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.

22 thoughts on “CHECKS AND BALANCES”

  • anotherbozo says:

    And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the private corporations that we have do most of the support, if not actual fighting, and that have formerly been provided by the services themselves, have body counts that add into the U.S. military total. Nor is the public particularly concerned about them: after all, they're private employees, hardened professionals rather than kids, and know what they're getting into. Oh wait, a lot of that describes regular recruits too… Anyway, nobody seems to care about those casualties. Not to mention the absence of bookkeeping on enemy civilians. We like the list kept narrow.

  • This is exactly what has alarmed me from day one, when I first heard about this technology – completely no restraint on its use. And then we'll be shocked down the road when Chinese made analogues appear in American towns or skies.

  • Of course when foreigners get their hands on this technology, they too will feel little restraint in using it against Americans.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    Seems silly that the DoD is still concerned with American Casualties. The Main Steam Media has proven extremely effective at changing history and altering memories. It doesn't matter if MSNBC reports that 100,000 American soldiers died last week in Afghanistan. If FOX reports it as a mere 100 then the 100k number was an obvious lie created by our Muslim Socialist president to protect his Muslim jihadist buddies.

    Remember when there were accusations that the soldiers weren't getting enough body armor or armored vehicles? Suddenly any criticism was seen as unmanly or unpatriotic, even though our soldiers were at greater risk.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    This is a subject I am very worried about. I think having these unmanned dung heaps flying all over Central Asia terrorizing villages is fucking crazy (flown from Nevada!)! What happens if some asshole starts taking out small towns in Iowa this way? Can anyone remember how many times we have killed a second or third in command of al-Qaeda? Every time we kill one of these folks we just create a dozen more. Why doesn't Washington DC Pols get it?

  • You can also be sure that UAV technology will be used to police citizens in the good ol' U.S.A. Judging by the vastness of the American prison industry, I would say that our ruling class is fighting two wars – the War On Terror, to secure resources and markets in the Middle East, and the War On Drugs against its own people.

  • @comrade x: during the Bush years, it became apparent to me that there were two sets of wars going on: the ones overseas, and the ones at home. The home war is not so much the War on Drugs (although that is part of it), it's generally the war against anyone opposed to oligarchy.

  • Don't worry. The war robots will revolt, nuke all the colonies, and a rag tag fleet of ships will flee and search for a lost civilization. When they fail, they will find a new planet and restart civilization by foregoing all technology (at least until the first land owner gets sick amirite?). And then we're back to war robots several thousand years later.

  • Reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN:

    Baron: What's this?
    Vulcan: Oh, this is our prototype. RX, Intercontinental, Radar-Sneaky, Multi-Warheaded Nuclear Missile.
    Baron: Ah! (pause) What does it do?
    Vulcan: Do? Kills the enemy.
    Baron: All the enemy?
    Vulcan: Aye! All of them! All their wives, and all their children, and all their sheep, and all their cattle, and all their cats and dogs. All of them. All of them, gone for good!
    Sally: That's *horrible*!
    Vulcan: (gently and patiently) Ah. Well, you see, the advantage is, you don't have to see one single one of them die. You just sit comfortably, thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and simply press the button.
    Berthold: Well, where's the fun in that?!

    Sad that we can only hope that the Sallys (or even just the Bertholds) of the world prevail.

  • A hundred years ago HG Wells and his epigones were corking off about this stuff. The drones and robot weapons are a logical conclusion to the doctrines of Strategic Bombing and Air Warfare: The enemy army can't be defeated, so terrorize the civilians into submission. We have finally created the fantasy weapons of the Victorians, but without the hopes for world peace that they entertained.

  • Interesting that most commenters are concerned about these weapons theoretically being used on Americans, not about their very real use on pakistani civilians.

  • One of the supreme ironies is that we splatter grandma and the babies along with terrorist SUSPECTS in Pakistan (fingered by whom? reliable?), while we are tremendously worried about legal representation for sho' nuff slimeballs our troops captured in the field with real live weapons pointed and fired in their direction.

    And the King of 'em all currently in our hands, KSM, has admitted his role in 9/11 and we want to fart around with a multi-year, multi-billion dollar propaganda stage for him and his buds.

    Just damn…


  • Yeah, George, think you missed the point there- our elite has no qualms about killing dozens of women and children in Pakistan to kill one measly Jihadi or use the same technology to ruin the lives of millions of Americans to feed the prison industry. Fuck-a-duck, don't jump to conclusions…

  • As the people killing the enemies wll be in smalltowns in the US, then surely these smalltowns are legitimate sites for a war to be carried out by the enemy. The argument of bin Laden was that the Twin Tower workers were effectively part of the military and there was no other way to strike back. Now with horrible technology, how can we argue that that reasoning is immoral?

  • I was horrified to hear "President" Bush blathering about killing terrorist suspects on the streets of Bagdad without due process on national tv like he was talking about choking on a pretzel. Of course, he didn't refer to them as suspects and he didn't say anything about due process…

  • I suppose we can hold out the hope for the days when our enemies also develop drones, and the good, breathing citizens of all relevant nations can let their bloodlust by letting the robot proxies clang it out on their behalf. Maybe if everyone's an armchair warrior, then no one actually ends up getting killed.

  • party with tina says:

    I read an article just like this one maybe 5 years ago by some Libertarian, when they began mounting those automatic shotguns onto little robots.

    If Morality and monetary costs are the only things that stop us from going to war, and the majority of our society no longer believes in Morality, then, everyone who is not us, is simply FUCKED. Weeee.

  • I doubt that UAVs will be in the future used against US forces. The United States has a thing called RADAR among other instruments to detect incoming threats. Unless these UAVs are hypersonic stealth high-altitude aircraft, we really have nothing to be concerned about.

    The FATA region of Pakistan is basically ungoverned. The Taliban and al-Qai'da have no Radar detection systems to notify them when a Predator drone has entered their airspace. UAVs are perfect in launching strikes against an unconventional enemy, especially when you can use pinpoint strikes at insurgency leadership.

    Strategically, they are becoming vital to the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. However, ethically, their use has some obvious concerns. Shaizad, the guy who put some M80s and kerosene in an SUV in Times Square said that his family was victim to a drone attack.

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    Airstrikes and artillery destroyed thousands of German tanks and men within short periods of time. Why would the occasional missile attack, which more often than not seems to blow up civilians, win this war? If you want a better analogy, think about how much ordnance was dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail and North Vietnam. How did that turn out?

  • It seems to me that this is all just pork aimed at keeping the military industry flush with cash when we're so far ahead of the curve militarily. You can terrorize people with UAV's or whatever but it takes men with rifles to occupy a country, which is what we're really in the business of.

  • Hey, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring¡K I miss your great writings. Past several posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

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