Lecture: Drone strikes violate idea of just war

Tran stresses peace as main focus of church

By Daniel C. Houston
Staff Writer

A Baylor assistant professor criticized President Barack Obama’s use of targeted drone strikes in the Middle East at a public lecture Tuesday, prompting praise from the event’s sponsors but vocal disagreement from several audience members, including a former soldier.

Dr. Jonathan Tran, assistant professor of theological ethics, said many Americans have adopted a philosophy that seeks peace through military dominance. Using war as a means for achieving peace, he said, undermines true peace efforts and distracts the Christian church from its message.

“We are, after all, a violent people,” Tran said. “It is hard to hear that because ultimately we believe we love peace. But our violence is most clearly expressed in the kind of peace we love: a peace secured by violence.”

Tran went on to argue the drone strikes violate principles of “just war” theory because it requires “neither courage nor heroism” for an officer to instruct an unmanned drone to kill military targets without risking his own safety. Just war theory is based on the assumption that war actions must meet certain ethical criteria in order to be justifiable, although philosophers have not agreed upon universal criteria.

A former soldier with the U.S. Army and Air Force and second-year seminary student George Sipp disagreed with Tran. Sipp, the pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church in Belton, served in the military from 1999 to 2010. He spoke during a question-and-answer period and said using drones helped keep him and other officers from harm while taking out key military targets in Afghanistan.

“As a soldier who survived, I want to thank the government for having some of these things so I could come back home,” Sipp said. “It’s different when you’re there; it’s just different when you’re there. I agree with your [peace] theory, but when you’re there, you’re one of the guys who’s putting his life on the line for his brothers and sisters, and that’s something to think about.”

Tran agreed the church should carefully consider the suffering of American soldiers regardless of the tactics used by the military, but did not back off his condemnation of the drone strikes.

Tran also said the drone attacks result in the unnecessary killings of innocents because drone missiles are unable to discriminate between legitimate military targets and nearby civilians.

Although Sipp acknowledged civilian casualties are unfortunate, he said they are an unintentional but necessary consequence of trying to achieve peace.

“We [military officers] don’t think like that,” Sipp said in an interview after the event. “We’re not into saying, ‘Well, you know, some innocents can get killed.’ That’s not something we want to consider or think about, but unfortunately it does happen.”

While Tran focused on the president’s use of drone strikes, he also addressed broader attitudes toward war and called out the Christian church for focusing on violent retaliation rather than Christ-like love following Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He said the church should have reached out to the people of Afghanistan with assistance, offering essential supplies, rather than becoming distracted by supporting the U.S. military response.

The lecture was sponsored by the T.B. Maston Foundation and the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. It is the first in a series exploring social issues within a framework of Christian ethics.

The chair of the Maston Foundation’s board of trustees, Pat Ayres, attended the event and said Tran’s remarks were very appropriate given the approach of her organization’s founder, Christian ethicist Dr. Thomas Buford Maston.

“I thought that the lecture this morning was very provocative,” Ayres said. “I think it was very much in the tradition of Dr. Maston, who asked the hard questions to which there really are sometimes no easy answers, but that our role is to try and to look at the life of Jesus and develop answers that are consistent with his teachings.”

Other lectures in the series could focus on the family, poverty, equality and other subjects of Christian ethical thought, Ayres said.