Robowars

by Chris Bertram on February 4, 2010

BBC Radio 4 had a fascinating programme the other day about the use of drones in warfare by the US, British and Dutch military. It is still available at iplayer here (though those of you in the “wrong” jurisdictions may need to find fancy workarounds). A guy gets in his car and drives to work in an office in Nevada. From his office he controls drones in Afghanistan. Occasionally he kills people (who can’t shoot back at him, since he’s 8000 miles away). When he’s done, he gets in his car and drives home to his wife and kids. You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently. Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

{ 100 comments }

1

Ray 02.04.10 at 9:59 am

You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently

Yeah, the ones who run are insurgents, and the ones who don’t are clever insurgents.

2

Luis Enrique 02.04.10 at 10:04 am

I don’t see why software engineers shouldn’t be tried for war crimes, if they commit any. As to whether the software that currently exists, and the people operating it, are committing war crimes, I don’t know. I came across this article, which I’m linking because I think what it says is worth thinking about, not because I think it’s right. It argues that the people of Waziristan actually “welcome” the drone attacks because they are better than the alternatives (bombing by jet planes) and are mainly killing people they are happy to see killed. The author claims to base this on discussions with “hundreds of people from Waziristan”. Seems a bit far fetched to me, but I’m not sure I’m in a position to judge.

3

Pete 02.04.10 at 10:08 am

“terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war”

This is a distinction that’s been badly eroded by lots of parties since the end of WWII.

4

Luis Enrique 02.04.10 at 10:11 am

hmm… the link above appears not to work. here it is long-hand

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=201012\story_2-1-2010_pg3_5

5

Luis Enrique 02.04.10 at 10:16 am

odd …. there are backslashes in the url that are getting stripped out for some reason.
oh well. google “analysis: Drone attacks: challenging some fabrications —Farhat Taj” if anybody is interested.

6

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 10:21 am

I have never been very persuaded frby the view, that seems implicit here, that is morally more acceptable to kill your enemeies if they have a fair chance of killing you too. If we can kill more Taliban with fewer losses, that is good all round, surely. Certainly the vast majority of the Afghans seem to agree.

If the argument is that the drones are ineffective, that is a different thing all together, but I think that most informed people think they are effective.

I agree with Luis, though, if a software engineer commits a war crime, he should be tried for it. Why is that a dilemma? The principle is already there, isn’t it? Goering didn’t actually do any killing himself, he actuated it remotely.

7

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 10:25 am

“This is a distinction that’s been badly eroded by lots of parties since the end of WWII.”

Well, a lot oe people have tried to throw smoke up, but it is not usually very difficult to see through, is it? If you are operating a weapon used to attack people or as part of an army at war, you are military target. If you are not, you are not. There are bound to be hard cases, but not many, it seems to me. Certainly a drone operator would be a legitimate military target just as a sniper would be. Again, this proinciple sems to be clear from precedent. Allied bombing of German command centres (which are doing the same thing as our drone operator) was militarily legitimate. Or is that disputed?

8

John Quiggin 02.04.10 at 10:33 am

To sharpen it up a bit, suppose the Taliban managed to blow up an entire neighborhood in Nevada or Surrey, killing a drone operator and their family in the process. They could plausibly claim that they are only doing in the UK/US what the drones do in Afpak. Then suppose they blew up an entire neighborhood, but were misinformed regarding the presence of a drone operator. The converse has happened often enough.

Of course, AQ have already widened their own definition of legitimate targets to include just about anyone who isn’t a member of AQ, so the point is, to some extent, moot.

9

Zamfir 02.04.10 at 10:40 am

Anyone who runs, is a VC. Anyone who stands still, is a well-disciplined VC

The difference between operating a drone and shooting from a gunship or dropping bombs from a B52 is not that large.

10

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 10:47 am

“To sharpen it up a bit, suppose the Taliban managed to blow up an entire neighborhood in Nevada or Surrey, killing a drone operator and their family in the process. “

Again, this is covered by precedent, isn’t it? If the Taliban could show that they were targetting not the neighbourhood but the drone operator (while he was operating the drone) and had taken due care to avoid or minimise civialian casualties, it would be an act of war. If not, not.

But I do agree with you last comment, we are talking as if the Taliban is an organisation that has scruples over killing civilians for aany reason at all, which is evidently not the case.

11

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 10:48 am

“The difference between operating a drone and shooting from a gunship or dropping bombs from a B52 is not that large.2

I think the main difference is that the drone will tend to be more accurate. I think it would be easier to make a case that the aerial bombing of Berlin in WWII was a war crime.

12

Nick Barnes 02.04.10 at 10:52 am

Is an armaments factory a legitimate target? How about an armaments R&D facility? A software development office? A university computer science department?

13

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 10:59 am

“Is an armaments factory a legitimate target? How about an armaments R&D facility? A software development office? A university computer science department?2

Yes, yes, depends, no.

I am no expert on this, but I think the precedents have been failry set. It is legitimate to attack infrastructure that has a direct military purpose, so railway lines, yes, hospitals no. Of course there will be hard cases, but not so many, I wouldn’t have thought.

14

Factory 02.04.10 at 11:33 am

if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?
It’s worth noting that the allies in Afganistan don’t see any action by the Taliban in Afganistan itself as a legitimate act of war.

15

Thomas Jørgensen 02.04.10 at 12:01 pm

Oh, it would be an act of war. I loathe and despise the claim that terrorism is hard to define. It is not. It has a perfectly clear and easily recognizable definition and form. “Deliberately trying to kill civilians” The only ambiguity stems from people trying to taint their enemies with the label even when its not correct.
Roadside bombs aimed at soldiers: Not terrorism. Depending on details (is the person planting the bombs doing so while in uniform? Ect) , it may be violation of the laws of war, murder, or any other number of crimes, but terrorism it is not.
Bombs aimed at marketplaces: “Terrorism”.
And if you are shooting at people while in the employ of a military, you are not a civilian.. (And, strictly speaking, if you are not uniformed and in a proper chain of command, you may qualify as a saboteur or spy under the laws of war, which permits your enemies to summarily execute you if they can..)

16

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 12:37 pm

“if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?”

Again, I am no expert, but I don’t think this is very tricky. If the US shot a TTalib driving to work, I think that would be considered a crime, the same goes the other way around.

17

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 1:01 pm

John Meredith: you have exceeded your comment quota for the day.

18

Josh G 02.04.10 at 1:02 pm

Since we can assume that the Taliban are “unjust combatants”, then I don’t think that it would be permissible for them to kill a “just combatant” software engineer, even if they could.

