This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of our magazine.
For some years, I thought I was, or hoped I was, a Christian pacifist, for I wished to honor Christ’s peace-enabling instruction to love our enemies, returning good for evil, and His unquestioning generosity to the poor. But finally, in a fit of realism, I was compelled to recognize how deeply in disfavor among Christians were the actual teachings of the Gospels as well as the undiscriminating social behavior of Jesus of Nazareth, who dealt out his kindnesses to God knows whom.
I was having enough trouble at the time with sheep-killing dogs, without inviting the animosity of fiscally costive and violent Christians. I therefore became merely a moral pacifist, for even the immoral normally are not offended by morals. I declared myself opposed, not to killing per se, but to mass killing, killing in cold blood, and killing for profit—in short, to industrial warfare.
In my heart, in fact, I could find no deep repugnance against killing people who deserve to be killed. And I understood perfectly the impulse and the satisfaction of killing some objectionable person in the heat of anger. I did object to wiping out the entire population of a city in order to kill a mere few who were despicable or dangerous, and also to indiscriminate attacks against large numbers of offenders at the risk of killing even a few who were innocent. That such epical destructions were imposed coldly or coolly as technological feats, from a distance, as “part of the job,” and greatly to the enrichment of war industrialists, seemed to me to compound their evil.
But then I was trumped by military technology. Just as I was settling fairly comfortably into my moral pacifism, along came precision weapons, sometimes known as smart weapons. Smart bombs gave me not too much trouble. A smart bomb, after all, despite its name is still a bomb. I found that I, at least, was too moral a man to wish to observe closely or tolerate pacifically the work of a smart bomb.
It was the advent of the drone that shook me, for it seemed actually to present the possibility of the selective killing of individual offenders, which offered the further attractions of being an act of passion and far cheaper than killing hundreds or thousands in order to kill one. I am very sure, contrary to the doctrine of progress, that the smartest, most precise weapons so far invented are swords and daggers, for each of them had its employer attached to its handle, which tended to eliminate the possibility of mistaken identity or collateral damage. But I thought the drone might be a pretty tolerable substitute.
Like most would-be pacifists, I suppose, I am an imaginative person. Until better informed, I imagined that when personalized drones had come online, our President’s office had been fitted with a drone-activating button in easy reach. And when the case against an evil-doer had been made beyond reasonable doubt by his military advisers, our President would cry out in hot-hearted passion: “Thus as ever, O enemy of peace!” He would punch the button, and down would topple his singular foe at a very appreciable savings to the Pentagon.
But, alas, the drone, in this case as in every other, would not be deployed directly by the President or by any of his underchiefs. It would be deployed in a foreign country, by a small technician at home in the United States, while he and our President would be having lunch, though not, of course, together. Also, the drones were not as precise as I had hoped, for they sometimes miss the designated enemy and hit an innocent bystander—the sort of operator’s error that we must classify as normal. The enemies of peace resent these errors just as much as we peace-lovers would. And so the drones have very likely made more enemies than they have killed.
So that ended my time as a moral pacifist supporter of precision warfare.
Meanwhile, as is the fashion in the industrial age, the technology of war has been busily seeking peacetime, or at least civilian, commodification. Even as our military drones are dealing death to despisers of peace and freedom, they are being marketed at home as toys, as mechanical substitutes for human workers at a very appreciable saving to corporations of the service economy, and, like all previous miracles of modern technology, as solutions to many previously unsolvable problems.
The drone, according to its evangelists, is on its way to becoming a transformative technology, like the automobile. But unlike the automobile, which established itself somewhat slowly because of its dependence on improved roads, the drone depends only on the air, which is already available, and apparently usable or abusable at no cost. And so the drones are already upon us in force, solving the problems of real estate agents, farmers, electric utilities, and hobbyists, as well as causing some official concern about safety and privacy. The proper officials and agencies, we are informed, are going to make rules to assure that drones will be used as lawfully and safely as automobiles.
Well. The people who ought to be worried by all this will be the professional worriers. This will be no job for amateurs. Even so, the drone is entering the domestic economy, the homeland neighborhoods of peace and good will, from its ongoing history of spying and killing. Do the concerned officials—do the manufacturers and marketers—think that only the government is interested in spying and killing? As a reasonably observant moral pacifist, I have noticed that legitimate public violence breeds, and is bred from, illegitimate private violence. If official agencies of the government violate the privacy of citizens, as we know they do, why should not unofficial persons and businesses offend in the same way? If the government uses the latest devices of precision killing to kill its enemies, why may that not be taken as proof of the efficacy of those devices for the same use by private persons? As a person of imagination, I can easily imagine the handiness of a drone to the needs of a private entrepreneur in contractual murder. Would not killing by remote control be the ideal solution to some of his or her larger problems?
