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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.

Pakistani drone strike victims
Pakistani tribesmen hold up a placard of alleged drone strike victims during a protest in Islamabad on February 25, 2012 against the US drone attacks in the country's tribal region. The protesters demanded an immediate end to drone attacks and compensation for those who lost relatives or property. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Inside America's drone war, a moral black box

Innocent victims of UAV strikes create doubt about Obama administration's ethics.

In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama cast war as a necessary evil.

Referring to just war theory, a classical underpinning of military ethics, Obama said, “War is justified only when certain conditions were met; if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

“For most of history, this concept of ‘just war’ was rarely observed,” he continued, citing the Third Reich and other examples. “Modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.”

Then came Obama’s caveat, and a shape of things to come: “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Technology is the moral black box that lies between those “few small men” in remote geographies of militant Islam, and teams of American military personnel who target them in front of closed-circuit screens, peering into the places of their hunted lives, programming drone attacks like a surreal video game.

“Drone technology is particularly dangerous because it makes war so easy.”
~Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK

The programmers go home to supper, wives and children while the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) rain fire on villages half a world away, obliterating those deemed guilty, sometimes, and, too often, blowing up innocent people caught at the wrong end of time and history.

More from GlobalPost: New report says US drone strikes 'terrorise' Pakistani civilians

When Obama wrote his own war doctrine referencing just war theory in the post-9/11 era, he did so as a president who perhaps more than any other leader in American history has relied on the secret killing of individuals to advance his administration’s policy goals. And when Obama wrote those words, he put himself on a continuum of history and of mankind’s thinking about the idea of war that dates back to at least the 4th century.

“The wise man will wage just wars,” wrote St. Augustine (354-430 AD) in The City of God. “For if they were not just, he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.”

Nine centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas drew on Augustine and Aristotle in arguing that war must have a purpose beyond self-gain: peace should be its raison d’etre. In a time when warlords roamed parts of Europe, Aquinas insisted that only the state should wage war.

“Drones are not immoral per se, but how they are used presents serious moral and legal problems,” Professor Tobias L. Winright, a theologian at Saint Louis University and coauthor of After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice told GlobalPost. “Is it a last resort? Are we using force without intending to kill civilians?”

Winright references a December 17, 2009 strike in Yemen that killed Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri, a militant linked to Al-Qaeda. The Navy missile also killed 41 civilians, of whom 22 were children. “Are civilian deaths collateral damage?” continues Winright. “Is the policy doing things to blur the reality?”

“President Obama and his administration have a policy that any male 18 or older can de facto be regarded as a militant. That is making criterion almost a dead letter. Human rights groups see this as a serious dead letter.”

Thomas Powers, author of Intelligence Wars and other books on the CIA, is more blunt.

“Drones are an unreliable and conspicuous way of killing individuals,” he told GlobalPost. “With drones we have no way to tell who we are killing. It’s abrogating a right to ourselves that no organization should have. It’s arbitrary and driven by politics. What seems inevitable today is going to cause you trouble tomorrow. Ask yourself if the United States would accept the right of another country to decide who among Americans they would kill. There are probably people in Arizona allied with drug cartels. Would we allow Mexican forces to use drones against them? Hell, no.”

More from GlobalPost: Are the drones working in Yemen?

“Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals,” wrote Greg Miller of the Washington Post in December