19

James Conran 02.04.10 at 1:03 pm

Wasn’t the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003 largely achieved by Cruise missiles fired from the Persian Gulf? I suppose remote-controlled drones operated from the other side of the world is just another step in long-distance warfare. The moral problem would seem to be that the minimisation of risk for American (and allied) combatants is seemingly being prioritised ahead of the minimisation of risk for non-American non-combatants.

20

Ray 02.04.10 at 1:16 pm

Since we can assume that the Taliban are “unjust combatants”, then I don’t think that it would be permissible for them to kill a “just combatant” software engineer

Is that another way of saying that anything we do to them is good, because we are good, while anything they do to us is evil, because they are evil?

21

Barry 02.04.10 at 1:35 pm

John Meredith:

“But I do agree with you last comment, we are talking as if the Taliban is an organisation that has scruples over killing civilians for aany reason at all, which is evidently not the case.”

As opposed to the USA? And by scruples, I mean scruples, not PR worries.

22

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 1:39 pm

_Since we can assume that the Taliban are “unjust combatants”, then I don’t think that it would be permissible for them to kill a “just combatant” software engineer, even if they could._

Nazi soldiers were unjust combatants, in the sense that their cause was unjust. Nevertheless, a German artillery officer who killed an American soldier in Normandy in 1944 wasn’t acting impermissibly according to the rules of war. The Taliban, as irregulars, are arguably more problematic, since they do not wear recognized uniforms or insignia. But that puts them in the same boat as, say, US special forces operating behind enemy lines, or some WW2 resistance groups. You certainly can’t make that quick move from the injustice of their cause to the impermissibility of a given act of war.

23

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 2:33 pm

“John Meredith: you have exceeded your comment quota for the day.2

I hadn’t realised you were operating a quota system. Have I said something to offend? None of my comments strike me as especially inflammatory.

24

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 2:36 pm

“The Taliban, as irregulars, are arguably more problematic”

The Taliban are not ‘irregulars’ they are an illegal militia. That does not make their attacks terroristic necessarily (only when they target civilians) but it probably means they are not conducting a ‘war’ in any leagl; sense, doesn’t it?

25

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.04.10 at 2:55 pm

Despicable cowardly programists hide behind women and children.

26

Utisz 02.04.10 at 2:56 pm

Wow, unbelievable comments from many so far (or are they disproportionally distributed?). It seems some really do have no ability to conceive of the hypocrisy of their position, to see themselves as others see them. Oh and might apparently is right, judging by the above. Nothing learned from Iraq, sadly.

27

Anderson 02.04.10 at 2:58 pm

A university computer science department?

I was reading about the Mark I computer at Harvard, which was used to calculate ballistics trajectories and similar stuff during WW2. Had the Germans known about it and been able to bomb it, presumably it would’ve been a legitimate target, as would Grace Hopper, one of those programming the thing (and a lieutenant j.g. in the Navy).

28

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 3:29 pm

_The Taliban are not ‘irregulars’ they are an illegal militia._

Of course they are irregulars, that doesn’t preclude them being an illegal militia, if you think “illegal” contributes to the argument here, nor does it say anything about whether they are valiant resistants or bloodthirsty fanatics.

_I hadn’t realised you were operating a quota system._

8/27 comments is quite enough from one person. Please wait until we’ve passed comment #50 before coming back, and then wait until #60 before your next comment after that, and so on.

29

JoB 02.04.10 at 3:38 pm

I guess it’s the operator that can be considered a combatant and not the engineer programming the SW that allows the operator to shoot.

Otherwise: fascinating indeed. I hadn’t looked at it that way. The guy that shoots is the soldier, in my view, whereever he is pulling the trigger from.

30

John Meredith 02.04.10 at 3:45 pm

“f crs thy r rrglrs, “

Wll, nt n th sl s f th trm. rrglr slly dnts frcs whch r nt ndr th cntrl f th cnvntnl rmy bt r fghtng lngsd t (lk th rrglrs n th mrcn wr f ndpndnc).

Thnks fr xplnng yr ‘nly n cmmnt n vry tn’ rl, bt thnk y shld xpln t t fw thr pstrs, t ds nt sm t b gnrlly knwn.

31

Treilhard 02.04.10 at 3:55 pm

@ 30

“Irregular” just refers to the style of combat or the sort of tactics used. Legally it just means fighters who don’t have a distinct uniform and/or don’t openly bear arms.

32

bob mcmanus 02.04.10 at 3:59 pm

Okay. Weapons depots and weapons factories are legitimate targets. IOW, it is fair to obstruct the manufacture and maintenance of tanks, for instance.

So it it ok to target where the drones are operated, where they are manufactured, and where they are maintained.

If the programmer is maintaining the software from his apartment, via the Internet or military connection, than it must be ok for the Taliban to bomb his apartment building.

33

bob mcmanus 02.04.10 at 4:03 pm

But I don’t think it would be ok to bomb the housing of ordinary drone workers, the assemblers, engineers etc.

The difference with the programmer is his direct active connection, from his apartment, with the operation of the drones. IOQ, the apartment (and computer connection) is a part of the weapon system.

34

Treilhard 02.04.10 at 4:07 pm

I’m not sure why it would be the case that if Taliban fighters were able to launch an attack on a drone base in Nevada then it would be the murder of a non-combatant. “Non-combatant” specifically refers to non-engaged civilians and medical personnel. If n attack on a military radio operator in Afghanistan wouldn’t be murder, why should the 8,000 miles of separation give a special status to a drone operator?

35

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.04.10 at 4:13 pm

If the programmer is maintaining the software from his apartment, via the Internet or military connection, then it must be ok for the Taliban to bomb his apartment building.

This is not how the western forces operate, you’re suggesting a much higher standard. The western forces identify individuals they consider dangerous, and then they assassinate these individuals regardless of what they do and where they are. IOW, it doesn’t matter if the programmer is, at the moment, maintaining the software from his apartment, or visiting his granny in the nursing home, or riding a train with his family – he is a target in any of these situations.

36

Farren 02.04.10 at 4:18 pm

Count this as apocryphal, since its from faulty memory, but this topic brings to mind something the Dalai Lama said about firearms allowing soldiers to shoot people without being in close proximity to them. He said that this has fundamentally dehumanised war and made it more brutal not just because of the effectiveness of guns at killing, but because of the changed mindset and lack of empathy cues the use of long-ranged, accurate weapons enables in the killer. A bit off-topic I know, but tangentially relevant, I think.

37

kid bitzer 02.04.10 at 4:22 pm

chris, do you and john meredith have some history?

because, otherwise, i have to echo his (disemvowelled) puzzlement: the rule against jumping in repeatedly is not a rule i have ever seen enforced or even mentioned around here before.

