The moral decay of remote controlled war

  • In the iconic 1960’s television show Star Trek, there was an episode called A Taste of Armageddon.  It depicted a planet on which two countries had been at war for hundreds of years, despite the lack of any evidence of destruction or carnage.  The two sides had abandoned physical confrontation centuries earlier, opting instead to operate their conflict as an elaborate war game, with attacks and maneuvers entered into a computer, which determined the likelihood of success or failure of each and issued a casualty count; the respective governments would then order the appropriate number of citizens into chambers to be vaporized.  It was all very neat, tidy, and–as described by the participants–“civilized”.  The computers were damaged over the course of the episode, which concluded with both sides agreeing to peace talks as an alternative to all out, conventional war, which was too horrible a consequence to contemplate.
  • In 2001, Comedian Bill Maher drew sharp criticism and ultimately saw the TV show he created cancelled, when he stated that the September 11th hijackers were not cowardly, but rather our way of waging war was the more cowardly act.  “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly,” he said. “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
  • In November of 2008, a drone-launched missile struck a wedding party in Wech Bagtu, Afghanistan.  Thirty seven people were killed, including 23 children.  As many more were injured.  A month later, a drone struck a wedding procession in Dih Balah, Afghanistan, killing 47–including the bride.
  • On September 30th of 2011, a drone-launched missile struck a car driving in Yemen containing 4 people, killing all of them instantly.  The target was one of them, Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen who was accused of plotting terrorist activities and attacks against the United States.  No charges were ever filed or proven in U.S. Courts against Awlaki.  Two weeks later a similar strike killed his 16 year old son.


There is an allure to fighting a war from remote controlled aerial drones and ground robots.  There is something clean, almost sanitary about the idea of being able to sit, safely ensconced in a control room, delivering mayhem and death to one’s enemies with complete and utter impunity.  It is the power of the gods.  It is a power men have sought since war began: the ability to smite.  To rain down hellfire and death with furious wrath, impervious to the rage and vengeance of an impotent and helpless mortal foe.

“Power reveals. When you get it, you can show what you wanted it for.”–Robert Caro

We have that now, our silent Valkyries. Flying over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, the forests and valleys of Waziristan, manifesting the will of gods hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Deciding who lives and who dies from air conditioned control rooms, fury unleashed not by the arc of a sword but by the touch of a button.  Though the process is governed by an elaborate set of rules and protocols, these exist not so much to preserve life as to destroy it without mercy; to provide clean justification for the extermination of people whose existence as living human beings is as much a philosophical abstraction as their status as enemies, defined as such by yet another set of rules and protocols–never to be questioned, always to be obeyed.  This is the war of the future.

“History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”–Voltaire

The last major United States military conflict of the 20th century was the Vietnam War.  It ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the fall of Saigon, but not before claiming the lives of nearly 60,000 U.S. service personnel.  The conflict was generally regarded as a failure, and recriminations over “who lost Vietnam?” began almost immediately; the debate still rages today.  One of the commonly posited arguments is that public sentiment turned against the war because of a combination of factors, including press coverage (Vietnam was the first armed conflict ever broadcast virtually live into American living rooms) and resistance to the draft.  As a result, the military attempted to address both of these over the course of the next several decades.  One initiative was called the Abrams Doctrine, which closely bound U.S. regular military forces with reserve units in a way that made it impossible to engage one without the other;  it was though that by binding the two, it would be impossible for any President to go to war without public sentiment firmly in support.

The other initiative was to employ better management of the press during conflicts.  First practiced in smaller skirmishes during the 80’s, such as the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the process was fully in place by the 1991 Gulf War, and perfected by the 2003 Gulf War redux.  Rather than granting free reign and mobility, with all the access and lack of control that entailed, press units were “embedded” into military units, a process that involved a conditioning period that was as much psychological as it was physical–if not more so.  This worked well, as it prevented reporters from witnessing and covering stories that were contrary to the specific narrative the military wanted to provide to the public.  Rather than reporting the war as journalists, the media reported the invasion of Iraq as, for all functional purposes, press liaisons.  This was a large part of the governments overall control of the story, and with a few minor exceptions it worked remarkably well.  In addition to control of the story, the press were controlled domestically with a series of restrictions on what they could and couldn’t report, and, most significantly, they were banned from photographing or displaying images of returning coffins.  Ostensibly, this was out of respect for the dead, but considering that there is simply no way to identify the person inside a flag-draped coffin from a distant photograph, it is far more plausible that the government simply wanted to hide the evidence of the real cost of the war.

