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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.

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the Christian Reformed Church, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven, Michigan. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.  


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    We do have to take this seriously, don’t we, and you draw a fair conclusion.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      And I really don’t think it’s possible anymore (if it ever was) to satisfy the so-called “just war” criteria. Yes, you are right. War is always evil, it is always bad, it is always a wrong. As Ellul writes in Violence, sometimes you have to descend to it because of even worse evils, but it is never clean. No death in any way should ever be celebrated, even of the “bad guys”. Unfortunately, all governments are violent, ALL of them. And all governments lie, ALL of them. Yet we have to have them. Instructive is Ellul’s double vision of government in the Bible. Again, thank you for this sobering post.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I am more grateful for this than I can say. Just this morning we murdered thirteen more civilians. I shudder when I realize that as a citizen of this country I am culpable for what my nation does. Military drones are evil in so many ways and are the antithesis of “peacemakers.” I align myself with you as a pacifist (Calvinist!), David. Thank you again and may yours be more than a voice crying in the wilderness.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you, David. I think there is more to say. When we spend $8.5 trillion, we need to justify it, so we use new technologies of war to prove their value. The central message of drone usage is our people are of more value than their people. We are human, and they are less than. America has always been sickened by the death of our boys and girls (most of who we send into war are barely out of their teens). Drones allow us to claim success in large part because none of us died. War is dirty, hard, in many ways a wicked response to fighting wickedness. Drones allow us to claim clean hands, especially when we report success at a far greater rate than what is real. Finally, drones undoubtedly have increased the hatred and animosity of our country across the world more than anything else.
    I was a Calvinist (still am in many ways). I was a pacifist (still am in many ways), but wow this stuff is complicated. I wish we lived in a world where leaders could actually say that and then engage with this complexity before the nation.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      “America has always been sickened by the death of our boys and girls”

      Well, yes and no. A common connection with our cultural acceptance (even celebration) of abortion is that we seem to be able to live with the killing of those whom we cannot see, those who are removed from us. We “otherise” developing humans in the womb as much or more than we “otherise” people across the world somewhere. Neither of these do we have to face. Neither of these do we have to visually account for. And so neither of these is made to be broadly personalized and recognized as an image bearer. A culture that is so comfortable dismissing at will the image of God in a developing person right in our own midst will struggle to attach the image of God to nameless, faceless people thousands of miles away. We have a culture of death. This is not “whataboutism”, but rather a recognition that the ethic of life and the recognition of the image of God must be all-encompassing or it will be dismissed easily. This works both ways (all ways, really).

  • Dean Koopman says:

    If the thrust of the argument is that Calvinist Pacifism is required because our government has lost accountability, I cannot agree. The answer can only be to demand accountability of our leaders which has disappeared in this instance, the entire use of drones, the Afghanistan withdrawal and the uses of surveillance for decades.
    I fear pacifism – whether Calvinist or any other brand – results in a flight from justice. “The Power of the Sword” is divinely given to the government in order to fulfill one of the three uses of the Law. Our problem is that our current “rulers” are largely liars, grifters and incompetents.
    Ultimately, ideals, peace and justice, and gifts, will, knowledge and technology are corrupted. We must not flee the fight but fight corruption.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Truth be told, rulers in every age have been liars, grifters, and incompetents to one degree or another. When the Bible was written, including the instruction concerning the government bearing the sword, the government was hardly a paragon of virtue. There is nothing new under the sun.

      You make a good point about pacifism and justice. It is also extremely hard for any pacifist to be consistent. A consistent pacifist must never call the police in any circumstance of crime or threat, no matter the grave danger to person or family. To do so is simply violence by proxy. A consistent pacifist must not fight off or physically restrain the rapist of his wife. Sounds extreme, but it puts the idealism of pacifism to the test.

    • Fred Mueller says:

      Yes, but…Our model for life is not a sword but a cross.

  • This article is a great encouragement to me, as a fellow “Calvinist pacifist.” My father and my son both fought in hot wars, and both came away with great misgivings about the value of war in general and of their participation in particular. I confess that the older I get (David, you and I are the same age), the more the pacifist part of the equation takes over. As Fred Mueller pointed out, just this morning another 13 innocent civilians were murdered by a drone strike in Syria. Living in Arizona as you do, it’s easy to just let life slide along without engaging these issues. What more can we do to right these wrongs?