(i mean–there are ordinary social rules that argue against boorishness and dominating conversations. those are good rules. sometimes i have even shut up on a thread so as not to run the risk of violating them. but i have also seen plenty of violations here at ct–plenty of boorishness and thread-dominating–that did not get called out by the poster).

38

Treilhard 02.04.10 at 4:23 pm

@ 36

I, for one, blame the long bow. War was much more humane when we all used axes and clubs.

39

alex 02.04.10 at 4:25 pm

Since it was perfectly OK – in the sense that no negative consequence was ever subsequently applied – to spray napalm over Vietnamese kids, to bomb Hamburg into a firestorm, and to displace the ethnic-German population of eastern Europe [among many other things that might theoretically be regarded as transgressions], can’t we all just agree that war is hell, and it would be much better if people weren’t allowed to do it AT ALL? Because it seems that any more discriminating attempt to distinguish ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ warmaking practices will just descend into the usual spewfest of vitriol. And it’s much more fun to do that about Zizek than about something which, distressingly, actually matters.

40

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 4:35 pm

#37 (a) Yes. (b) The demand for consistency is a bit strong for a blog with lots of contributors, but yes, we have rationed people before. Our comments policy gives us discretion to do whatever we like, but I don’t intervene much.

41

Mitchell Rowe 02.04.10 at 4:35 pm

Chris I am going to have to join John and kid bitzer in expressing puzzlement at a limit on the number of comments someone can post. John’s comments were all reasonable and politely stated.

42

kid bitzer 02.04.10 at 4:45 pm

you know, john m., there is also the point about boorishness to be considered.

43

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 4:47 pm

Well express puzzlement all you like. I’m just trying – based on long experience of things around here – to stop one person from dominating discussion. It is called moderation (in one sense of that term). Anyway, I warned him to wait until #50, he’s now ignored me twice, so he’s now permanently banned from my threads. For fans of Pulp Fiction – Ezekiel 25:17.

[This ends the discussion on comments policy, btw]

44

Jake 02.04.10 at 5:00 pm

How is it even a question? Someone flying a Predator is engaged in military activity, so they’re a legitimate military target. As was the Pentagon, more or less. I’d imagine there are typical Geneva Convention restrictions on the theoretical Taliban guy killing the pilot on his Nevada commute; he’d have to be an identifiable soldier so the pilot would be justified shooting him first with no warning, and if not would be subject to the whole treatment as a spy rather than a combatant etc.

As for the software engineer working from home, what was the conclusion about Israel blowing up some guy building bombs for Hamas in his apartment building?

45

Jared 02.04.10 at 5:25 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned P.W. Singer’s newish book Wired for War. I haven’t read it, but from this discussion my impression is that he raises many of these types of questions without answering too many of them.

46

Chris Bertram 02.04.10 at 5:31 pm

#45 Thanks Jared – yes that book informed much of the discussion on the BBC radio programme.

47

marcel 02.04.10 at 5:34 pm

Zamfir wrote: The difference between operating a drone and shooting from a gunship or dropping bombs from a B52 is not that large.

To whom, by what metric. The US lost over a dozen B-52s during the 1972 Xmas bombing; i.e., there was a cost imposed on the US, a relatively substantial one since B-52s, presumably, don’t come cheap, not to mention the crews on those planes. According to the story at the link, it was more than 2 dozen planes all told. I’d be surprised if the cost of that machinery didn’t exceed the cost of all the drones that would have been necessary to accomplish equal damage. I’m not going to try to quantify the human cost of the Americans who died. I won’t mention the Vietnamese cost because, to those who planned and ordered the bombing, that was a feature not a bug. So there certainly was a big difference (to the US), which likely why the US now fights in this manner.

John Quiggin could likely do a quick and dirty analysis of this, based on the economist’s axiom that as an activity becomes less expensive, people engage in it more frequently: in this case, the activity is war, and the ‘people’ is the US.

48

Josh G 02.04.10 at 5:43 pm

I missed quite a few comments there, but responding to Chris Bertram 22, and concerning:

‘Since we can assume that the Taliban are “unjust combatants”, then I don’t think that it would be permissible for them to kill a “just combatant” software engineer, even if they could.’

and

‘Nazi soldiers were unjust combatants, in the sense that their cause was unjust. Nevertheless, a German artillery officer who killed an American soldier in Normandy in 1944 wasn’t acting impermissibly according to the rules of war’.

By my comment, I meant that I do not believe that what is referred to as the ‘rules of war’ (jus in bello etc.,) actually state what justice requires in such a situation. If we take it that the Taliban (T) are unjust combatants in that they are causing an objectively unjustified threat to country or persons X; and take it also that the software engineer (SF) is a just combatant in that he is defending members of X ( and is perhaps a member of X himself albeit from a remote location), then I see no reason why T is permitted to kill SF simply because they are in a situation of war. An unjust threat is not permitted to kill a justified defender in normal conditions of self-defence, and I cannot see that the ‘rules of war’ have any real moral bearing in such cases.

49

geo 02.04.10 at 6:05 pm

@36: something the Dalai Lama said

D. H. Lawrence was there before him. See Chapter XI of “Education of the People” in Phoenix, vol 1 (pp. 655-661).

50

bianca steele 02.04.10 at 6:15 pm

Could software engineers be prosecuted as war criminals?

I assume the issue isn’t simply whether software engineers ought to be consumed with guilt over what they do, to the point of just quitting, on the lines of an argument that they may as well be designing weight-activated mines, in terms of the harm they do–but Richard Powers seems to have a strange kind of argument along these lines, in Plowing the Dark, and although I’m not sure of the details, I seem to remember Coetzee quit a programming job due to scruples of some kind. It isn’t entirely clear to me just how one gets from point A to point B, though (point B being “what you’re doing is evil and you should quit now”).

The book Jared points to seems to deploy at least two different arguments that computers and technology take decision making out of the proper decision makers’ hands. It’s true that remote controlled robot aircraft are a technology–and so is the calculus of projectile artillery–and so is the sensationalistic journalistic book–and so is the email exchange between professor and journalist that produces a quote for that book. I’m not suggesting we get rid of journalists or professors, or for that matter, of journalistic books (and I have no brief against calculus either). I just don’t know what the argument is supposed to be.

51

alarob 02.04.10 at 6:43 pm

Drone attacks are an aspect of a broader trend over the last century of war-making, which ethicist Jonathan Glover called “the shift to killing at a distance.” Quips about longbows aside, the 20th century introduced the means to kill masses of people by remote means including efficient blockade, aerial bombardment of cities, R&D for advanced anti-civilian weapons. Glover finds that bureaucracy is an important component of these operations, and that this structure serves to ease the psychological and ethical burden of each individual’s participation; they are not personally responsible, and in most cases can feel that their role is not crucial to whether the operation continues. Bureaucracy also tends to generate a sustaining inertia for these operations, as no one is singly responsible for stopping it. I believe we’re seeing both phenomena (evading guilt, inertia) in the drone program, which persists and expands despite serious doubts as to its strategic value.

