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While the United States military has been using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in combat for some time now, it has only recently sent this controversial weapon armed with lethal missiles. Controlled by pilots hidden in a bunker halfway around the world, these remote-controlled planes can target and unleash hell upon its enemy with incredible force and accuracy. I must admit, however, that the image of a remote-controlled plane incinerating a ragtag group of unsuspecting, bearded men usually armed with no more than Soviet AK-47 assault rifles disturbs me. That the targets are the most dangerous men in the world helps me digest this image a little easier, but something shakes me to the core when I think of the men, as well as the “collateral damage” of innocent bystanders (often women and children), being destroyed by a touch of a button of a joystick handled halfway across the world.

Perhaps I am overly romanticizing combat. Weapons by their very nature are designed to eliminate targets with increasing efficiency but decreasing risk to its user. Any political actor, whether it be a rogue Somali pirate or a hegemonic government with a yearly $660 billion military budget would be stupid not to take advantage of technology. It’s practical, efficient, protects (the user’s) life, and gets the job done.

From a moral perspective, however, I wonder if we are “biting the bullet” in employing weapons technology rather than deploying more troops. From a military standpoint it makes sense to fly in drones or fire missiles from distance than to risk the lives of its soldiers, but these actions assert the assumption that the value of one’s own soldiers are higher than the enemies’, an idea that can lead to rather questionable calculations in the waging of war.

Currently Somalia is experiencing a ruthless famine and is in the throes of a de facto civil war pushing thousands of people to the brink of death everyday. Thousands have already died. Carrying a budget crisis on its back and two burdensome wars on each hand, the United States would be hard pressed to involve itself militarily in Somalia, even if it would mean preventing devastation of cataclysmic proportions. While I’m almost certain that the American public would not stand sending in more troops into yet another dangerous area of the world, I wonder if the US would be opposed to sending fighter jets or drones to neutralize the enemy enforcing some semblance of peace? Making the outlandish assumption that missiles and planes and other long-range weapons would suffice in neutralizing the enemy, would the United States then sanction its use to prevent another tragedy that is dangerously becoming a reality day by day?

Herein lies an uncomfortable dilemma – while the US desires to prevent genocide or uphold freedom, it desires to do so with as little cost as possible. Taking this idea to its logical and practical end produces apocalyptic creations as predator drones, F-16s, and other advanced weaponry designed to increase lethality but minimize risk of American soldiers. This makes sense right?

This makes sense only if we identify as Americans first, and disproportionately assign higher value to our own kind over others. Indeed, Hobbes was also well aware that the love of one’s own is the root of injustice. Out of this prioritizing we create weapons that minimize risk to ourselves but inversely cheapens our moral will.

Because technology allows us to wage war with tools and weapons (read: money) rather than with soldiers’ lives, we are able to execute our political will at a cheaper cost than our enemies. This sends a message of hypocrisy to the world, which says, “we will fight to obtain freedom, but without paying the cost”. While America may publicly declare that it is willing to fight to uphold the noblest of ideals of freedom and democracy, or pledge to protect the most vulnerable people in the world, in reality it may be unwilling to spend exorbitant amounts of money that war demands, or even more costly, pay with the lives of its own soldiers. However, while wanting to live up to those ideals but unwilling to risk the lives of our own, we turn to a dangerously cheap alternative: technology.

For all its practical benefits, technology distorts our calculations in the waging of war. It may be hard to believe, but in a way, it “cheapens” our political will because the “cost” is rendered less as we increasingly turn to technological alternatives to troop deployment. While we may be reluctant to pay in blood*, we might be willing to pay in dollars, and that is simply the advantage technology affords.

* This piece is merely a theoretical discussion of morality in war, and is not meant to dismiss the gravity of the sacrifices of Americans and Coalition forces of these past 10 years. 2681 coalition forces members have valiantly served and died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and 4792 in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I post these numbers here because I personally don’t see them enough, and if a reader here and there might see them, perhaps we might learn to reflect deeper on the cost of war.

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5 Comments

  1. Hello,

    Was referred to your blog through Evelyn H. Good points — but I have two major critiques.

    Misconception #1: modern technology has radically distorted the moral calculus of war by minimizing the value of human life

    I disagree.

    “when I think of the men, as well as the “collateral damage” of innocent bystanders (often women and children), being destroyed by a touch of a button of a joystick handled halfway across the world.”

    This is a nice sound-bite but a bit inaccurate. Most operators of UAVs are not stationed halfway around the world, but within line of sight distance from their platforms. Moreover, I can’t get too much into the capabilities/limitations of our imagery, but I can tell you that a UAV operator probably can see the face of the individual he is about to kill, in addition to enjoying a level of precision/certainty unheard of to the carpet bombers of World War II (if we’re going to talk about collateral damage, we should start there).

    While it is true that technology has created a world where we can kill at the touch of a button, I would argue that most modern militaries do not operate under a mindset where they readily apply those abilities without mental or moral reservation. In fact, it’s precisely because technology has made our application of violence so efficient and so precise that our battles and wars are limited in the scope of their destruction. Consequently, we value life — even the enemy’s — all the more. Two and a half thousand years ago, Euripides wrote of an era where the citizen-soldiers of one of the most civically engaged societies the world has ever known willingly/wantonly killed the infant children of their vanquished enemies in hopes of precluding the cycle of revenge. They lived in an era when death was very personal — where you got so close to the man you disemboweled with your short sword that you could smell the release of gases and feel the warmth of his blood. And yet the slaughter of tens of thousands or the literal wiping out of another village was so commonplace as to be routine in their wars. Contrast that to today — yes, the trigger on a M16A4 requires just a few pounds of pressure to release the firing pin, and yet we value the enemy’s life so much that we literally obligate ourselves by law to give him food, water and shelter if he lays down his arms, and we treat the injured assailant in the same medical facilities as that of our own service personnel.

