Remember that Golden Era, when war was all about hacking bits off each other from high-five range? Well those days are gone. Stupid technology. Takes the fun out of everything. I was reminded of technology’s curse – the efficient maiming and killing of each other fro a distance, as opposed to the inefficient maiming and killing of each other with manual implements – by the most recent episode (“Drone”) of the excellent My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast. In the episode, Bruce Carlson discusses the history of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and potential ramifications of their use.
Certainly, weapon firing UAVs raise a number of important issues related to collateral damage, target identification, and legal responsibility. These issues are raised by new war fighting technologies. Another issue regularly raised by new technology is that it will ring in a new era of increased warfare by making waging war “too easy” for those in possession of the new technology.
UAVs ostensibly make war “too easy” by allowing nations to kill people from other nations, without having to risk the deaths of their own soldiers; although, it is not clear which historical has convinced commentators that national leaders have ever been dissuaded from a war they want by the specter of risk to soldiers. UAVs disconnect soldiers from the battle zone, which is viewed as a global negative, while being a local positive to the nation using combat UAVs.
This kind of simple assumption about the complex consequences of adopting a new technology invariably compels me to ask the contrary question: Are there global benefits to disconnecting the warrior from the battle zone?
I can think of two areas of benefit off the top of my head. First, by removing the soldier from the battlefield, we are removing decisions to kill from the emotional/informational chaos of the battle zone, which at its most extreme might avoid the situations alleged to have been responsible for events like the My Lai Massacre and the Haditha Killings. Second, by not putting human soldiers in harms way, UAVs reduce the need for use of suppressing fire. By reducing the number of rounds fired and increasing the ability to choose targets before releasing a weapon, UAVs may reduce overall collateral damage to civilian populations, at least due to more indiscriminate fire, although not necessarily due to target selection or weapon choice.
Of course, all this debate is academic. It seems highly unlikely that nations will eschew a new technology because it makes war “too easy”.