52

Phil 02.04.10 at 7:29 pm

If we take it that the Taliban (T) are unjust combatants in that they are causing an objectively unjustified threat to country or persons X

“Objectively unjustified”? That’s a bit like saying “if we take it that our perceptions are objectively valid”, or “if we assume that we know”. Justification isn’t “objective” – it’s arrived at through deliberation. It’s also arrived at after the fact – the judgment that aggression was unjustified takes effect at a war crimes tribunal, not on the battlefield.

53

tomslee 02.04.10 at 7:39 pm

@48. Software Engineer would be SE, not SF. I think you mean Sheep Farmer (SF). As in:

If we take it that the technologists (T) are unjust combatants in that they are causing an objectively unjustified threat to country or persons X; and take it also that the sheep farmer (SF) is a just combatant in that he is defending members of X ( and is perhaps a member of X himself albeit from a sheep-filled location), then I see no reason why T is permitted to kill SF simply because they are in a situation of war and T is sitting in an armchair with a cup of coffee.

54

Simple answer 02.04.10 at 7:39 pm

The worst clearcut group of military to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in the highest percentage were the men/women who worked in Hawaii handling shipment of the dead, notification of the next of kin. Expect these robokillers to have major problems.

55

dsquared 02.04.10 at 8:02 pm

Someone controlling a weapon is clearly a combatant IMO however he controls it and I don’t think this is even a close case. In John Q’s case, recall that the Geneva criterion is that collateral damage must be not excessive relative to a concrete, definite, military advantage expected to be gained. A drone-centre is clearly concrete and definite, and I would think that the destruction of a big one would potentially be such an important military objective that even quite a lot of civilian casualties might not be considered excessive.

There’s another and quite interesting issue with respect to drones though – a big part of the reason why airstrikes are often thought to shade into war-crimes is that they’re indiscriminate, and any form of attack which can’t discriminate between combatants and noncombatants is per se illegal. It appears to me that a drone is much less indiscriminate than an airstrike, and so it’s potentially quite significantly reducing the incidence of war crimes.

A software engineer who intentionally messed around with the software of a war-bot to make it into an indiscriminate weapon might be considered a war criminal, I can certainly see how that would happen.

56

Josh G 02.04.10 at 8:11 pm

I don’t agree with you about justification Phil. An act is subjectively justified, but objectively unjustified, when a person acts on the basis of reasonable beliefs that are false, but that if they were true, the act would be objectively justified. Objective justification is justification that is independant of an agent’s belief. Therefore, an act can be objectively unjustified but subjectively justified ( and maybe vice versa…).

If T causes an objectively unjustified threat to SF (sheep farmer), then her belief about the justification for the war (perhaps a false belief in the moral equality of combatants) does nothing to change the fact that her action is unjust despite these beliefs. Objectively unjust combatants are thus those that are unjustified in perpetrating their attacks. This is not to say that they may not be excused though.

For a much clearer explication of these points, you could do worse than to read Jeff McMahan’s new(ish) book ‘Killing in War’.

57

Aaron Swartz 02.04.10 at 9:06 pm

Doesn’t that mean that locating a drone control center in a standard office park would be the morally disgusting tactic of using “human shields”? It ensures that the drone controllers can’t be taken out without significant collateral damage.

58

tomslee 02.04.10 at 9:20 pm

dsquared @55: I see what you mean about discriminating drones, but I am not quite convinced. There are two steps in killing with discrimination: identifying the target and hitting the target. Drones may help with hitting the target that has been identified, but judging from “You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently” I’m not convinced identifying the target is going to be reliable, not to mention the problems with communication between the identifier and the shooter.

59

Martin Bento 02.04.10 at 9:23 pm

I think the real issue here is the increased willingness that technologically-superior powers will have to aggressively pursue war when their own risk of casualties is so slight. That’s what’s behind the objection to drones. The risk your own side takes is a natural control on your willingness to wage war.

60

Henry 02.04.10 at 9:27 pm

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.04.10 at 9:35 pm

I think the real issue here is the increased willingness that technologically-superior powers will have to aggressively pursue war when their own risk of casualties is so slight.

Isn’t it balanced by the increased threat of terrorist attacks? I don’t think the amount of casualties is a serious factor.

62

chris y 02.04.10 at 9:57 pm

The risk your own side takes is a natural control on your willingness to wage war.

Yes, but it breaks from time to time. The relatively sudden availability of iron weapons for the masses at the end of the second century BCE destroyed the order of things from China to western Asia and eastern Europe. See also the Hunnic and Mongolian bows and, if more locally, the Macedonian pike, Norman archery in the 11st century, etc.

On the grand scale, such innovations have tended to originate among peripheral powers, because the great powers have had less incentive to military innovation except under external pressure. But in the modern period, the industrial half of the complex has had its own reasons to pursue it, and the short, bloody history of the 19/20th century European empires shows exactly what happens when the technologically superior powers have an increased willingness to fight because of the reduced risk to their own side: “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

The parallels between the rhetoric of the classic late 19th century imperialists and the 21st century “democracy out of the barrel of a gun” brigade will furnish undergraduate dissertations for the next fifty years. But so will their respective battlefield thinking.

63

Martin Bento 02.04.10 at 10:07 pm

Henri, the technology behind terrorist attacks is of necessity that which is generally available. The only truly sophisticated technology in 9/11 was the jets themselves. For OKC, modern chemistry. The great powers can use terrorism too, if they’re of a mind, as when the US developed the Contras to undermine the Sandanistas. So it’s not a question of drones balancing terrorism. The US uses drones and terrorism both, and its financial and armament muscle can support terrorist groups beyond what would be normally possible in a given situation (it’s very difficult to see the Contras being viable without outside help from a very powerful source).

64

leederick 02.04.10 at 10:31 pm

“There are two steps in killing with discrimination: identifying the target and hitting the target. Drones may help with hitting the target that has been identified…”

They don’t stress this in the program, but there’s no reason why a human has to be remote operating and do the identifying. Most of a robot’s work is done on autopilot, with humans only getting involved for the important bits. That can be extended to the shooting too. The push for this is it’s very handy if you’ve got a situation where you (perhaps, even if you’re just a drone) may come under attack and need a quick response a human can’t provide.

