Tuesday, June 15, 2021
It's Tuesday, June 15th, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Unarmed Drone Technology Raises Huge Questions When Considering Just War Theory: How Should We Think About This New Technology?
One of the most important achievements of Christian thinking is what is known as just war theory. Now, why is it necessary? It is because as you think of nations rising up against nation, as you look through human history, warfare has been a near constant. When you're looking at the global reality, the fact is that there have been far more years of war, including in the 20th century, world war, then there have been years of peace. It is peace that requires an explanation in a sinful world, not violence. That's something for Christians to think about. If you're thinking from a secular perspective and you think the human beings are basically good, then it is war or violence or wrongdoing, that requires some kind of explanation. But from the Christian worldview, when we understand fallen humanity, when we understand what it means to take the doctrine of sin seriously, we understand that it is actually peace that is the great achievement that requires some explanation rather than the condition of war.
We also come to understand that war is one of the most awful experiences human beings can endure. It leads to death and destruction, it changes history, it often sets back civilizations, it impoverishes nations. And of course the ultimate violence in war is the taking of human life. Christians have had to ask the question under what circumstances is that right? Is that legitimate? This comes down to the basic Christian understanding of the use of violence. Violence in this sense, meaning any kind of use of force that could cause any kind of injury, much less death. The Christian worldview has come down to this. There are times in a fallen, sinful world when it is the next than worst thing to bring about some act of violence, to put an end to violence. That is to say, letting the violent go ahead with their mayhem, go ahead with their violence is actually worse than using some kind of sanctioned violence to bring it to an end.
Now, one of the principles of Christian just war theory is that the use of such violence is only legitimate if indeed it is intended to end violence, it is a war to end war that is the only legitimate war. There are a lot of points, principles, and conditions to what we know as just war theory. It developed in the ancient world when Christianity gained influence in the Roman Empire, it continued throughout the medieval era where it was actually expanded and it was elaborated upon. The circumstances of changing history meant that the theory itself, the understanding of what was moral and immoral and when war was justified and how a war was to be conducted. All of this had to be worked out.
The common understanding is that it's divided into two parts. The first part is what is necessary for a law to be ethical, for it actually to be justified as in just or justified war theory.
The second part is if indeed a violent action, a war, a battle and effort is necessary, if it's justified, then how do we justify how it is done? There are certain acts in warfare that are themselves immoral.
So looking at this, the Christian consensus has been operating on a biblical worldview, that violence is never a good in itself, but sometimes to put an end to violence, the measured use of violence is necessary. That's why we have police, that's why we have soldiers, that's why we have an army, and a navy and a air force. And that any kind of legitimate warfare must be defensive rather than offensive. It must be to defend one's territory and people rather than to take other territory and other people. It must be to stop aggression rather than to extend it. It must be justified in that it's declared by a lawful authority. In the United States, only Congress can declare war, although a president can set the military into action pending the authorization of Congress.
There's more to it than that. But once a war is started, then it must be combatants who are targeted, never civilians. There must be an effort to try to limit the effects of any kind of action of war so that it does not destroy civilization, but rather seeks to save it, to salvage it and to defend it. There must not be the use of any kind of warfare that would set loose forces of evil that cannot be restrained.
Now you also look at the fact that over time technologies have arisen that have required a new understanding of just war theory. One of the most obvious was the development of say air forces. When you had just land-based or sea-based military powers, then you just needed principles that extended to those. But once you add aerial combat, well things begin to change. You have the morality of whether or not it is right to bomb cities, as well as to say bomb military infrastructure. All that becomes very, very crucial. I'm bringing that to the fore in order to say that right now, it is very interesting that if you're paying attention to our national conversation, another technological change has greatly affected the understanding of just war theory, or at least has raised crucial questions that are going to have to be rethought. In this case, the new technology is the unmanned drone.
Just in recent days, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article headline, "Low-Cost, Armed Drones Reshape War and Geopolitics." Now, as you're thinking about warfare, you tend to think of the big states that have the mighty air forces, the mighty armies, the super powers as they are known. There's a sense in which the United States is the world's last global superpower, massive navy that is represented in all the oceans of the world, dominance in the sky, dominance on land, at least that is the American military theory. There's not another country that at least, at present, could represent any such credible threat, any such credible power. During the time of the Soviet union, it was a bipolar world, the United States and its allies, the Soviet Union and its allies. Either one basically get show up anywhere in force on planet Earth. China's a rising military power, but China is a regional military power at this stage. It wants to expand its influence, but it would take it a long time to become a global power. For instance, with a seven-ocean navy.
