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“Up above my head,” we sing in the gospel song, “there’s music in the air! I know, I know, there must be a God somewhere.”
Up above my head here in the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson, every few days, there’s a deep-throated roar in the air. It’s not musical at all, but it tells me that pilots from Davis-Monthan Air Force base are out for a spin over the desert. Sometimes there are just one or two planes, sometimes four or five in close formation, climbing and dipping and banking like high-flying swallows.
Sometimes I can barely spot the little dots high overhead making all the racket. Occasionally they come screaming through the Santa Cruz Valley, lower than the peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains, and then they are easy to identify: twin-turbojet A-10 Warthogs with their squared-off wings, F-15 fighters with their twin tail stabilizers and swept-back delta wings. All are very fast and very noisy.
Hearing my tax dollars noisily burning up overhead brings to mind a Doonesbury panel in which an elderly Vietnamese peasant testified before a Senate committee. “We were planting rice in our fields when the planes came and dropped their bombs, and my husband and daughter were killed,” she said. But there are many kinds of airplanes, said the senator: big planes and small planes, American planes and Russian planes and North Vietnamese planes. “It was a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II,” she clarified. Well, yes, said the senator, that was one of ours.
The 35 Warthogs based in Tucson were in the news recently when the Air Force announced plans to decommission some of them. First deployed in 1976, the A-10’s have a narrow range of battlefield uses. But Senator Mark Kelly, Democrat of Arizona, a retired Navy aviator, slipped a ban on their retirement into the Defense Authorization Act. His Senate and House colleagues passed that bill in the last days of 2021, giving the military $768 billion to spend in the coming year — $24 billion more than was requested.
These numbers boggle the mind. US spending amounts to 40 percent of the world’s outlays for arms, more than the budgets of the next nine top spenders added together. Consider this comparison: the projected ten-year cost of a proposed package of economic incentives is so high, $2 trillion, that President Biden’s domestic agenda is dead in the water. Estimated ten-year military spending will be $8.5 trillion, more than for all non-military discretionary categories put together. Yet the 2022 arms budget passed by a four-to-one margin.
Some other time let’s talk about whether waging wars is still, or was ever, a legitimate way to settle international disagreements. I call myself a Calvinist pacifist, which many consider an oxymoron. This does not mean that I pass judgment on all past and present uses of military force. Life is complicated. The choices we face are sometimes between black and white, sometimes among shades of gray.
Gandhi got it right, I think, when he insisted that we should fight injustice with violent means rather than stand and do nothing, and when he acknowledged that when we have allowed a situation to fester long enough no other option may be at hand. But there is always a nonviolent alternative, he insisted, if only we have the imagination and courage to find it – one that brings lasting healing, not just a quick fix, and that does not leave piles of bodies in the rubble.
Gandhi was no Calvinist, but for this Calvinist at least renouncing war is an inescapable consequence of the deep depravity of the human spirit. Knowing how profoundly sin clouds our minds and corrupts our wills, we must always anticipate that means intended for good sooner or later will be turned to evil. Entrust others with a tool or an office that can be used to benefit or to harm others, drill into them the rules for its proper use, and extract a solemn promise to follow them. Sooner or later, you are in for an unwelcome surprise.
Empirical evidence abounds for this theological assertion. There are more guns in the United States than people, and this should make us all safer and less fearful; but they are used far more often to shoot a spouse, or oneself, than an intruder. Powerful opiates offer essential relief from chronic pain; but nearly a million Americans have become addicted and died of overdoses to these drugs since 1999. The authority to prevent and punish crime is essential in a well-ordered society; but governments frequently misuse that power to imprison or execute their critics.
Recent disclosures about the use of unmanned drone aircraft by the US military offer a striking example of how seemingly benign technology is used for evil ends. Despite their novelty drones occupy a central place in American military policy and practice, especially against Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East. They can target a single house, a single vehicle, even an individual running in the open, without involvement of ground forces. In Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, our leaders tell us, drones have carried out surgical strikes on command centers and killed key commanders deep inside rebel-held territory.
Launched from a distant base, drones are guided by operators in distant bunkers who pore over video screens until their shift is done, then knock off for a pizza and a beer at the base canteen. Occasionally an order comes down: send missiles to blow up that yellow house by the water tank. There is an ISIS commander on our hit list inside. The operator lets loose the missiles, records a video, confirms the hit – and then goes for a pizza.
A vivid depiction of drone warfare – its meticulous rules of engagement and the messiness of their application — is the 2015 film Eye in the Sky. Helen Mirren, portraying a British colonel, debates with political leaders, military superiors, and drone operators whether to fire on an Al Shabab hideout in Kenya. Must they wait for a young girl to leave the site, or will the terrorist commander be gone then too? Can innocent lives be put at risk to prevent deadly suicide attacks? None of the characters – a commander in London, a military officer in Washington, an operator in Las Vegas, Kenyan officers in Nairobi – are villains, nor are they heroes. All are pieces on the chessboard of this unprecedented mode of remote-control warfare.
If only life followed art, and all military officers strove to deploy their drones in limited and legitimate ways, we could be reassured. But in the past few months investigative journalists have revealed, on the basis of years of digging, document requests, and interviews, just how far the actual use of armed drones has strayed from the purported rules for their use.
A few examples will make the case. In August 2021 drone-launched missiles destroyed a truck in Kabul filled with Taliban explosives – so said US officials. Witnesses told a very different story. In December the New York Times revealed what its on-site interviews, examination of government documents it had requested, and viewing of raw video feeds had shown: the missiles actually destroyed a family car, a Toyota Corolla. Its occupants and some bystanders – 10 civilians including 7 children – had been murdered. Investigation of other strikes revealed several that were not properly authorized or missed their targets. A purported Taliban commando unit wiped out by a missile strike was actually a wedding party.
A careful tally is kept, our government assures us, of all civilian deaths resulting from US operations. All of them, it turns out, represent regrettable but necessary byproducts of legitimate military operations. The pattern of nominal investigation and exoneration has not changed since drones were first deployed in the Obama administration, through two successive presidencies. But documents recently obtained by journalists show how hollow these assurances are.
A 2016 bombing attack on a Syrian village, for example, was described as a major strike against ISIS forces, with perhaps a few civilian victims mingled with the fighters. But when journalists obtained the classified internal report they learned the truth: US weapons destroyed several houses where civilians had sought refuge from the fighting, killing 120.
Late in 2021 journalists obtained 5400 pages of reports on 1311 incidents involving civilian casualties, many of them involving drones. Each was allegedly carefully investigated – but in only one case was there a follow-up visit to the site, in only two were witnesses or survivors interviewed. No officers or soldiers were charged with misconduct or subjected to discipline.
New technology that promises to minimize collateral damage and achieve greater precision, such as the drone, has the potential to diminish the scope of war’s destruction. But it also multiplies the opportunities to cover up misuse. There was a common pattern in the documentation of attacks on the wrong targets, for example: when the operators realized they had launched an attack on a school or a hospital, they turned cameras up to the sky to avoid recording their errors.
When war is waged at a distance, with no ground troops at risk and no independent observers on site, the ethical challenges it poses are compounded. Yet remote-control warfare captures far less attention from the public than face-to-face conflict. For that reason we need to insist that our military commanders and our elected officials take responsibility for their decisions and report truthfully on what hostilities they have found it necessary to initiate in our name.
And what lesson can be drawn from their failure in the recent past to meet this demand? The misuse of drones and other weapons launched from afar, and the extraordinary efforts taken to shield their misuse from public scrutiny and to escape accountability, are potent arguments in support of Calvinist pacifism.