You can load a drone with a missile and program it so that if it gets lit up by an anti-aircraft radar system it automatically fires the missile back in response (remember the human operator is probably running several semi-automated drones at a time and isn’t sat there waiting for something to happen with his finger on the trigger). Robot gun-and-sensor installations are current technology; you can also program up an automated rifle or artillery so that if an incoming ballistic is detected it calculates the origin and fires back. That’s very attractive in anti-sniper situations. If someone took a shot at me, I’d want a system that located them and trained fire from a robot machine gun turret on their position half a second later – before I’d realised what’s going on, and before they can take a second shot. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be a third party wandering around anywhere with that sort of setup in place.

I get the feeling they’re working up to covering those issues in Part 2.

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sg 02.05.10 at 1:03 am

I don’t believe there’s a lot of evidence in the public domain that drones are more “discriminate” than more traditional bombing methods – there are quite a few wedding parties and toasted families to the contrary, however.

There’s also zero human cost to the US for operating combat aircraft in Afghanistan.

The case for the Taliban as being illegitimate combatants is also pretty shite. I’d have thought that the fact that we invaded in order to destroy their movement makes their defense just – or is anyone who defends themselves against us automatically on the wrong side of “just”?

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Phillip Hallam-Baker 02.05.10 at 1:55 am

This has become a much harder problem to discuss due to the illegal activities of the Bush administration.

Under the laws of war as understood by everyone other than the Bush administration, there are two choices, you can treat enemies as soldiers or you can treat them as criminals.

Both groups have rights, but the rights are rather different. Unlawful combatants can be charged for murder, but you have to use a real justice system and not the show trial system using evidence extracted by torture that Bybee/Yoo/Gonzalez created for Cheney.

So as a practical matter it is preferable to recognize the Taliban as soldiers and hold them as prisoners of war. This is what the Obama administration has done. And this really should not be at all controversial, it is the only constitutional mechanism that allows the US government to hold someone indefinitely without trial. And that is the way things should be.

The Taliban was, like it or not, the de facto government in control of Afghanistan at the time of the US invasion. Since the Taliban has not given a formal surrender there is no need to consider release of any prisoners of war at this stage.

Taliban soldiers captured after the establishment of the new Afghan government are a different matter. But they are not an issue for the US at all, they are an issue for the Afghan government alone.

Al Qaeda is a different matter, there is a plausible argument that mere membership of Al Qaeda made a person an accomplice in their actions. Al Qaeda made a declaration of war against the US, the declaration was highly publicized and well known to any AQ member. AQ is not a state actor and is not entitled to make war against any government. As such, AQ members cannot claim the protections against criminal prosecution that a soldier could.

At this point, both the Taliban and Al Qaeda may be considered organized crime organization. Mere membership is a criminal offense. They are not considered soldiers so they are not entitled to retaliate. A mafia boss is not entitled to shoot a cop in retaliation for being shot at. The question does not arise.

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noen 02.05.10 at 3:27 am

What worries me is where this all goes. The ability to remotely pilot instruments of death from halfway around the world is an extraordinary power. It’s Godlike, it really is. So then what? Well, people will just take it to it’s natural conclusion won’t they? Welcome to your new remotely administered police/judiciary.

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noen 02.05.10 at 3:42 am

“A mafia boss is not entitled to shoot a cop in retaliation.” — I miss the Mafia already.

“AQ is not a state actor and is not entitled to make war against any government.” — Says who? There aren’t any “rules” to any of this, it’s all just social consensus. If I can enforce my will against yours then I am “entitled” to do as I please. AQ is not entitled to make war because the reigning Global Imperial State says so.

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Jack Strocchi 02.05.10 at 4:09 am

Chris Bertram said:

The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes…You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently.

Why not charge small arms engineers with war crimes too? After all rifles have been used in the commission of atrocities. Its a legal nonsense to blame the weapon maker, it is the weapon user who has to be held accountable. Philosophical howler.

Coalition military authorities appear to make a fair and reasonable effort at gathering intelligence in the inquisition, acquisition and destruction of enemy targets by drones. That is why Taliban suicide bomber, posing as a real time informant, was able to penetrate the local drone control unit in Afghanistan.

There are undoubted moral risks associated with drone warfare. But they are outweighed by the marital rewards. (Assuming an ethical Machiavellian approach to a “just cause” war.)

This form of warfare is helping to win the war, or at least avert an ignominious defeat. We have to destroy the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. The best way to do that, and to divide and demoralise them, is to “call down fire from the sky”.

Although personally, I think the sooner we are out of there the better, providing we can reach a settlement with the “moderate Taliban”.

Drones tend to minimize civilian casualties if the operators use them in accordance with proper rules of engagement and good, real time intelligence. According to Human Rights Watch:

“When used properly, drones and their precision missiles can help a military minimize civilian casualties,” Garlasco said. “But drones are only as good at sparing civilians as the people who command and operate them.”

Its true that drone attacks in Pakistan have killed far more civilians than insurgents, if you accept figures from unnamed “Pakistan authorities”.

But this has to be set against the likely higher casualties that would be inflicted by conventional air raids, indirect artillery fire and “search and destroy” operations.

Not to mention the higher civilian costs of untrammeled rule by the Taliban, safe harbour for Al Queada and a possible militant take over of the Pakistan state. The people at most risk from drone attacks tend to support them most fervently, going by this survey:

in areas most affected by US strikes against high-value Taliban and al Qaeda figures (South & North Waziristan, Kurram Agency) that the population actually seemed to favor the strikes. These findings stand in stark contrast to the loud voices in the Pakistani media which paint the targeted air strikes as “civilian massacres”.

It sounds like Chris Bertram is being played for a stooge by the ISI propaganda machine.

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Jack Strocchi 02.05.10 at 4:11 am

Chris Bertram said:

A guy gets in his car and drives to work in an office in Nevada. From his office he controls drones in Afghanistan. Occasionally he kills people (who can’t shoot back at him, since he’s 8000 miles away). When he’s done, he gets in his car and drives home to his wife and kids.

Sounds good to me.

Attacking enemy targets in the open from a safe vantage point is not a “war crime”. Shooting ducks in a barrel is obviously preferable to having them shoot back at you. As General Patton said:

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.

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Jack Strocchi 02.05.10 at 4:30 am

Chris Bertram@#22

The Taliban, as irregulars, are arguably more problematic, since they do not wear recognized uniforms or insignia. But that puts them in the same boat as, say, US special forces operating behind enemy lines, or some WW2 resistance groups. You certainly can’t make that quick move from the injustice of their cause to the impermissibility of a given act of war.

Wrong. The Taliban are not simply irregular soldiers supporting a secessionist movement for the Pashtuns. They are stateless insurgents cum die-hard bandits.

Their military organization operates without the formal authority from the legitimate (more or less democratic) government in Kabul. No way are they entitled to all the rights of enemy prisoners of war.

