I just happened upon an interesting news story on PBS.org that discusses in detail several proposed objections to and justifications for the use of unmanned drones during warfare.

Ethicists and religious leaders are beginning to challenge the morality of the drone program, arguing it violates international law as well as key precepts of just war theory. The Christian Century, for example, editorialized in mid-May (“Remote-control warfare,” May 18) that while the drone attacks have no doubt killed terrorists and leaders of al-Qaeda, “they raise troubling questions to those committed to the just war principle that civilians should never be targeted.”

An even more emphatic critic of the use of drones is Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has been persuasive about its legal right to launch attacks in Pakistan,” she wrote in “Flying Blind,” an article also published in America magazine. “Even with the legal right to use military force, drone attacks must also conform to the traditional principles governing the rules of warfare, including those of distinction, necessity, proportion and humanity.’’


CIA director Leon Panetta has called lethal drone technology “the only game in town” for going after al-Qaeda, and Obama administration officials have strenuously defended both the legality of the strikes in Pakistan as well as their effectiveness in killing suspected militants. They also deny the drones are responsible for an unacceptable level of civilian deaths.

Notice that the objections do not inherently reject the use of unmanned drones. Instead, they posit that America’s use of drones violates US or international law, or just war theory.

I think this raises an important question: are drones inherently any more or less ethical than manned aircraft? Is there, or should there be, an ethical distinction between launching missiles from the “the comfort of Langley, Virginia, a half a world away from Waziristan,” and sending fighter jets to carry out such a strike? Or is the method in which war is carried out — by jet or drone — less important than the pretenses under which war is being carried out in the first place?