    Misconception #2: modern technology has radically distorted the moral calculus of war by making it “too easy” for one side to inflict violence upon another

    I disagree.

    “but these actions assert the assumption that the value of one’s own soldiers are higher than the enemies’, an idea that can lead to rather questionable calculations in the waging of war.”

    How is this revolutionary? Those who engage in conflict have nearly always assumed that the lives of one’s own have more value than the lives of the “other” tribe, clan, city-state, nation, etc. How does it lead to questionable calculations? To assume otherwise would preclude the application of violence entirely!

    “Because technology allows us to wage war with tools and weapons (read: money) rather than with soldiers’ lives, we are able to execute our political will at a cheaper cost than our enemies. This sends a message of hypocrisy to the world, which says, “we will fight to obtain freedom, but without paying the cost”.”

    Technology has always been used to minimize, bypass or mitigate harm to one’s own people. From the Roman legions that used skirmishers and cavalry to shape the battlespace rather than engage in hand-to-hand individual combat to the American rifle squad that calls in a mortar/artillery/airstrike rather than trying to clear a particularly stubborn pocket of resistance, the people/city-state/nation that is able to leverage its industrial and technological advantages to execute its political will at a cheaper cost than that of its enemies has always done so (and continue to do so).

    Bottom-line, while I share some of your concerns about UAVs and the false promise of air-power-as-the-answer-to-everything, I think of such tools as representing another evolutionary step in the long, sad, tragic history of human violence, rather than as some type of game-changing revolution. Even with all of our nasty weapons, the relatively “easy” conflicts (at least from the West’s perspective) in Kosovo 1999 and Libya 2011 are far less desanitized and far more people-driven than they may seem on the surface.

    very respectfully,
    Capt S, USMC

  2. Dear Capt S,

    First of all, thanks so much for writing a clear, detailed, leveled response. Your experience gives greater weight to your message. Two questions, if I may:

    1) You wrote: “Most operators of UAVs are not stationed halfway around the world, but within line of sight distance from their platforms” – According to what I’ve read in the media, it seems that missions are flown from “virtual” stations in Nevada, Florida, and other locations throughout the US. Here’s one article pulled from NY times about the Nevada base (halfway down the page): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/world/asia/30drone.html. This article explicitly states that the drone was controlled by officers in Nevada. Can you comment on this please?

    2) You wrote: ” …the people/city-state/nation that is able to leverage its industrial and technological advantages to execute its political will at a cheaper cost than that of its enemies has always done so”. I completely agree, it would be idiotic to do otherwise (except Costa Rica, who abolished the military in 1949, and who hasn’t had a conflict since…but they are not the US). It is precisely this reason why the use of drones is unsettling for me. Hypothetically speaking, if I were a US president and had the option of risking the lives of troops vs. sending in drones I would most likely opt for the latter because it is politically safe – it poses no risk to our troops and therefore minimizes the risk of losing public support. We have seen an exponential increase in the use of armed drones in the past decade(http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,159220,00.html). In Libya, NATO was reluctant to send in troops, even though it is clearly attempting to overthrow the Ghaddafi regime despite our official, limited objective of “protecting civilians”, which we interpreted as sending in special forces and bombing strategic enemy targets. Do you think that the decision to send in drones rather than ground troops was born out of a reluctance to risk the lives of NATO troops(another way to phrase it, was there a lack of political will in potentially sacrificing more troops for an already overextended organization)? And if so, does that use of technology undercut our credibility as a Democratic entity that claims to be willing to sacrifice lives to uphold democracy but instead pursues this ideal by technology instead?

    Thank you again for your response.

    Sincerely,

    Russ H.

  3. I’m fascinated that you’re so drawn to, and heated, about this topic.

    Let me ask this: Give your assumption, if we could physically enter combat with some sort of invincibility device, would we also be hypocritical?

  4. Do you mean send in troops with some sort of super armor? Well, having that sort of technology would make us more like God than anything else, and I guess whatever we say or do would be set in stone. If we had a guiding sentence like, “We would die for X value”, but found a way to fight for X value invincibly, then it would be hypocritical b/c there’s no cost (in terms of lives) to achieve X value.

  5. Let’s assume that drones don’t eliminate the cost of fighting, only reduce it. After all, there is still a cost in using robots and drones–if there weren’t, we would be fighting more endless wars than we are. There is a risk, both in retaliation (whether direct/indirect) and monetary. And one day, when our technologically inferior “enemies” figure out how to effectively attack the remote-controlled source (or develop their own bots) the cost will have evened. In essence, then the issue really is having an unbalanced cost-tradeoff between the two sides and the values they fight for.

    But then if that’s the issue, then you are arguing that any two armies that fight when one has a technological advantage has no moral ground. If my army has machine guns and yours has spears, whatever I am fighting for is going to come at a smaller cost than it will you. Does that diminish what I’m fighting for? Are we required by the rules of morality to fight on exact even terms as those we fight with?

    And this of course doesn’t even raise the moral question of whether it is right to put the romance of “dying for something” on a higher pedestal than the safety of lives in the first place.

    The problem is really that “I would die for X” is a legacy of another time when the people making such grand statements were the ones who had to go into battle. Times have changed, and they will not be back.


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