There is no analogy with US special forces operating behind the lines, since these operate with the legal authority of a recognised state. Which government in the world recognises the Taliban? (Resistance forces in France, Italy and Germany are another matter and were fair game for the authorities, providing anti-partisan sweeps were done on behalf of a legitimate state.)

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Jack Strocchi 02.05.10 at 4:44 am

John Quiggin@#8

To sharpen it up a bit, suppose the Taliban managed to blow up an entire neighborhood in Nevada or Surrey, killing a drone operator and their family in the process. They could plausibly claim that they are only doing in the UK/US what the drones do in Afpak. Then suppose they blew up an entire neighborhood, but were misinformed regarding the presence of a drone operator. The converse has happened often enough.

As if theocratic terrorists would ever take pains over such niceties. The US at least tries to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized by using civilian casualty minimizing weapons and real time intelligence. I dont think car bombs detonated in the midst of busy markets make that cut.

The US government is a legitimate state and is in lawful coalition with the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Whilst the Taliban are outlaw, secessionist terrorists. Not to mention dope peddlars, adulteress-stoners, Sharia lawyers etc

The idea that there is a moral equivalence in the methods to the two agencies does not pass the laugh test, at least from the Machiavellian point of view (mine).

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Henri Vieuxtemps 02.05.10 at 7:12 am

Martin 63, I think you misunderstood me. You said:

I think the real issue here is the increased willingness that technologically-superior powers will have to aggressively pursue war when their own risk of casualties is so slight.

But imagine that using this (or any other) kill-with-impunity technology increases the probability a nuclear explosion in a US city (by terrorists) in the next 10 years from, say, 0.1 to, say, 0.2. Do you think the authorities would stop using drones because of that? …neither do I. So, my point is that what you call “their own risk of casualties” is not really a big factor in their decision to use/escalate violence.

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Hidari 02.05.10 at 7:39 am

‘The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.’

My understanding is that the original quote actually goes: ‘War isn’t about some poor son of a bitch dying for his country. It’s about making some other poor son of a bitch die for his.’

I could be wrong, but as I remember it even General Patton (!!!) wasn’t as cold, callous and heartless as you are being here.

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Hidari 02.05.10 at 7:56 am

I’m rushing out at the moment and really don’t have much time to on about this, but this really touches on two issues that are integral to the world of the ‘West.’.

In terms of the ‘West’s’ self-image, of course, at least since WW2, ‘we’ have become more civilised, more humanitarian: we abide by the rules of war (whereas, of course ‘they’ don’t).

On the other hand, (and I just don’t have time to check this…facts please!) my understanding is that the ratio of civilians to military personnel killed has gone up throughout the 20th century.

And this has a lot to do with the technology of modern war: especially the use of airpower and the absolutely lamentable ‘blurring’ of the distinctions between civilians and soldiers, which really began in WW1.

Take a battle like Culloden for example. Not much fun for all concerned, but

1: It took place in the middle of nowhere and

2 therefore the only people killed were people who signed up so to speak to fight. And obviously, there were actions taken against civilians afterwards (the break up of the clan system). But the battle itself didn’t involve any civilians.

I choose this example as it was the closest recent example, in the British Isles, to the Afghan or Iraqi situation: an ‘insurgency’ against the ‘legitimate’ govt. (the ‘troubles’ occurred AFTER the blurring of civilian and military I’m talking about).

In other words, whereas it is generally accepted that warfare has become less awful in recent decades, I think that at least in this particular case, it might in reality have become worse.

As for cowering in your darkened room and killing people more or less at random on the other side of the planet: Homer would have had a few words to say about that.

I might also add that ‘we’ are all presupposing that the invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent occupation are actually, in terms of international law, legal: a debatable point.

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Martin Bento 02.05.10 at 8:05 am

Henri, I’m still not sure I understand you. The impact you seem to be suggesting they should take into consideration is unknowable. Whether our drone attacks will, in the long run have a positive, negative, or any effect on our likelihood of being nuked by terrorists is unknowable. It may kill the people who would do it, but it may motivate others to replace them, or, more importantly, gain them sympathizers in important places or with major wealth – the kind of people who can get nukes. So how are they to take that into account really? On the other hand, the difference between manned and unmanned forays seems pretty calculable.

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bad Jim 02.05.10 at 8:53 am

A minor aside: during the run-up to the first Gulf War, a colleague and I speculated about product liability for a weapon manufacturer: would one be at fault for a product that worked or one that didn’t?

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Phil 02.05.10 at 8:56 am

[Al Qaeda as criminal conspiracy]

They are not considered soldiers so they are not entitled to retaliate. A mafia boss is not entitled to shoot a cop in retaliation for being shot at.

Neither is a cop entitled to shoot a mafia boss, if he happens to bump into one during the execution of his duties – still less to drop bombs on him and his associates from a great height (MOVE notwithstanding).

Legally speaking, you can be an unlawful combatant, in which case you should be dealt with as a criminal. (Which means police not army, and trial not summary execution.) Or you can be a soldier, in which case you should be dealt with as a soldier – unless you’re fighting an illegal war, or fighting a war illegally, in which case you should be dealt with as a soldier now and as a criminal later.

That pretty much exhausts the space of available options. Bush & co seemed to be thinking in terms of something like the pre-modern concept of the ‘outlaw’, only projected onto the world as a whole – “this man has taken up arms against the legitimate government of Afghanistan, therefore we can and should shoot him down like a dog”. It doesn’t really work like that, in law.

This comes back to my disagreement with Josh G:

An act is subjectively justified, but objectively unjustified, when a person acts on the basis of reasonable beliefs that are false, but that if they were true, the act would be objectively justified.

That’s true as it stands; the problem is that, as human beings, we have no access to objective truth (which is why we’re ruled by lawyers and not philosophers). Elevating our own perception of objective truth to a political principle would be quite dangerous, nicht wahr?

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Anon 02.05.10 at 9:18 am

I’m missing something on the whole drone thing. I’m a pretty big hawk on fighting terrorism (doesn’t mean sacrificing American Constitutional principles though by the way or any other basic principles of our country), finding, and eradicating terrorists.

But I don’t get the drone thing. Either I’m reading reports incorrectly, or I feel like I am living in a country which is looking at things very differently

Apparently, these drones very frequently SIMPLY KILL INNOCENT people.

This is not, if correct, a random and hard to avoid act of occasional “collateral damage.” This is an antiseptic program that is known to routinely cause the death/killing/murder of complete innocents, in the pursuit of terrorists or those who are assisting.

If this is the case, this is simply unacceptable, and, frankly, an outrage. What almost as big of an outrage, is that we are seemingly not outraged about it.

Ultimately all we are left with as a society is our humanness, our justice. This does not comport here.

