Drones on the Radar
After a few years of being one of the few people writing about the potential ethical implications of drone warfare, I’m happy to say that a serious scholarship is blossoming. Twice in the past month, The New York Review of Books, that gigantic, guilt-inducing pleasure to read, has done substantive reviews of recent work on this question. These are, thankfully, not behind the NYRB firewall.
The best of the two is a review from the Sept. 29 issue, “Predators and Robots at War,” by Christian Caryl, Washington editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (Full disclosure, I worked there a million years ago, but don’t know Caryl). The piece reviews two recent books on the topic, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, by drone warfare analyst P.W. Singer, and Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story, the first person story of a drone warfare operator, Lieutenant Colonel Matt J. Martin with Charles W. Sasser.
I’ve cited Singer’s work before, and his TED talk on the subject is fantastically interesting. But it is Lt. Martin’s book that made me stop and take notice:
“Even as his body occupies a seat in a control room in Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, his mind is far removed, following a suspicious SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tailing Taliban fighters along a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. ‘I was already starting to refer to the Predator and myself as ‘I,’ even though the airplane was thousands of miles away,’ Martin notes ruefully.”
Getting inside the head of someone who is playing life-and-death wargames should help us imagine the real implications of all of this technology. As I’ve said again and again, in their accuracy and their capability of reducing pilot risk, as well as their ability to linger for days to be sure of the identity of a target, drones mark an incredible, perhaps underrated leap in military technology. But they carry the potentially awful byproduct of making war easier because, for the drone-capable leader, at least, the risk of friendly casualties is minimal.
And yet, paradoxically, the “pilots” of these drones have been exposed to the realities of their attacks in much more serious ways than their B-52, B-2 or even World War II-era counterparts
“Predator attacks are extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just before his Hellfire missile arrives at its target. Allied bomber pilots in World War II killed millions but rarely had occasion to experience the results on the ground. Drone operators work with far greater accuracy, but the irony of the technology is that they can see their accidental victims–two little boys and their shattered bikes in one especially heart-rending case Martin describes–in excruciating detail.”
Wow. I want to read that book.
It would be arrogant to be conclusive about this topic right now. But everything I read throws light on a new angle, at least to me. As Caryl notes, “As I write this, the US aerospace industry has for all practical purposes ceased research and development work on manned aircraft.” The drones are coming – we need to figure out some rules before they arrive.
6 Responses to “Drones on the Radar”
“we need to figure out some rules before they arrive”
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