Can Weaponry Be Humane?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a new piece of weaponry that the United States military has developed.
The sophistication of the new missile—the R9X—is breathtaking. In short, it is a non-explosive missile. While I do not want to be crass in the description since weaponry of this nature is designed to kill enemy combatants and the taking of human life is always lamentable (even if justified), the R9X is more or less a highly accurate, air-born garbage disposal. I’d encourage anyone interested in a deep-dive on the capabilities of this weaponry to read the full article. The R9X is said to be highly accurate and limits the likelihood and scope of collateral damage, whether civilian casualty or additional damage to civilian infrastructure. In essence, the US military has developed a highly lethal weapon that effectively targets and kills combatants while reducing the probability of unintended consequences.
The development of this weaponry raises a question relevant to Christian ethics: Can weaponry be humane? More specifically, can the development of technology used for the purpose of killing enemy combatants ever be humane? This may sound like a weird question to ask because we often equate “humane” with tranquility and non-violence. The question I am asking is whether the types of weaponry we develop can be pursued under the rubric of what is more or less humane?
I want to answer in the affirmative. As a Christian who believes that God has ordered governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) to pursue warfare when done under the right conditions (such as Just War Tradition), it is a welcome development to create lawfully developed warfare that accomplishes its goal with effectiveness and efficiency while reducing collateral damage.
Governments have an ethical obligation to create weaponry that accomplishes the goal of warfare while honoring a commitment to preserving life. War is fought so that innocent life is protected and just order restored, and in the conduct of warfare, innocent life must be preserved as a reflection of what just order means and entails.
Shouldn’t we hope that every country would be interested in developing weaponry under the rubric of responsibility? The development of such weaponry as the R9X means that the Department of Defense is taking intentional effort to reduce wanton death and destruction. Weapons development ought to have as one of its constitutive justifications the just termination of enemy combatants and the minimizing and elimination of unintended death. This means, I’d argue, that weaponry such as the R9X is more humane than weaponry that yields a greater likelihood of collateral death and collateral damage.
To be clear, to state that weaponry—in its effective, lawful, just use—can be humane does not translate into glorifying such weaponry in bloodlust. As I said above, war is always lamentable—even if justified. The loss of human life, even human life guilty of atrocious evil and injustice, is lamentable. Every human is made in God’s image. Regardless of how a person attempts to jettison this truth, every human being—even political enemies—remains made in God’s image. This may sound odd, but such a truth means that image bearers who are guilty of evil or injustice are owed a death under the canopy of a responsible ethic using a responsible means.
Andrew T. Walker lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as the Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics with The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Photo Credit: A US airstrike using a Hellfire RX9 to kill al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in Syria in 2017. Above is the result of the surgical strike. Source: New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.