    • George Monsma, Jr. says:

      The deaths in Syria on Feb. 3 were not the result of a drone strike. President Biden said he had ordered a drone strike not be used because of the danger of civilian casualties. It was an an attack by U.S. forces in person, who ordered people to leave the area in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties. Then the ISIS leader (or perhaps someone in his family) set off an explosion which killed him and family members, rather than letting himself be captured. Please be careful to give accurate information. (In any case, not all of the 13 were “innocent civilians”.)

  • David Hoekema says:

    I wonder if anyone sees comments posted a few days late but two seem worth adding today:
    (1) George Monsma is correct that the recent attack in Syria was a (rare) ground attack, not a remote missile or drone strike. And (perhaps I should have made this clearer) the 1300 civilian casualties reviewed (and all judged legitimate) in military documents were from all sources, not drones alone. Use of drones is especially problematic, however, because only the operator and commanding officer know what’s been targeted and what’s been actually hit. Big things like bombers are easier to observe, and misplaced bombs are harder (but by no means impossible) to cover up. (Recall the botched attack on a critical dam in Syria that if successful — if the massive bunker-buster had worked as intended — might have drowned a good share of the population of Baghdad. That was kept secret for months.)
    (2) I wrote a comment a few days ago about the alleged inconsistency of pacifism that seems to have vanished into the ether. The gist was: pacifists disagree about many things such as whether police should carry guns (or operate military assault vehicles), whether nonlethal but violent means are permissible (tasers, for instance), and whether the ideal should be nonresistance or nonviolence. Hard questions all. But not signs of inconsistency. Pacifism is the position that war is not an acceptable means of conflict resolution.

  • Elbert van Donkersgoed says:

    I’ve come to this essay a bit late, but I need to share that I am a Calvinist but cannot be a pacifist. When I plumb my instinctive views on this subject, I find that my rationale is primarily family history – I would disgrace my family’s past if I turned pacifist.
    First, my remembered experience with violence is limited to one occasion, walking with fellow students on a Grand Rapids sidewalk (near Franklin Campus) laughing uproariously about something or other that I have no reason to remember. Unfortunately, another group of young men were also walking that sidewalk and they thought we were laughing at them. The loudest of us took a fist to the chin and we took him to the hospital to treat a broken jaw. That’s my sum-total of being close to violence – that I remember – but I was born in a violent situation.
    In 1942, my father was hauled off our farm in central Holland by the German occupiers. My mother, with five daughters under ten, was left to manage on the farm. My father spent two months in a jail and six months in concentration camps. He came back to our farm gaunt – he would not have lasted much longer in the camps. I was born late in 43.
    My father was ratted on for our farm’s involvement with Knokploeg, one of four Dutch resistance organizations – the one that actively sabotaged the German occupiers of Holland. When he returned, the work continued. We had onderduikers (persons in hiding) living in our hay mow and beet cellar. And if the Knokploeg could get to any downed Allied aircraft and pilot or gunner were alive, our farm was a way station for getting them to the coast and into a small boat over to England. After the war, my mother received a Christmas card form the Royal Air Force of the UK right till her 98th year. My father received various citations and La Croix De Guerre with bronze star.
    I have no personal memories of the violence of the war. But the simple fact of being born into violence and a time period about which my parents did not volunteer information, is enough to make it impossible to be pacifist. Self defense includes family and community.

    • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

      I trace my critical thinking about ethics to the evening in catechism class when my pastor at the time was teaching on the ninth commandment about the importance of truth telling. I remember raising my hand after he finished with his presentation and asking if it would be right in a situation such as one might find in World War II Holland if Germans were to come to the door demanding to know if Jews were being kept there in hiding. (Something my grandmother and mother had done as did members of my wife’s family.) His response was a simplistic, “No. We should always tell the truth.” I politely disagreed—and still do. There are grey areas when it comes to moral behaviour, as you point out.

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