On behalf of private landowners like myself, moreover, I have a number of questions. Though I have never shot at an airplane passing across my land, or ever publicly objected to their passing across, it has seemed reasonable to me to suppose that my proprietary rights begin at a point at the center of the Earth, rise up from there to my surface boundaries, and from there extend outward, maintaining their vertical trajectories, infinitely into the sky—and, therefore, that I might very properly collect a toll for any use of the aerial right-of-way between my line fences. It will no doubt be wisest to let that go for the time being. But the coming of the drones does raise immediately the question as to how high, in present law and usage, my rights of property and privacy may extend above the surface of my land. My trees, for example, I believe to be standing free in my own air and light. Do I then not have the right, below at least the tops of my tallest trees, or the tallest trees of their species, to live and breathe freely in my own unharming peace? And do I then not have the right to shoot down with any weapon legally available to me a drone invading that space? How else might I effectively resist such an invasion? Locking gates, obviously, will be of no avail.
What, then, are we to say in behalf of mere citizens, those who have no perceived need for spying or killing, who do not covet technological toys, who would like the service economy actually to serve, even if slowly, and who wish only to live in peace and quiet with their neighbors? Might they not reasonably feel that their properties, their privacy, their peace, even their lives, may be threatened by this “emerging industry”?
I do. I felt sufficiently threatened to revise my pacifism yet again. I became a luddite vigilante moral pacifist. In that capacity, I wrote the following letter to the National Rifle Association:
Port Royal, Kentucky 40058 December 26, 2014. National Rifle Association 11250 Waples Mill Rd. Fairfax, VA 22030 Dear Ladies and Gentlemen: I am a small landowner concerned about the rights of property and of personal privacy. As such, I look upon the encroachment of “drones” into the domestic life of our country as a significant danger. The small and affordable drones now being promoted and sold to the general public do not merely threaten the rights of property and privacy; they could also be the means of the destruction of property and of life. I therefore ask if you would be so kind as to tell me the kind of shotgun, shells, and shot that I would need to disable one of these invasive devices. Anything you can do to help me—if only the necessary specifications on a postcard—I would greatly appreciate. Sincerely, Wendell Berry WB/tb
To my true and sincere disappointment, the NRA has given me no answer. If it had recommended an appropriate weapon, I would as promptly as possible have bought one. As a retired squirrel hunter I possess only a .22 caliber rifle which, given its disuse and my blurring eyesight, would virtually guarantee the safety even of a squirrel.
Perhaps the NRA entertained some paranoid fear of entrapment. (By me?) Or perhaps they failed to see my vision. What I foresaw was the advent of a new bloodless sport, which would require the purchase of a drone gun by almost every pacifist, as well as by such vegetarians and animal-rightists as might object to spying, killing, and the overcrowding of the atmosphere by countless fuming, noisy small aircraft. This could amount virtually to a new birth for the manufacturers of sporting firearms. I have had many pleasant thoughts relating to this possibility, but I will mention only one, which I believe to be both exemplary and suggestive: Since the drones would not be protected game birds, shooting them “over a baited field” would be perfectly legal. In the future now so ardently foreseen, it would be possible to have one of your friends order you a book from Amazon and then to shoot the delivery drone. Members of an urban neighborhood, worrying about the increase of pollution, the noise, the danger to pedestrians and to children at play, might individually order many books, bringing forth a volley of drones that could be met by a volley of gunfire from the concerned citizens, who might even salvage the books.
But now another, and a most disturbing, thought has occurred to me. Perhaps the NRA did not answer because officials there were embarrassed to tell me they have no answer. Perhaps, even probably, they would have had to tell me that the only anti-drone weapon would be another drone. I would then have no recourse except to purchase and deploy in my own defense an anti-drone drone, which would be to establish within my own domestic life and economy the one-upping logic of war itself. To this there can be no foreseeable end, except the exhaustion finally of raw materials and fuels.
This side of exhaustion, the logic of war is good for business. The business plan of industrial war—the production of products to be destroyed—is logically and economically perfect, sure to keep us thriving while the world lasts. So long as we have a supply of expendable metals and fuels, as well as expandable humans and other creatures, the economy will grow and the stock market will flourish.
But it was the need to oppose that very business plan, and to stand as far as possible aside from it, that turned me toward Christian pacifism to begin with. I see now that my arguing toward a pacifism more practical than Christian has been in vain. (I assume it would be about the same for pacifists of other faiths.) I see now that there is nothing in technology or law that can prevent us poor humans from reducing ourselves by the ever-renewing forms of violence against one another—and always for the sake of some high cause, such as the nation, the economy, God, freedom, or peace. That is the trap in which our animal feet, like our self-glorifying minds, are craftily caught. And so, the obvious risks notwithstanding, I now return to where I began. Our only peace, finally our only safety, is in the trying and dangerous countercraft, the neighborly love that endureth all things. Can we, can I, imagine it in this age of metals loosely flying?
Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist, and farmer.