Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 2, 2012

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Dan OConnor on October 2, 2012

Recently I received a notice in my mail box about a new documentary. I get them from time to time and I scan them to see if any catch my interests. This one, called Robot Wars, immediately caught my attention.

This is interesting on a couple of fronts. First, it was put together by Al Jazeera and the narrator, Josh Rushing, is the former Marine Corps public affairs officer who was character assassinated endlessly for taking a job with them. Second, some of the interviewees discuss how Americans have become less tolerant of their youth coming home in body bags.

Also prominently featured is Peter Warren (PW) Singer, a noted political scientist and author of Wired for War. In his book, Singer discusses the rapidity of technological change and how wars are fought and the impact on politics, economics, laws, and the ethics that surround war itself.

So we use robots more; a lot more. This may be the continuation of creating stand off distance for warfare. But this technology is changing warfare.

Today there are more than 7,000 drones and 12,000 ground robots in use by all branches of the military. These systems mean fewer American deaths and also less political risk for the US when it takes acts of lethal force – perhaps even outside of official war zones.

Some people see the growth of drones and robots as acceptable because the provide tactical advantage and decreases vulnerability of U.S. assets. Others criticize the growth because it suggests that drone or UAV warfare has devolved into a video game where the operator can enjoy a Starbucks and still make it home on time to catch their child’s ball game. The outcome is we now have killing from 8000 miles away in a box in Nevada or wherever, never smelling the cordite, acrid smoke, burnt and rotting flesh nor sensing the destruction they have caused.

As he observed the carnage during the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

Sometimes I wonder if by making war too easy and not seeing the carnage we are growing “too fond of it.”

Has our fondness for technology and a growing risk aversion for loss made one of these arguments of UAV warfare correct?

Do the UAV or robot operators at far off distances have an understanding of war and death? They may say they feel the sense of urgency and fear but their argument cannot possibly be compared to the Marine or Soldier in harms’ way. They do not deal with the consequence, the smell, the after effects, the detritus of war. It is an extension of the pilot leaving the battle space.

Another issue and one that I have discussed at length with Marines returning from extended combat in Sangin and Fallujah are the dehumanizing aspects of UAV combat and death from afar. When a sniper engages an enemy he does so with a magnified animation of the individual. There is some degree of interaction or, better described, transfer of humanity.

Some see the UAV attacks as much less so. While “surgical” they do leave one with the idea that surgical is relative and a 500 lbs explosion is not as discriminate as we say it is. Is our moral imperative, the one we profess to have, compromised by the way we value our enemies’ life and how we kill them?

From a purely spiritual perspective and from someone who has trained to do this for a long time, I always felt it necessary to realize that taking another’s life should never be an easy task, politics and nationalism aside. Many of those engaged in war are conscripts, pushed out in front of their Nation by others and given choices that are none too selective. So in that light, it must cross one’s mind that killing another son, father, brother, daughter, mother, sister etc. is not trivial. That process makes at least defining and identifying what the Nation asks its military to do a reasonable humanity test.

The irony here is that in order to do something very well you kind of have to like it, which is in direct conflict with the previous thought. To be really good at fighting you have to like it. To like fighting is to like killing. Is that the bridge? Is that accurate? Talk to combat veterans and they will tell you there is no rush like fighting. War is intoxicating. Or is it? A topic for another debate.

I think we are getting too good at rationalizing away why we fight and how difficult it is to kill.

Most people will tell you they don’t fight the enemy as much they fight for their mates left and right. That’s probably accurate. That is also an argument against having an all-volunteer force vice a conscription force.   The all-volunteer forces are more apt to comply because of career decisions. This is not my argument. It is one I have heard from both former Vietnam draftees and others not enamored with the “military industrial complex.” And we have figured out how to make our fighters adept at killing, something they may not have been good at 50 or so years ago.  (For more on that, read On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by David Grossman.)

With regard to hunting high value targets, terrorists and their leaders are probably worthy targets, and there is a good argument to be made. I’m not being flippant here. But when lawyers spend great amounts of time trying to justify activities, it makes me a little squirrely. This is the slope I see us on.

So using robots, UAVs, drones and their ilk is an extension of protecting our fighters — something that borders on risk aversion in lieu of answering policy questions. But it also devalues our enemies and life in general. This therefore amplifies the terrorists desire to strike us, because 99+% of the population has little understanding of what we ask the military to do and how they do it. They just watch war porn on Youtube and play it on Xbox.

Madeline Albright infamously said, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That is wildly cavalier and demonstrates how little we value our lives and the lives of others.

It’s getting too easy. It becomes too easy to roll out the troops, and then they get stuck in tough situations because of all the constraints and all the politics. If we do not respect the lives we take and the collateral damage we cause is that a problem? Is caring more about Snooky and her baby and Honey Boo Boo more newsworthy than the 2000th death in Afghanistan? It’s a far cry from the number of deaths in Viet Nam and World War 2, but you know it hurts the families who lost them the same.

Do we have to respect our enemy’s lives to better understand what it is we are asking our military to do? If we do not should anybody be surprised that they do not respect ours either?

Here are two recent essays about the use of drones:

1. A dangerous new world of drones, by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security analyst, and Jennifer Rowland.

2. Drones Will Soon Be Able To Kill During War Without Human Assistance

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 2, 2012 @ 3:07 am

A wonderful post DAN! CRS also has a report out on UAV usage. But of course DoD has now adopted the term “RPV” for Remotely Piloted Vehicle and will leave to others analysis of this terminology even as the USAF trains over 100 pilots for each large RPV.

IMO International Law has not yet integrated the concepts of drone warfare but of course it also has not accomplished integration of nuclear missile warfare also.

Just as the Nuclear Priesthood does all that it can to prevent John Q. Public from undertstanding the real policies and issues of nuclear warfare, the same now holds true for drone warfare.

As anticipated unarmed drone usage in the USA is now fully underway and probably not too far off before armed drone warfare also taking placu

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 2, 2012 @ 6:50 am

I would argue that the issue isn’t how easily the drone operators can target and kill personnel before they commute home. It’s the politicians who believe that it is a cleaner, easier, and less expensive form of warfare and therefore they’re more inclined to use it as an excuse not to do proper strategy and plans that would involve forces and more expensive defense platforms.

Comment by Frank Van Haste

October 2, 2012 @ 4:39 pm


The phenomena you review are of course, not new. From Don Lopez’ memoir of his time as a P-40 pilot in China during WW2:

“We continued attacking the boats, essing across them as we strafed until all the boats were burning or sinking and everyone on the decks appeared dead. It was awesome to realize that a slight pressure by my right forefinger was the difference between life and death for the soldiers on the boat. I felt no compunction, since I, along with the rest of the country, was totally convinced of the need to defeat Japan. These were, after all, the ones responsible for Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and numerous other atrocities that began, incidentally, here in China.

Killing from the air is impersonal. The pilot shoots at small moving figures several hundred yards away. Except for seeing them fall, like toy soldiers, there is none of the bloody evidence of death that one would see in close ground combat.”

We are just another step or two along the journey that began when firearms supplanted edged weapons as the principal instruments of war.

Comment by Wendi See

October 2, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

Great article, Dan. Dr. Manjikian and I call these dilemmas Fuzzy War, Bloodless War and Endless War. You can see the full piece at http://www.trackingterrorism.org/article/drones-weapon-terror

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