet moral criteria, and second to witness prophetically to peace. Simply entering into a rational debate on the justice of warfare will not be enough, without bold witness to the inherent inhumanity of war, which resists even the best Christian efforts to temper and control it. The witness of the early Roman martyrs and the renewal of Catholic pacifism in the 20th century are important markers to guide us in our own response to the rapidly expanding robotization of war. 

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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 73 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.