You also have smaller nations that have developed outsize military importance, and North Korea would be an example of that. A totalitarian state that is basically run by its military leader. But one of the interesting things to think about here is that at least about the history of human warfare, humans have been directly involved. What does it mean when there is no human being on the ground, or on the sea or in the air at the site of combat? That's what changes with the development of the aerial drone? Now this will take many different forms, but the point being made by The Wall Street Journal is that the development of these drones has now destabilized the entire defense picture of the major powers of the world and the minor powers as well because here's another thing that the Christian worldview helps us to understand.
If you develop a new technology, you're going to have a very difficult time limiting that technology. If you have a tank, that was a major development, just as the longbow was a major development in warfare. If you show up on the battlefield with a longbow, the first time you win, if you're going over against swordsman, but the next time you have a battle, your enemy is likely to show up with a longbow as well. You show up with tanks, your enemy will show up with tanks, you show up with airplanes, your enemy will show up with airplanes. You show up with drones, it turns out your enemy shows up with drones, but as you're thinking about a massive air force, a massive navy, a massive army that takes massive money, but it turns out that the drone can be relatively, quite inexpensive and a little power with a drone can go up against a big power that also has a drone.
That's what Russia has found out. And it has found out as it has tried to engage in limited warfare with troops on the ground, jets in the air, tanks rolling along. It turns out that the drones were a major problem for the Russian military in recent engagements. The Wall Street Journal team of reporters tells us, "A soldier idles by a Russian made T72 tank. A moment later, a missile fired from a drone slams into the vehicle, exploding in an orange flash, blowing the man off his feet and leaving the tank a smoldering wreck." The reporters say, "The scene is one of dozens of aerial videos that were posted online in Azerbaijan last year, showing off a new weapon. Over six weeks, it helped the nation regain territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that had been held by Russian backed Armenian forces for more than two decades. The video show attacks on tanks, trucks, command posts, mortar positions, and radar installments."
The Journal then tells us, "Smaller militaries around the world are deploying inexpensive, missile equipped drones against armored enemies, a new battlefield tactic that proved successful last year in regional conflicts, shifting the strategic balance around Turkey and Russia. Drones built in Turkey with affordable digital technology, wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air defense systems of Russian proteges and battles waged in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan." Here's the point. "These drones point to a future warfare being shaped as much by cheap, but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology."
Now, as the story unfolds that The Wall Street Journal is telling us, the United States basically showed up with the drones first and we showed it with drones in a big way. Drones have become a major part of what three different administrations have sought to advance in our effort against global terrorism. The drones became a major part of the American arsenal and strategy under Democratic president, Barack Obama. They continued under Republican president, Donald J. Trump. They continue now under President Joe Biden. The fact is that the American military is able to command drones all over much of the world in places you and I certainly do not even know by classification. They are there active. The American government, the American military is extending its influence and its military might in a way that is indeed a form of warfare by using these drones that often come with some of the most deadly technology imaginable, including some we know, that now drop weapons that basically expand like a ninja set of blades, destroying everything within reach.
They now extend to the use of automatic weapons that can shoot bullets and other cartridges. And of course the missiles, the drones themselves, can in effect be missiles. And that is what is being used in so much of the developing world where it's not so much that the drones deliver weapons as the fact that the drone is the weapon. The Russians found that out the hard way. Just in terms of worldview analysis. We remember that ideas don't stay contained. Technology doesn't stay contained. It didn't with the longbow. It didn't with the development of iron. It didn't with the development of the tank. It didn't with the air force. It didn't with the navy. It won't with drones. It hasn't. And drones are now showing up all over the world in ways that are outside even the control of any kind of national actor. That is they're out of control of national militaries, because it's not just nations that can now obtain these drones.
Now that they're being developed and sold throughout different parts of the world, when you have countries such as Turkey that are now manufacturers as is China, the reality is that you don't even have to be a state actor to get your hands on one of these drones. And then you can conduct a great deal of mayhem with them. Just war theory is related only to states. The Christian understanding of just war theory is thus applied only to national governments that have the right to declare a justified, active warfare. And yet you're looking at the fact that technology just doesn't stay that limited. Bad ideas don't stay limited. Toxic ideologies don't stay limited in territory. They are simply transported like a virus, human being to human being and deadly technologies such as drones, it won't stay limited either. The United States showed up first, given our technological power, but you now have other nations that have drones and they can use their drones against the United States.
