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Drones for Jesus

Liberty University  in Lynchburg, Va., was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Its publications carry the slogan “Training Champions for Christ since 1971.” Some of those champions are now being trained to pilot armed drones, and others to pilot more traditional aircraft, in U.S. wars. For Christ.

Liberty bills itself as “one of America’s top military-friendly schools.” It trains chaplains for the various branches of the military. And it trains pilots in its School of Aeronautics (SOA)—pilots who go up in planes and drone pilots who sit behind desks wearing pilot suits. The SOA, with more than 600 students, is not seen on campus, as it has recently moved to a building adjacent to Lynchburg Regional Airport.

Liberty’s campus looks new and attractive, large enough for some 12,000 students, swarming with blue campus buses, and heavy on sports facilities for the Liberty Flames. A campus bookstore prominently displays Resilient Warriors, a book by Associate Vice President for Military Outreach Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert F. Dees. There’s new construction everywhere you look: a $50 million library, a baseball stadium, new dorms, a tiny year-round artificial ski slope on the top of a hill. In fact, Liberty is sitting on more than $1 billion in net assets.

The major source of Liberty’s money is online education. There are some 60,000 Liberty students you don’t see on campus, because they study via the internet. They also make Liberty the largest university in Virginia, the fourth largest online university anywhere, and the largest Christian university in the world.

More than 23,000 online students are in the military—twice as many as students who live on campus. Liberty offers extra financial support to veterans and those on active duty, allowing them to be credited for knowledge learned in the military and to study online from a war zone.

Liberty has been turning out “Christ-centered aviators” for a decade. In fall 2011, Liberty added a concentration in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, aka drones), making it one of the first handful of schools to do this. Now at least 14 universities and colleges in the U.S. have permits from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, and many institutions, including community colleges, offer drone training.

If one chooses to concentrate studies on piloting drones, the load will include a half dozen courses on “intelligence.” Liberty students can also pick up a minor in strategic intelligence and take courses in terrorism and counterterrorism. (Liberty’s school of government brags that Newt Gingrich helped develop its course on “American exceptionalism.”)

Currently, the vast percentage of drone pilots are training for war, but that is widely expected to change in the next few years. Congress has instructed the FAA to integrate drones into U.S. domestic airspace by September 2015.

Liberty’s School of Aeronautics has six faculty members, five of whom have spent 15 to 30 years in the military—four in the Air Force, one in the Navy. Dave Young, dean of the SOA, spent 29 years in the Air Force and retired as a brigadier general. Last summer, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Young to serve on the Virginia Aviation Board.

“[Drones] are going to be a viable part of the aviation industry,” Young said in a Liberty Journal article last summer. “It offers a grand opportunity for employment during a time when college graduates are entering a highly competitive job market.” He also acknowledged that the technology could be misused. “Our mission is to produce graduates who are not only skilled, but who are going to go out in the world as strong Christians,” Young said.

John Marselus, SOA associate dean, concurred. “We want to have graduates serving the Lord in this area of aviation,” he said.

I exchanged emails with Young about Liberty’s drone program. He described it as a four-year degree program in Unmanned Aerial Systems and said that it includes “flying UAS vehicles in an authorized and controlled environment.” But, he added, “the focus on the program is not only on actual drone operations, but the command and control aspect, management of resources, and the various missions that UAS are capable of supporting.”

The Virginia legislature recently became the first in the nation to impose a moratorium on drone use—lasting two years. That might have been a concern for Liberty. But before he would sign the bill, Gov. McDonnell made some exceptions to the drone ban, including emphasizing quite strongly that educational drone programs, including Liberty’s, would not be affected.

“We very much appreciate the governor’s continuing support of the development of the Unmanned Aerial Systems presence in the Commonwealth,” Young wrote to me. “Particularly as it is a rather contentious issue due to the lack of understanding concerning the missions UAS can perform that aid the public at a much reduced cost.”

I asked Young about drones’ most common use today, namely war fighting. “Is that kind of drone use Christian?” I asked.

“I can only offer my perspective as a Christian,” he replied. “UAS are like any other aerial vehicle that can be used for a variety of missions including law enforcement, aerial surveillance, search and rescue, and crop spraying as well as for military reasons. As a former military combat aviator, I believe that UAS can be employed just like a manned aircraft and that there should not be a distinction between the two.”

A brochure promoting the Liberty School of Aeronautics features a photo of  Dan McCready, First Lieutenant USAF, who is quoted, “Since I was very young, I’ve dreamed about becoming a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Liberty’s aviation program gave me the opportunity to make my dream a reality, helping me to realize that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Tim Carentz obtained his undergraduate degree from Liberty, works for the Air Force now, and is pursuing a master’s in divinity from Liberty. Carentz told me he could not speak for the Air Force, but as a Liberty student and a pastor he believes “it’s biblical to have a national pride.”

“I believe authorities are put in place with the approval of God,” Carentz assured me. “If he didn’t want them there, he could easily remove them.”

He also discussed how good members of the military can be and how there are opportunities for evangelism.

“If there were no Christians in the military, how would they instill love and discipline?” he said. “There are people pulled right from the ghetto who have nothing and who come into the military. And maybe their first supervisor is a Christian, and he takes them to the foot of the cross and leads them to Christianity, and they share that with their family, and you save generations.”

At Liberty, the military is considered a tool for Christian missionaries. But what, I asked, about killing people with drones?

“I can understand why some support [them], and I can understand why others don’t support [them]. Our job is to pray,” said Carentz, “and to understand that things will continue to get worse until Christ returns.”

Richard Emery obtained a bachelor’s in finance from Liberty and went to Afghanistan with the Air Force. But Emery left the military in 2010. He told me he was troubled by what he saw as a pursuit of vengeance rather than justice.

“I’ve thought about this a lot, how we’re supposed to be forgiving and yet fight wars against enemies,” he said. “We blame Osama bin Laden for what happened on Sept. 11; one time I was in Japan, and they had a picture of him in a urinal. You were supposed to pee on his face. I thought, ‘I don’t feel right about this.’ I’m not going after some kind of vendetta. I just want to bring justice. You’re supposed to be forgiving, but you’re supposed to do your job. I’m not going over there holding a grudge against Osama bin Laden. All the people we’re killing, you know, I’d like to see them get saved.”

“I have no problem taking another person’s life,” said Emery, “if it would promote peace and liberty and the interest of the country we’re in. I have no problem giving my life for it. I’d end up going to heaven, so it doesn’t really bother me. But it becomes a problem when I start to doubt what we’re there for.”

Emery proposed the nuclear bombing of Japan as a model for how Afghanistan should be handled. “It was painful, but we dropped a couple of atomic weapons and they quit fighting, and now Japan is one of our closest allies.”

Emery expressed general disagreement with President Obama on “moral issues” until I asked about drones, and then he praised him.

“They’re cheaper. They’re effective. They’re tiny,” he said. “The difference between an F-15 and a drone is just the cost. If a baby is killed by a drone or an F-15 or a gun, the problem is with the intelligence, not with the drone.”

Emery, however, was clear on one thing. He doesn’t want drones patrolling our own skies or listening in on our cell phone conversations. In the view of this graduate, and others at Liberty, that wouldn’t be a godly thing to do.

David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.

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David Swanson wants you to declare peace at http://WorldBeyondWar.org  His new book is War No More: The Case for Abolition.

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