In drone warfare we ought not trust
(This is a My View column written by Rev. Chris and published in the Times Herald Record)
By Rev. Chris J. Antal
Less than a month after I deployed to Afghanistan, on Oct. 24, 2012, a grandmother who lived over the hill from our base camp was out gathering okra in a field when she was killed by a U.S. drone strike.
Or was she?
Official sources claimed they killed “militants” that day; I didn’t see her, or anyone else, die. All I saw were the drones, taking off, landing, and circling around. I did not even hear the explosion.
Months later I watched the testimony of 13-year-old Zubair Rehman, describing how he saw his grandmother blown to bits by two hellfire missiles on the day in question, asking his American audience: “Why?”
They didn’t have an answer.
While deployed, I concluded our drone strikes disproportionately kill innocent people. As a military chaplain, I preached a sermon questioning the morality of such warfare. After my commander read it, he said “the message does not support the mission” and had me investigated, officially reprimanded and released from active duty for “retraining.”
The legal scholar and former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks spoke about the so-called Global War on Terror, “We have the Executive Branch making a claim it has the right to kill anyone anywhere on earth at any time for secret reasons based on secret evidence in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials.” In short, I do not know what mission I should be retrained to support – the very nature of that mission is secret. When I joined the Army, I did not swear an oath to defend secret and unaccountable killing. I took an oath to defend the Constitution – a set of laws that, I believe, this type of warfare significantly undermines.
From the perspective of both religious wisdom and military values, drone warfare, as conducted by the United States today, is a betrayal of what is right. My faith affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, everywhere. I believe Americans who share that affirmation have a responsibility to advocate for a U.S. foreign policy that reflects our regard for human dignity. Military leadership also has a responsibility to advocate for a method of war-fighting consistent with military values like respect, integrity, and personal courage. Too often, I worry, our program of drone warfare falls short of these ideals.
Two years after coming home, I finally got retrained. It came at the nation’s first Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare that was held at Princeton Theological Seminary in late January. More than 100 faith leaders gathered from across the country united in our moral anguish about drone warfare. I believe the only moral justification for killing is to protect the innocent from certain harm. Killing people we suspect might possibly harm us at some point in the unspecified future can never be morally justified. I fear what has been called “The Moral Hazard of Drones” – they make killing too easy; and just because we can, does not mean we ought.
Out of the Princeton Conference came a call to action: We must call on the administration to immediately halt lethal drone strikes and be transparent and accountable for past harm; we must call on Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that serves as drone warfare’s legal justification.
We owe this to Zubair, and the thousands like him. We owe this to our service members who yearn to fight justly. We owe this to the many veterans like myself living in moral pain. Immediately halting lethal drone strikes would be the first step in healing moral injury, reclaiming national honor, and restoring the soul of America.