What happened against Russia? That's the point of the Wall Street Journal. That's the point of the American military. What happened against Russia de-stabilizing and what's called asymmetrical warfare. Symmetrical means you have basically something like historically, look at Europe, France and Germany going up against one another, big nations, prosperous nations in central Europe; that's symmetrical. The United States versus the Soviet union, symmetrical. A major empire like the Soviet union over against the Mujahideen and Afghanistan, asymmetrical. But you remember who won?
The Scariest Headline in Recent Days? A Military Drone in Libya Controlled by Artificial Intelligence May Have Carried Out an Attack on Its Own
So from a Christian worldview analysis, there's a lot to think about here. And that becomes even more acute with a second article about drones, a second headline that also leapt onto the American attention in recent days. This one wasn't in the Wall Street Journal. It was in the New York Times. Maria Cramer, the reporter. Here's the headline. "Artificial Intelligence Drone May Have Acted On Its Own In Attack In Libya," The UN Says. Yeah, you talk about a very scary headline. How about this one? A drone that was being controlled by artificial intelligence may have acted, like in killed on its own, in a warfare situation that took place in Libya. Cramer reports, "A military drone that attacks soldiers during a battle in Libya's civil war last year may have done so without human control, according to a recent report commissioned by the United nations." Let's just stop right there.
This seems like something from a science fiction movie, indeed, a horror movie of times past, but this isn't a horror movie, this isn't science fiction. This is the New York Times just in the last few days. The Times tells us that the fighters in Libya "Were hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicle or the lethal autonomous weapons systems." Just listen to that language, it's military speak, but it's scary enough just listening to the words. An unmanned combat aerial vehicle, lethal autonomous weapons systems.
Now that raises a whole new set of questions. What does autonomous mean? How does artificial intelligence engage in this? Who's responsible for that drone once it enters into this kind of combat? How does the drone decide on to its targets and then carry out its lethal mission? If you're wondering about something scary that might keep you up late at night, if you're on a battlefield, I would suggest this might be it. Given the nature of classified information and military secrecy, we're not even sure how much we actually know of this situation. We just know as much as it's been reported. The Times tells us, "Experts were divided about the importance of the findings in this United Nations report on Libya with some saying it underscored how murky "autonomy" can be." Are we supposed to be assured by that? Now we're told that the idea of autonomy is an autonomous weapon system is now a bit murky.
What that means is we aren't actually sure. Maybe even those in charge aren't actually sure of what these weapons will do once they leave our country and enter into their own autonomous control, operating under artificial intelligence. There's also a frightening new vocabulary in this article. It's evidently now routine in military circles, it refers to loitering weapons, loitering weapons. Do not loiter signs mean you don't just stand there on the sidewalk. What is a loitering weapon? It is a weapon system that is put over the field of potential battle just to wait there, just to stay there until such time that it might be needed. It is a loitering weapon. You do not know where they may be loitering. Furthermore, you add autonomous to it and you have the fact that at least some military observers are saying loitering weapons, that's not new, autonomous weapons, they're not new, but autonomous loitering weapons. You put all that together. That's new, and it's dangerous.
James Dawes, a professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who's written about these weapons said that the report indicates that, "The race to regulate these weapons is being lost," which he described as potentially catastrophic. He went on to say, "The heavy investment militaries around the globe are making an autonomous weapon systems made this inevitable." Another expert said, and I'm not sure if this is supposed to be very reassuring or not. "That so far, the artificial intelligence capabilities of drones remain far below those of humans. But just notice this artificial intelligence is gaining capability all the time." This isn't very reassuring at all. This reminds us again, that not only do ideas, not stay localized, ideologies don't stay localized, inventions don't say localized. When you're talking about a drug, you're talking about it being autonomous, you're talking about it loitering, virtually anywhere in the world. Well that won't stay a problem in just one spot of the world, it is now a global problem.
Mary Wareham, an arms advocacy director at the Human Rights Watch said this, "Loitering munitions show how human control and judgment in life and death decisions is eroding potentially to an unacceptable." Well, that's a fascinating statement. What would it be the acceptable point to which we'd accept an erosion of human control and judgment? What you have here is a very clear indication of what happens when our technology runs way ahead of our morality and what might happen when our own technology runs way ahead of us.
Wounded by the Battle: How Drone Operators Face the Inescapable Horror of War
But then there is another aspect of this that is even more intensely theological and moral. And I have confronted this in my own pastoral ministry. What about the human beings who are controlling the drones?
