Making the Implicit Explicit: Drones and the Changing Nature of Human Warfare

Front-Page Opinion
Making the Implicit Explicit: Drones and the Changing Nature of Human Warfare

In an 1819 speech, Swiss-French philosopher Benjamin Constant predicted the end of wars:

“Every day, war becomes a more ineffective means of satisfying [our] wishes. Its hazards no longer offer to individuals benefits that match the results of peaceful work and regular exchanges.”

Scientific progress and Europe’s Industrial Revolution had made the pursuit of private pleasure an increasingly attainable and attractive reality; to Constant, this rang the death knell for the bloody battles of yore. It was no longer necessary for us to commit hordes upon hordes of battalions in our desire to gain the resources that we desired — resources that other states possessed. Commerce could provide the same gains at a more efficient monetary and human cost.

“An age must come in which commerce replaces war,” he added. “We have reached this age.”

Within years, Constant was sadly and ironically proven wrong. At the risk of presumption and hindsight-enabled regret, perhaps it is worth slightly revising Constant’s belief: it is not the pursuit of private pleasure that changed our history and the nature of wars, but the technological capacity of society itself. The very same technological advancements that Constant suggested would propel us to a commerce-heavy, warless future provided the impetus for the 20th century to be, in absolute terms, the bloodiest century on record. Technological advancements laid the grounds for unprecedented levels of aerial, underwater and chemical warfare in “the war to end all wars” – or what we know as the First World War. Technology played a critical role in its sequel too, as the machinations of a group of men tinkering with nuclei in Los Alamos led to the immediate and devastating conclusion of the Second World War in the Pacific.

Global war then turned cold. As Cold War tension plagued the air, the pursuit of technological advancement was propelled by unbridled curiosity and ambition – a President could claim that the Moon would be marked by the footprints of his countrymen within a decade, and be proven right. No idea was too crazy. So when John Stuart Foster Jr, the top scientist at the Pentagon in 1971, thought of sticking on a camera to the underside of a remote-controlled airplane to spy on American enemies – and one day bomb them – no one laughed him off. Instead, he became the father of the modern unmanned aerial vehicle, or what we colloquially refer to as drones.

Under Foster’s guidance, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency built two comparatively advanced prototypes – Praeire and Calere. These 75 pound machines were powered by modified lawn-mower engines, and stayed up in the air for two hours. By the time NATO had begun air strikes over the Balkans in the ‘90s, Praeire and Calere had made way for the Predator: a drone capable of carrying a 450-pound payload for 24 hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet that was ideal for reconnaissance missions. The Predator carried video and communications gear that enabled pilots to control its path with a joystick while watching the video it captured in real-time. By 2001, the CIA and US Air Force had successfully tested modified Predator drones which had cameras as well as precision-guided missiles.

Upon their invasion of Iraq in 2003, American generals on the ground, cognizant of the unmanned aerial vehicle’s newfound combative prowess, requested the deployment of these modified Predators to attack “fleeting and perishable” Iraqi targets, often insurgents. Once deployed, the popularity of drones never ceased: Barack Obama’s first year in the White House saw more drone strikes targeted at American combat enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any previous year combined.

By 2009, more American pilots were trained to operate joysticks for drones than to fly airplanes with cockpits. In the same year, there were more drone strikes in Pakistan – 52 – than in the eight years of the Bush Jr’s presidency. In 2012 alone, the number of strikes in Yemen had increased to 54: again, more than the total of 48 drone strikes ordered by the Bush administration outside war zones. Prior to the emergence of drones, such strikes would not have been viable technologically. Nor would similar missions with pilots in cockpits have been feasible politically – the explicit violation of Yemeni and Pakistani sovereignty posed too large a risk to the life of any pilot ordered to enter.

General public consensus had regarded drone activity in Iraq and Afghanistan as legitimate actions in wars no matter how unfortunate, but these killings at the push of a sovereignty-violating button were viewed by many as both arrogant and troublesome. The attacks were seemingly indiscriminate. Once approval was sought and proffered, men and women behind joysticks lay siege to a wide variety of targets – identified terrorist targets, but also innocent citizens.

Undoubtedly, technological advancement has changed the nature of modern warfare. War is now more efficient, and the logistical difficulties of invasion – whether man or material – have been removed for the aggressor. Indeed, this added efficiency and its corollary reduction of potential collateral damage constitute the most convincing case for the usage of drones. Both proponents and opponents of the American use of drones agree on this, but attach different valences to the notion of a more efficient form of war. Critics balk at the power now possessed in the palms of a joystick pilot in a nondescript air force base, ordered to obliterate nations, towns, and lives. To them, drones have taken the mantle once occupied by humans, de-sensitizing us to war and removing the human from the equation.

Well-intentioned individuals can have opposing views regarding the desirability of drones in the modern military landscape. A cogent, coherent argument for or against their use would be a far too complex, demanding endeavor to address. Instead, this piece seeks to explain why our dialogue is where it is, and now refute the notion that the advent of drones has reduced the role of the human in warfare.

