CHECKS AND BALANCES

Posted in Rants on June 2nd, 2010 by Ed

The past decade has proven that the American public and their elected leaders have very little restraint when it comes to waging war. The financial costs don't matter. Neither does international law or opinion. Ditto the inevitable and often substantial civilian casualties. Hell, we don't even need a reason to go to war, hence we concoct one with little regard for accuracy or logic and present it as a formality. The only thing we care about, unsurprisingly, is ourselves. We care how many of Our Guys are going to get killed. Four or five thousand KIA in Iraq and Afghanistan – spread out over nearly seven years – is an acceptable loss to Congress, the public, and two White House administrations. The 60,000+ over the same seven years in Vietnam were unacceptable. Justification and intent are largely irrelevant to the strength of public opposition to wars these days. It's largely just a question of body counts – American ones, anyway.

Understandably, the Department of Defense spends a lot of time and money trying to minimize the number of American casualties in combat. A slew of technological advances have led to dramatically reduced casualty rates over the years. Some of it has involved the nuts and bolts of war (armor, field medicine, etc.) but lately the research has been focused on taking the soldier out of combat. This is doubtlessly a good thing for the American soldier. It is less clear that this is a good thing for our political system and the process by which decisions about going to war are made.

You've heard remarkably little but presumably some nonzero amount of news about drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were originally used for reconnaissance but, as the military promised it would not do when introducing the technology, they are now armed with missiles. Military personnel pilot these drones over the skies of South Asia and the Middle East from the air conditioned safety of the Nevada desert. By any remotely objective account, this is a messy way to conduct war. Estimates are on the order of ten civilians killed in drone strikes for every "militant" – although conventional manned airstrikes suffer the same problem, of course. They do appear to be quite effective at killing al-Qaeda's "number two in command", though. As a note to the un- or under-employed, do not take a job as the #2 or #3 in al-Qaeda, as USAF drone strikes kill about four of those every week according to the press releases.

Although problematic in the extreme, I'm not talking about civilian casualties at the moment. I'm more concerned with the extent to which the calculus of going to war is altered when increasing portions of it can be conducted remotely. Predator and Reaper are but two of many UAVs in use or under development, many of which are man-portable or barely the size of an apple. Soon the Army hopes to have tiny autonomous R2-D2 analogues buzzing around the streets of Baghdad as part of an all-seeing surveillance network. DARPA has been developing autonomous land vehicles for the better part of two decades. Won't it be great when the military can send in the tanks without having to put crews in harm's way?

Yes and no. The fewer casualties, the better. But what becomes of our reluctance to send the military galavanting around the sordid parts of the world once American casualties are taken out of the equation? We have almost no restraint as it is. I shudder to think of how easily Presidents and legislators will make the decision to go to war when the attitude of "We can just send robots to do it!" becomes entrenched. We saw what the advancements in design of cruise missiles in the 1980s did to the Executive Branch; if someone's acting up, just lob a dozen Tomahawks at them from a few hundred miles away. It became the easy way to intervene without actually making a commitment or putting Americans at risk. Collateral damage isn't much of a deterrent to our political class. UAVs are another step in that direction, a step toward a future with more remotely operated and even autonomous means of doing the dirty work.

It's great that technology allows more American soldiers to come home alive and in one piece, but if we remove the U.S. body count from the decision-making process the only restraints on waging war will be common sense, morality, and logic. Yeah, let's start taking bets on how well that works.