The Wall Street Journal also ran a completely different piece in the weekend edition back in June, the fifth and six, is by Wayne Phelps, the headline, "The Psychic Toll Of Killing With Drones." Here's the issue. There are many people who see these drones in movies or films, and they believe that what they are looking at is just something which represents warfare translated into a video game. But it's not a video game. In this case, it is lethal, it is deadly, it's intentionally deadly, it is intended as it's used by the American military to take out those who are very well documented, bad actors, terrorists, and those who are plotting mayhem. They have to be guilty of actually taking a deadly action on their own and being complicit in some kind of terrorist action before they are taken out by this kind of drone action. But here's the point of the article.
It is very personal. It is intensely personal. It's personal in ways you might not anticipate it's personal in that given the video technology, those who are in control of these drones in the American military are looking at the very individual that is being targeted by the drone. They are watching the attack as it takes place in real time. It is almost as if they are right there. Not only within arms-length, but face to face, but they're not. Beyond that, as this article makes clear, many of those that are justifiably targeted for these attacks are watched by those who are on the human side of the equation.
As one of them said, "You're watching these guys and they're totally normal. You see them dropping their kids off at school. You see them having tea or coffee at a local market. You see them doing normal things. It's almost like People Magazine or something. You always have these, the stars are just like us type of feelings. You see terrorists doing stuff that anyone else would do. It's what they're doing in the shadows that we're trying to find. When you find that, then you know you've got him."
Here's where there's something basic here for Christians to understand. When it comes to human dignity, when it comes to the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God, you can never take the God given humanity of anyone out of the equation. The Christian worldview doesn't say that sometimes the use of violence, whether by police or military is justifiable because those people aren't human anymore. No, it doesn't say that. The Christian worldview consistently says that every single being is made in God's image. It does say that in order to protect others made in God's image, sometimes whether it is a use of force by the police or by the military, sometimes whether it's just a single instance or it is a massive global war sometimes to stop greater violence, you have to use lesser violence.
But this story in The Wall Street Journal about the trauma that comes to those who are fighting this warfare on our side, who are in control of these weapons in the name of the United States of America, they are suffering a psychic toll because they are face to face with a reality that most Americans never know about except in the movies. But they're not living a movie. They're living real life. And this reminds us that a part of the horror of war, whether it was sword to sword, bow to bow, tank to tank, ship to ship. The reality is that warfare is always exacting a toll on those who fight it.
Augustan, the greatest theologian of the early church spoke of this as the soldier who was wounded by the battle, whether he was wounded by the sword or wounded by the bullet, he was indeed wounded by the battle. And a part of the wound that now comes in the age of drone warfare is to those who, even when righteously, maybe especially when righteously using and employing this technology come face to face with the fact that they're talking about someone made in the image of God, they're talking about a fellow human being, they're targeting a fellow human being out of necessity.
Anyone who had minimized the moral gravity of these issues simply isn't addressing them honestly, and certainly is not addressing them in a way that is consistent with the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview reminds us that at every point we must approach these issues with sobriety, with a heavy heart, with the understanding that we can only justify any kind of violence against human life for the cause of saving human life. We come to understand that in a fallen world, no warfare takes place without sin. Our purpose must be to limit that sin, but also as Christians to acknowledge it. To live in a sinful world is to be required as Christians to think through the consequences of that sin in dealing with the reality, including the violent reality of a fallen world.
We are now confronting the fact that changes in technology raise new issues that have now leaped into the American public conversation. We as Christians cannot evade this conversation and just thinking through these issues will help us to think more maturely as Christians. We also face the fact that we're dealing with some questions that can never be fully answered and problems that can never be fully solved until Jesus comes, which is why we also have to remember that the Bible taught us to pray, "Even so, Lord, come quickly."
I want to ask you to pray for something today. I want you to pray for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists, representing some 40,000 churches, will be meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Lord willing, in Nashville right now, getting ready for a meeting that will include all kinds of decisions and dealing with some very difficult issues. That's another part of living in a fallen world. We live in a time in which we're going to have to deal with some difficult issues. I believe in Southern Baptist, I believe in the common conviction and the good hearts of the Christians who populate our churches and make up this convention. I believe that the convention will remain committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I hope that we will leave Nashville, having done the right thing and having done it in the right way with the right spirit. I'm going to ask that you pray for Southern Baptist in that light.
Whatever happens in Nashville, there will be plenty for us to talk about, and there are other denominations meeting this summer as well. Pray right now for all of those churches and all those denominations that will have to be conducting their business for one thing after a year of not being able to meet together under the circumstances of COVID.
There is a lot for Christians to confront in this age, let's pray together and work together and strive together that we address them rightly, justly, righteously in a way that honors God. I know you'll join me in that prayer. And when we know what to talk about, we'll get to that too.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
Today, I too am in Nashville, Tennessee, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.