“It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.”–Robert E. Lee

War is messy, it is brutal, it is costly.  War doesn’t just destroy men, it cripples them and disfigures them, it breaks them and renders them scarred, inside and out.  It breaks the will of nations, seeing its sons come home this way, in coffins or wheelchairs, sometimes mice, sometimes monsters, sometimes something in between–but always changed.  In an effort to reduce casualties, a great many technologies have been researched and developed, some more effective than others.  Of these technologies, there is none more insidious than the unmanned drone.  Hailed as a technological marvel, an end to the risk and mortal danger of war, the unmanned drone has been so remarkably successful over the battlefields that it has become one of the hottest new weapons on the international market.  Everybody wants a fleet of unmanned killing machines, remote controlled weapons of war that can be replaced simply by ordering anew, replacement warriors that come in crates, waiting to be unpacked and deployed as needed.  They will even be coming to domestic shores soon, as some law enforcement agencies have been looking into ordering their own unmanned aerial robots, albeit not armed with explosive rockets–yet, anyway.

Amidst this rather significant yet casually unheralded revolution in warfare, remarkably little debate ensues.  There has been some discussion over the legality of drone-launched strikes, though their deployment by U.S. military forces renders any discussion purely academic; we will use them regardless of what any international body says of their legality, citing national security should anybody dare voice an objection–assuming we even bother to respond.  Within our borders, there has been virtually no discussion at all, not even at the prospect of of unmanned surveillance drones flying over our homes and businesses 24 hours a day, every day, watching, observing and recording our every move without our knowledge.  Certainly there has been no debate about their use on the battlefield; we use them to kill “bad guys”, therefore they are a good thing.  That civilians die is casually dismissed with the horrific euphemism “collateral damage”, as if the 23 children who died at Wech Bagtu for the crime of attending a wedding was an unfortunate but meaningless side effect of a killing that was necessary and vital to our national security–indeed, our continued existence–despite the fact that none of us can even name who the target was, or why he (presuming it was a he) was even marked in the first place.  Or even, for that matter, if he was even present at the wedding, let alone amongst the dead.

There is a cost for all of this, though the bill has not yet come due.  It will likely not be presented for a great many years, except in the wake of a great and terrible tragedy that shocks our collective conscience and national soul.  It is not a cost in dollars, though dollars will be spent on it; it will be priced in blood and decency.  It is being said with increasing frequency that our drone strikes in remote villages of countries a half a world away are not irrelevant, despite the darker color of the victims and their relative poverty.  That they are a recruiting tool.  That an entire generation is growing up having lost cousins, brothers, parents, to remote death rained upon them by nameless, faceless men from what might as well be another planet, men who are to these survivors no more human and worthy of consideration and respect as humans than the relatives they’ve lost were to these faceless, wrathful gods themselves.  That this generation will be ripe for recruiting by the next generation of terrorist fanatics; that twenty years from now we may look back on this time with the same hindsight with which the arming and funding of the Afghan Mujaheddin now looks so feckless and foolhardy.

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”–Socrates

But more than that, I question what becomes of a people for whom war becomes such a careless pastime that it need not even send its sons to die in them anymore?  I remember, back before the first Gulf War, the anxiety and fear that gripped the nation as we prepared for the biggest armed conflict since Vietnam.  The concern was that we could end up in another long conflict of attrition, that we would find ourselves facing a foe who might spill the blood of many of our soldiers.  As it turned out, there were more casualties in that conflict from friendly fire than enemy fire, and I also remember the relief and joy that followed as Iraqi forces were pushed out of Kuwait and routed.  But I wrote then, in a letter to the editor of the local paper, that I hoped this didn’t usher in a new era of American bluster and confidence, and that I further hoped we always remembered the trepidation and concern we felt before the first shot was fired, lest the next such conflict be engaged too easily, and without the same sense of sobriety and respect.  I sense now that my hopes were in vain, and talk of a possible conflict with Iran has me convinced that, on the contrary, my fears have been realized.  An army of drones becomes an army of expendable, interchangeable parts, where the lives cost are only on the other side, images on a screen that are no more real and alive than the rendered images of the latest console game.

It would seem that unmanned drones represent a new paradigm of warfare, with yet another on the not-too-distant horizon as plans are underway to grant them full autonomy, even over target selection and attack.  Yet this has been affected without any public discussion or debate, nor any real outcry, save a few fringe elements who are easily dismissed and ultimately ignored.  There are very real questions that have never been asked or debated, yet which have answers regardless which will be visited on us and future generations in the form of consequences, as is always the case with questions unasked and unanswered. If we do not have these discussions, if we leave them to the leadership of the country, we have no excuse when the bill comes due.

Are we prepared, as a nation, to answer for the actions that our machines do in our name?  Is it possible for a nation to resist the temptation to resort to a military solution to every challenge, when the blood cost of such a decision has been eliminated?  And finally, perhaps most importantly, how do we maintain our own humanity, when we create a world in which it can be so easily stripped by us from everyone else?


UPDATE: 05/23/12:  I realized while re-reading this that I accidentally used the same quote twice.  The final quote has been corrected to the one I originally wanted to use.

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