Just as technological advancement changed the practice of war, it also changed the explicit role of the human. Since time immemorial, humans have been essential to the practice of war, and remain so today. While technological advancement has allowed the warrior to don many new mantles, some behind the putative comfort of a computer screen which ensures no risk to his or her own life, the indispensability of the human in warfare remains. Drones have not removed the human from the equation. Instead, in the process of potentially eliminating some of the explicit costs of warfare, they have increased the prominence of its implicit costs, and the humans associated with them.

For one, implicit psychological costs have been brought to the forefront. Joseph Stalin once remarked that “a single death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. The usage of drones in warfare has catalyzed a change in our understanding of the vagaries of war in a rather Stalinesque manner: instances of modern warfare are no longer just a litany of statistics but a collection of individual tragedies. The successes and failures of drones are measured in singular instances and stories, and do not fall prey to the statistical numbing that had made many of us immune to the tragedies of mass famine, genocide, and war in the past. The importance of one over many is not just the domain of cold-hearted, Stalinesque calculations used to justify mass wars and purges. This is a phenomenon studied and confirmed by academic psychologists, and referred to by some as an evolutionary “deficiency”. Herein, each individual whose life is affected by a drone strike pervades the consciousness of actors and observers in a far more damning manner than the masses of a nation invaded or town bombed.

Air strike decisions are no longer based on general assumptions of force depletion and damage assessed in masses of numbers. The consequences of each drone strike are now decidedly human – commanders are forced to consider the implications of striking targets who may be at a meal with their family or at a place of religion, praying amongst a group of innocent individuals. Thus, the the dangers of an inaccurate drone strike must be explicitly considered in terms of the specific and haunting loss of human life.

Of course, such dangers were present in all previous iterations of war, and would have affected presidents and commanders as well. However, since we innately place greater psychological importance on the individual case of a family or individual that can be named, as in the case of a drone strikes, this emotional damage is far more pronounced than in previous iterations of war that allowed for abstraction and statistical aberration. Nonetheless, both scenarios are equally harmful for the victim; death by computer-guided drone is no less harmful than death by any other tool of war. But for the commander ordering the pilot and – more importantly – for the pilot pulling the trigger, the psychological implications of such decisions are indeed grave.  

Typically situated away from the area which they aim to strike, joystick pilots receive orders and lock in their targets after pressing a few buttons. The emergence of this new-age warrior represents a critical juncture in our understanding of the role of the warrior. Previous conceptions of war were contingent on the active involvement of the soldier as a merchant of death themselves. Their involvement was defined either by their killing of enemies, or by having been killed themselves. Critics of drone warfare note, often in a derisory tone, that the removal of the imminent possibility of death for these new-age warriors reduces the significance of the human in warfare from a killer in danger of being killed to a character in a “computer game”, in the words of Lesley Docksey, a prominent British pacifist. However, to cite the emergence of joystick pilots in assuming that drone warfare dehumanizes the concept of war necessarily ignores the stark and damning consequences of the joystick pilot’s actions to their own psyche.

Commandeering merchants of death with joysticks indubitably changes the concept of war, but does not reduce its significance for individual behind the joystick. The Air Force’s growing struggle in recruiting such pilots provides statistical backing for the human cost of drone warfare. In one year, the Air Force trains 180 pilots for the role, and within the last year, 240 of the 1000 drone pilots on the payroll quit – despite being offered financial incentives to remain in the role.

Indeed, recounting the experiences of such pilots themselves reveals the rationale behind the exodus. According to former drone pilot Bruce Black, a “Predator operator is so much more involved in what is going on than your average fast-moving jetfighter pilot, or your B-52, B-1, B-2 pilots, who will never even see their target”. Thus, one cannot suggest that such pilots are not intimately aware of the explicit consequences of their actions. Given this intense engagement with their targets, more so than ever are these pilots cognizant of their own impact on a war, exemplifying their new prominence as their role takes them from cockpit to joystick. Furthermore, considering the conditions in which such pilots work exemplifies the human impact of drone warfare for all parties involved.

Writing about having to view immediate impacts of the strikes they undertake – the aftermath of explosions, men crawling across fields with severed legs, and the like – a former drone analyst said that “when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.”

Their day jobs take them into the mindset of a soldier in a war zone, long known to be a mindset incompatible with the civilian norms they must follow upon leaving a nondescript air force base in Nevada and returning to their family. It is not a far-fetched hypothetical to suggest that many of these pilots will be having breakfast with their families, dropping their children off at school, going to work and killing enemy combatants – or, in the case of botched missions, civilians – leaving work, purchasing groceries at the local supermarket and returning to a family life while grappling with the implications of their actions. And that is just one day in their lives. No wonder, then, that the pilots are experiencing what Salon magazine refers to as an “unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress syndrome”.

Whatever one’s stance is on drone warfare, to suggest that the human is reduced to a pawn at the service of technology fails to take into account the new role of the human. Technological advancement in the field of warfare has not allowed drones to replace some of the functionality of the human. The human commander, warrior, and target are just as important as they always have been in warfare. Orders are placed upon consideration of their significant damage without the shielding of statistical numbing and the resulting psychological impacts make clear the human cost of technological advancement. It is this cost that reveals to us the human’s everlasting importance and newfound prominence in a changing military landscape, and it is this cost that all of us – civilians, critics, commanders – must pay heed to as we seek to use our technological prowess to address the geopolitical challenges of the future.

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