On the slight analogy that the original post also makes, I made this analogy to Instapundit and that site editor’s rather stretched strategy calls. Someone called it unfair. I never got an explanation as to why. I thought the case was made objectively, and fairly, and created the perhaps discomforting awareness of what the bigger picture really looks like when we are able to remove ourselves from the center of the scene, and view it objectively, and dispassionately.

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David 02.05.10 at 9:56 am

Jack at 69 – “There are undoubted moral risks associated with drone warfare. But they are outweighed by the marital rewards.”

Are you suggesting that drones are a form of martial aid?

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chris y 02.05.10 at 10:33 am

Apparently, these drones very frequently SIMPLY KILL INNOCENT people.

So did V1. So did Little Boy. Simply killing innocent people has apparently been an acceptable tactic to people who actually fight wars since before most of us were born. Is the entire modern military inherently criminal? (I don’t rule out that conclusion, but you don’t often see it drawn.)

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Chris Bertram 02.05.10 at 11:17 am

_Simply killing innocent people has apparently been an acceptable tactic to people who actually fight wars since before most of us were born._

Well yes, but bombing civilians from the air is still pretty recent and there are still people alive who were born before the the first instance … Great Yarmouth, 1915 if I’m not mistaken.

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Martin Wisse 02.05.10 at 11:30 am

Yes, of course an organisation devoted to the efficient killing of people is inherently criminal. Just because we guss it up with high moral values and “rules” doesn’t change this fundamental fact.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t draw distinctions in the actually existing relaity of military operations. One of the advantages of drones over planes is supposed to be the former’s ability to distinguish between the people the US wants dead and those that it has no such desire for. But since the reality on the ground seems to be that drones are just as likely to cause wedding parties to be obliterated for much less risk, the increasing use of them is not something to be applauded in this context.

In a more wider context, anything that makes it easier and less risky for such an agressive power as the US to wage war is worrying. It was the Vietnam experience that kept it reasonably docile during the seventies and much of the eighties; is it a coincidence that military operations increased as technology improved?

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Martin Wisse 02.05.10 at 11:31 am

Chris: actually, as so much, bombing was pioneered in the colonies: Libya, 1911.

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Chris Williams 02.05.10 at 11:52 am

I don’t want to say, “I told you so”, but in 1999 I told you so.

From http://www.red-star-research.org.uk/rpm/maxingun.html

“Delivering death from above on demand

The ultimate military aim is to completely destroy your opponents with impunity. It led to the British use of ‘air control’ via ‘police bombing’ in the 1920s and 1930s. It led to the German state wasting millions on the V2 in World War 2. Closest to success yet, it led to the H-bomb and the ICBM. The US lost in Vietnam because of the steady stream of body-bags: Reagan was forced to pull out of Beirut for a similar reason. Even if the enemy is only bombed from the air, never engaged by ‘our’ ground troops, it’s still a dicey business where ‘real’ (i.e. Western) people might get killed.

The US adventure in ‘lawless Somalia’ can be precisely timed. It began in December 1992 with a landing by US marines scheduled to coincide with the prime time news hour. It ended in October 1993 when the TV cameras showed a new scene: the mutilated bodies of US helicopter pilots being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Another example: in 1995 a US navy pilot, Scott O’Grady, was shot down over Bosnia by Serb forces. He was rescued several days later. In the US, national euphoria greeted the news. The window had not cracked: the barrier erected by advanced technology and overwhelming force had stayed up. ‘We’ were not going to suffer any loss at all.

It is no surprise, therefore, to see the SDR introduce an increase in the ‘death from above’ component of the UK’s armed forces. All the navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines will be modified to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles while submerged. These have a range of 900 miles, and there is no realistic defence against them: as the people of Belgrade found out. They are perfect for destroying the infrastructure of uppity ‘dictators’ (or even democratically elected leaders… ), who might be tempted to question their place in the scheme of things. This capacity also bodes ill for any future re-proliferation of nuclear weapons: Tomahawks can also carry nuclear warheads, and their presence or absence aboard a top-secret submarine is almost impossible to verify. We were sold the Euro fighter (at £70m each) on the basis that it was the only way our boys could overcome the awesome power of the latest Soviet planes. Now the Soviet fighters are rust, but the UK is still buying it, to be overwhelmingly superior to any possible enemy, and thus suffer no losses.

This is not caused by any peculiarly British hooligan tendency. If you look reasonably closely, you can see that several of the NATO countries (France, the Netherlands, and Spain) are tooling up in a similar fashion. They are cutting down on their ability to fight the Red Army, and investing in ‘amphibious warfare’ – the ability to invade unreliable clients. The armed forces of the advanced capitalist countries are no longer devoting themselves to fighting the Soviet Union. Instead, they are going back to a nineteenth century model, optimised for fighting small wars in other countries, using high technology to maximise their advantage. One important change from the nineteenth century is that due to a growth in egalitarianism within the liberal democracies, their soldiers are no longer considered dispensable. This in turn leads to a greater use of disproportionate firepower (as we saw over Serbia) in an effort to eliminate NATO casualties totally, at the expense of passers-by.”

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ogmb 02.05.10 at 12:14 pm

Esquire had a pretty good article on drones last October:

We’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Unmanned

“The war begins each day on the long drive into the desert, just past the Super Buffet and the Home Depot and the Petco, and the swath of look-alike houses that cling to the city’s edge, along the forty miles of the strangest daily commute in America. Air Force Staff Sergeant Charles Anderson plucks his wristwatch from the cupholder and crosses into the war zone.”

Executive summary: It’s much much much cheaper to fly drones vs. fighter aircraft.

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alex 02.05.10 at 12:53 pm

Simply killing innocent people has been accepted as an outcome of war for much, much longer than commenters admit above. Whatever happened on the battlefield, across the wider sphere of warfare civilians were ‘fair game’ under an alarmingly wide set of circumstances, unless they explicitly surrendered themselves into the power of military forces. Sieges are a particularly concentrated example of this, in which the freedom of troops to rape, pillage and murder a population, that had frequently been constrained by their own leaders to remain in peril, was accepted with very little question as late as the Peninsular War. Or one might cite the several thousand innocent casualties of the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, as sorry a tale of the ‘pre-emptive’ invasion of a small, weak country in pursuit of geopolitical dominance as you will find in the annals of British warfare.

One should not make the mistake of thinking that there has been progress in anything except technology. The evidence suggests that the pronouncements of the United Nations, for example, bear the same relation to warmaking now as, shall we say, Kant’s ideas for perpetual peace in 1795 did to the history of the following 20 years. This is terrible, but it is also true.

