In October of 2012, a drone strike injured a young girl named Nabeela in the North Waziristan province of Pakistan. The fear induced by this strike, however, extended far beyond an isolated incident. As Nabeela's brother Zubair reported, the drone strike presented a perpetual sense of existential dread in his life. As he testified before a congressional briefing, "I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey."1 Proponents of drone warfare offer a different interpretation of Zubair's lament. As Duke Law professor and former Air Force Colonel Charles Dunlap Jr. argues, "the public need not flagellate themselves with the misapprehension that every civilian who may be killed [or injured] was incontrovertibly an 'innocent.'"2 Dunlap urges those who witness testimonies like Zubair’s to consider the legal and moral factors of drone warfare. There is a legal precedent that allows strikes so long as they keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Taking things further, Dunlap calls into question any non-combatant immunity narrative for those in proximity. He argues that a failure to engage in planned terrorist activity "doesn't necessarily make [targets eliminated by drone strikes not guilty of direct, intentional involvement in terrorist activity] morally or even legally ‘innocent’ of supporting terrorism or other nefariousness.”3 Therefore, to Dunlap, all are subject to strikes because all are guilty.

To consider the merits of Dunlap's proposition in light of Zubair's tears appears callous, but it compels the question: is there a place for lament in war? Should we lament Zubair’s suffering? Dunlap, because he stands on legal precedence, cannot lament. Even if such suffering could be justified, does the rejection of empathy it entails serve humanity well? As a theologian in the Christian tradition, I argue it does not.]

Dunlap presents an omniscient lens that can decidedly declare guilt and innocence, but this apologetic posture, even if legally justified, only encourages a lust for domination (libido dominandi). As technological advances increase and humans become gradually removed from the field of war, a greater capacity for empathy, lament, and remorse must become central pieces of the moral life. Utilizing Augustine's reflections on the heavenly city, war, and pilgrimage, I argue that such an embrace of human finitude is essential for a world of war. However, a turn towards finitude in light of the heavenly city suggests that certain things cannot be known and thus lamented, which should qualify any declaration of guilt or innocence. From a disposition that embraces such finitude, Zubair’s tears must be a cause for lament because they condemn what must be condemned, namely suffering caused by human violence.

One cannot dismiss Dunlap offhand, but one should not accept his justification of drone strikes based on the presumed guilt or innocence of the target either. Within a Christian framework, the target's innocence is theologically secondary to the necessity of lament loss in any capacity. Such a necessity informs the Christian moral appetite in the context of war. In short, the Christian engaged in war must never love the violence of war.

Augustine decidedly presents lament as the antidote for the lustful character of war, because lament resists the human temptation to love killing and brutality. In an Augustinian framework, even when the ends of peace in the earthly city lack the heavenly city's guidance, one runs the risk of treating earthly pursuits of justice  as devoid of any ultimate or eternal end beyond the earthly city itself. In short, when battling to preserve justice in the earthly city becomes an end in itself, one is willing to commit any number of atrocities. Augustine appeals to Rome's war with Alba, which consisted of many great atrocities, as an example of war's lusts. He writes, "This 'lust for domination' (libido dominandi) roils and consumes the human race with great evils. Moreover, Rome was conquered by this lust at the very moment when she exulted that she had conquered Alba and used the word 'glory' to praise her crime."4 To Augustine, the lust for domination alters the intentions of those who engage in war, since the praise one achieves in war can lead to desiring war for its own sake. Augustine further defines the libido dominandi in another way, writing “The desire to do harm, cruelty in taking vengeance, a mind that is without peace and incapable of peace, fierceness in rebellion, the lust for domination, and anything else of the sort – these are the things that are rightly blamed in wars.”5 So it is not the mere task of war that Augustine finds dangerous, but rather the mechanism by which war fuels desire to unjustly harm one’s opponents.

War turns cruel when it is loved as an end in itself, as a finite end turned infinite. Augustine would consider the absence of lament to be a signal that the pilgrim loves war in itself through the libido dominandi. He distinguishes between just wars and the libido dominandi and thus reveals how the pilgrim understands war. Pilgrims, as Augustine argues, pursue finite goods only for the sake of the eternal.6 The example of war fits within this distinction. War is a temporal means that achieve a temporal, finite peace. However, even the orientation of temporal peace leans toward eternal ends.

The heavenly city and its loves result in a well-ordered soul. As such, the pilgrims who find themselves among the citizens of the earthly city work for the well-ordered city. Augustine belabors the point that all virtues are social.7 Therefore, if one seeks the cardinal virtue of justice, then one concomitantly desires a just social arrangement. As such, war is a punishment against wrongdoing. War, then, can be a means to restore a just, moral order, but not the City of God. War is nonetheless a means and not an end to be loved. As already stated, when loved in itself, war entails the love of killing for its own sake.

Intention is essential in Augustine's theology. In short, loving the violence of war for its own sake leads to cruelty, but loving the justice of the heavenly city leads to a benevolent severity that corrects wrongdoing.8 By loving the heavenly city, the intention is always to punish wrongdoing, which tempers not only one’s rush to participate in war, but also the tactics one chooses to utilize in combat. . Through lament, the soul is safeguarded against disorder brought about through participation in cruel, violent acts that only desire destruction. Only temperate actions that simultaneously intend to prevent evil ultimately form the soul according to the pilgrim's posture.

