Thursday, November 12, 2009

Moral dilemma for our times: drone warfare

I've been worried about the moral and practical implications of relying on robots rather than soldiers for three years now (an old post here). Roger Cohen is on the same wavelength in his latest New York Times op-ed piece, and Jane Mayer has a recent article in The New Yorker which I'm reading now.

From Cohen's op-ed:
When the United States went into Iraq in 2003, it had a handful of pilotless planes, or drones; it now has over 7,000. The invasion force had no unmanned ground vehicles; the U.S. armed forces now employ more than 12,000....

But as [Jane] Mayer notes, “The embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force.”

These are targeted international killings, no less real, and indeed more insidious, for their video-game aspect. The thing about robotic warfare is you can watch people get vaporized on a screen in Langley, Virginia, and then drive home for dinner with the kids. The very phrase “go to war” becomes hard to distinguish from going to work. That’s a conflation fraught with ethical danger. The barriers to war get lowered.
President Obama has apparently ordered as many Predator drone strike in his nine months in office as George W. Bush did in his last three years as president. That's not the kind of change I voted for.

UPDATE

I finished the Mayer article. An excerpt:

Peter W. Singer, the author of “Wired for War,” a recent book about the robotics revolution in modern combat, argues that the drone technology is worryingly “seductive,” because it creates the perception that war can be “costless.” Cut off from the realities of the bombings in Pakistan, Americans have been insulated from the human toll, as well as from the political and the moral consequences. Nearly all the victims have remained faceless, and the damage caused by the bombings has remained unseen. In contrast to Gaza, where the targeted killing of Hamas fighters by the Israeli military has been extensively documented—making clear that the collateral damage, and the loss of civilian life, can be severe—Pakistan’s tribal areas have become largely forbidden territory for media organizations. As a result, no videos of a drone attack in progress have been released, and only a few photographs of the immediate aftermath of a Predator strike have been published....

Critics have suggested that unmanned systems, by sparing these combatants from danger and sacrifice, are creating what Sir Brian Burridge, a former British Air Chief Marshal in Iraq, has called “a virtueless war,” requiring neither courage nor heroism.... Meanwhile, some social critics, such as Mary Dudziak, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, argue that the Predator strategy has a larger political cost. As she puts it, “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on . . . endless war.”
The article is worth a read considering the number of strikes and hundreds of people who are dying... they're not all terrorists, folks. What kind of people are we to simply turn a blind eye to a war being waged remotely in our names?

Also in the Mayer article, a quote from former Army Ranger Andrew Exum:
There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.

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