The heavenly city informs social existence by resisting assimilation into the instincts to capitulate to the libido dominandi of the earthly city. The heavenly city stands in dialectical tension with earthly institutions and is only present as a pilgrimage. The most telling difference between the earthly and heavenly city is that the latter will defeat and endure evil rather than risk immorality. The heavenly city cannot be seized upon and mobilized for a purpose other than this pilgrimage, precisely because it, confesses freedom that resists the desire to control and dominate. It runs counter to the ever-enticing desire for earthly domination by instead cultivating within the soul a taste of true virtue.

Furthermore, Augustine even makes room for lament over the death of the enemy. Augustine recognizes that even seemingly justified uses of violence are problematic. After all, one might accidentally use it against someone who is morally innocent because one cannot see the intentions of the judged.9 Augustine rejects a stipulation that Dunlap permits, namely access to the consciences of the condemned. Those in authority can never finally know if a person not directly implicated in terrorist activity is guilty. Dunlap allows an assumption of guilt that Augustine cannot. For both Augustine and Dunlap, the one who judges guilt or innocence must continue in their service, but with one key exception. Though the judge might make a judgment in error, be misled by witness testimony, or be unable to prove their case, the judge cannot take solace in the criminal's assumed guilt in Augustine's account as Dunlap does.10 Instead, for Augustine, as well as for us, the judge's moral authority and appetites form themselves according to the pilgrim's way. In other words, contra Dunlap, a judge must lament these necessities and mourn even the loss of those judged as guilty. Augustine continues, “How much more perceptive it would be, how much more worthy of a human being, for him to recognize the human misery laid bare by those necessities, to detest that miser’s grip on him, and, if he is devout in his wisdom, to cry out to God, Deliver me from my necessities (Ps.25:17)!”11 Here lies the moral importance of Augustine’s position: the judge must lament the activities inherent to their profession.

Lament is the ability to recognize the evil of suffering caused by other people's hands and our implication in that suffering. Lament of suffering both forms and sends humanity on a journey of exile toward a different kingdom than the one formed by sinful impulses.

Ultimately, lament is a safeguard against the libido dominandi and an expression of the pilgrimage through finitude. The pilgrim must never love the methods of the earthly city, but embrace them as finite limited. For the pilgrim journey towards their heavenly home, they must never love the earthly city's violence. In this framework, thee innocence or guilt of the one under judgment is more consequential than Dunlap allows. These necessities are miserable even if they are justified. Augustine allows for the one possibility that Dunlap's realism cannot, namely that the judgment made to punish wrongdoing might be wrong and that these judgments are always lamentable. The pilgrim must never lose sight of the importance of this lament.

In conclusion, drone warfare is indeed a scandal, but not so great a scandal as the ultimate reality of the far country toward which pilgrims travel, which awakens us to the finite condition of our earthly pursuits. The technological achievements not discussed in this study are undoubtedly monumental for our time. However, the pilgrim must be careful to guard her soul so that the present age's technological innovation does not engender moral degeneration. Thus, Dunlap's desire for a more apathetic approach to war is rendered untenable as the primary reaction to death for the combatant and non-combatant alike. Instead, the theologically primary attitude we must adopt towards those lost in drone warfare is lament. Only then does one resist the libido dominandi. Even if one adopts a position of nonviolence, as I do, one should still expect those who hold a positive view of war not to be overcome by the libido dominandi, and only through an embrace of finitude does one achieve that end through an act of pilgrimage that recognizes the sheer limit of human capabilities. The pilgrim will never bring an end to violence. However, lament is a judgment that humans are not grouped according to friends and enemies, but rather, as Rowan Williams writes, humans are all “fragile fellow-creatures held in the love of God.”12 Pilgrims, then, witness to another way, namely the way back to the far country.

  1. Quoted in Alexander Abad-Santos, “This 13-Year-Old Is Scared When the Sky is Blue Because of Our Drones,” The Atlantic. October 29, 2013.
  2. Charles Dunlap Jr. “Casualties and Polls: Some Observations,” Just Security. May 26, 2015. Accessed December 29, 2015.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Augustine, City of God, p. 84. (III.14).
  5. Augustine, Answer to Faustus, p. 351. (XXII.74).
  6. Augustine, City of God, p. 347. (XIX.1).
  7. Augustine, City of God, p. 350-356. (XIX.2-4).
  8. Augustine, Answer to Faustus, p. 352-57. (XXII.76-79).
  9. Augustine, City of God, p. 360. (XIX.6).
  10. Augustine, City of God, p. 360. (XIX.6).
  11. Augustine, City of God, p. 360. (XIX.6).
  12. Rowan Williams, “Archbishop’s address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome.” Address, Synod of Bishops, Rome, Italy. October 10, 2012.

Hank Spaulding received his PhD in Christian Ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the Associate Campus Pastor and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University as well as Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Ashland University and Ashland Theological Seminary. Hank is also author of The Just and Loving Gaze of God with Us: Paul’s Apocalyptic Political Theology which is available for purchase through book retailers.