And one might also say, looking to a future in which it is increasingly unlikely that perpetual peace will result from some friedmanite levelling, that it will remain, sadly, in the individual interests of everyone to live under the umbrella of a state equipped to deal death as efficiently as possible in as many ways as possible. Or to hope that wherever you are becomes such a backwater that nobody wants to attack you. But unless you are extraordinarily lucky, like the Swiss, and combine difficult geography with providing valuable services to more powerful states, you might find in that instance that instead you become Belgium, not merely ignored, but rather fought over as a convenient location to settle the scores of bigger powers, for a few hundred years or so.

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Zamfir 02.05.10 at 2:55 pm

Alex, that’s Friedmanite flattening, not leveling. You have to take care with those metaphores, they are mixed by an expert, and just remixing them yourself won;t do a lot of good.

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Farren 02.06.10 at 11:51 am

Is someone misappropriating the mustachioed metaphor-mixer?

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Mario Diana 02.06.10 at 4:02 pm

Jack Strocchi @ 69

There are undoubted moral risks associated with drone warfare. But they are outweighed by the marital rewards.

The article in The New Yorker came to my mind immediately, so I was happy to see you reference it. But I think you gloss over the “moral risks” of drone warfare. In the article, the notion of using drones as a tactic rather than a strategy comes up. The temptation is to lean more and more towards using it as a strategy, which would be horribly wrong from a moral standpoint.

My takeaway from the article was this. You know why the Greek gods were such giant a**holes? It’s because they held the power of life or death and yet were invulnerable themselves. 3,000 years ago the Greeks understood where this sort of thing leads.

Mere mortals worry about things like “just cause” in part because, in war, the stakes are very real and quite palpable. That’s the full context, as much as we’d like to think that high-mindedness is sufficient motivation for rectitude.

I’m sorry, but the United States is already criticized for its alleged imperiousness. Unless, ultimately, we keep some skin in the game, it’s certain that any high-mindedness we have will be fully eclipsed by high-handedness.

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Henry Troup 02.06.10 at 7:27 pm

(Not any of the Henrys above.)

I find it hard to reconcile any form of aerial bombardment with any of the concepts of “limited warfare” that are implicit in the Geneva conventions, etc. As other posters have at least alluded to, WWII saw the extension of “military target” to mean “the people who work in armament factories, their homes, and those of their neighbors.” “Total war” is not a moral position, in my thinking.
Consider the conventions on landmines and sea mines, for an earlier example, parallel to automated drones. And consider how rarely the word of those conventions was followed. Setting loose machines that kill autonomously is an act likely to have consequences.
Could a software engineer face war crimes charges for a shoot/don’t shoot algorithm? Or would the charges be closer to the point of release, or further back in the chain of requirements? Writing a requirement for an algorithm “kill nine of every ten without discrimination” would seem to be a moral crime right there – but instantiating it and letting the machine loose would also be clear crimes.
Contrariwise, writing an algorithm “target humans carrying objects longer than 60 cm and with length to width ratio of 4:1 or greater” is not a clear crime; pointing it at people coming out of a store known to sell brooms might well be.

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Natilo Paennim 02.07.10 at 1:56 am

Way back up at 22: “Nazi soldiers”?
Do you mean Vehrmacht soldiers who happened to be members of the NSDAP? Because I hardly think that their personal political leanings would be a justification for much. Hitler’s democratically elected regime, however odious, was the legitimate government of Germany. Germany was in a state of declared war with several other legitimately-governed states. In the absence of a specific war crime perpetrated by that soldier, I’m confused about why there would be any debate about whether the soldier in question was due all of the rights and privileges of a lawful combatant.

Obviously, for reasons stated above, and others which I’ll assume we could all list off, the situation with the so-called “Taliban” and “al-Quaeda” soldiers is different and slightly more complex. (I use the scare quotes because I’m not aware of any definitive, independent proof that the people who are categorized thusly have any clear relationship with people who had previously used those names for their organizations.) Basically, at this point, the US, UK and their allies are fighting more-or-less disorganized groups of patriotic partisans. As people have pointed out here before, all the laws of war and prisoner treatment have been drawn up by imperial bureaucrats in order to specifically disinclude such partisans from any definition as legitimate combatants. So it’s hardly surprising that they’re being interned, tortured and killed, nor that the armies involved in suppressing them routinely target civilian populations in order to deny the fighters material and moral support. Governments always do that. Red Army vs. Makhno, Black and Tans in Ireland — it’s precisely equivalent. This is how the majority of armed conflicts work. The only veil that needs lifting here is the one covering the eyes of the bourgeois liberal dupes who persist in their exceptionalism and naivete.
“When they knock over there, friend, they’re knockin’ for you!”

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Omega Centauri 02.07.10 at 6:07 am

At least in theory drone use could lead to fewer civilian casualties. I can imagine a drone operator lingering in disputed airspace long enough to obtain a high degree of target certainty, whereas a manned attack platform under very real threat wouldn’t want to take the chance of waiting for strict confirmation. Of course it cuts the other way as well. Less worry about the politically damaging possibility of own country casualties -or worse having your captured military
personel used as political hostages. So the threshold for use is lowered, but potentially the threshold for avoiding the use of lethal force when target identification is ambiguous is lowered as well.

I found the software engineer thing a bit disingenuous. Having once had a minor part in a highly classified program, I know that they operate by compartmentalization of information. The programmer needs to know about technical capabilities, but not actual operational details. It will be illegal for him to enquire about these, as they are not necessary for his job function. So he is essentially a tool maker, pretty much like a gun smith. So the whole idea of who is supporting a military operation is a very fuzzy one. Do I have to work in an armaments factory? How about the guy who mines the metal used to construct the weapons? Or the farmer whose crops feed them? There are only degrees of separation, but never the sorts of certainty that our binary logic based legal systems are constructed to deal with.

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ajay 02.08.10 at 11:56 am

91: Consider the conventions on landmines and sea mines, for an earlier example, parallel to automated drones. And consider how rarely the word of those conventions was followed. Setting loose machines that kill autonomously is an act likely to have consequences.

But drones don’t kill autonomously. Predators, etc, are really just large, sophisticated radio-controlled aircraft. No drone has ever released a weapon unless a human operator has told it to do so. Target identification is done by people looking at images. The implications of autonomous armed robots are very interesting (morally and technically), but entirely theoretical at this point.

92: As people have pointed out here before, all the laws of war and prisoner treatment have been drawn up by imperial bureaucrats in order to specifically disinclude such partisans from any definition as legitimate combatants.

This is not true (and also illiterate; “disinclude”? How about “exclude”?). It’s provably false with about ten seconds’ research, in fact, which makes me wonder why you decided to say it.

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ajay 02.08.10 at 5:55 pm

There are undoubted moral risks associated with drone warfare. But they are outweighed by the marital rewards.

Well, that’s true. If you’re flying them from an office in Nevada rather than an airbase in Kandahar, then you’d be able to get home to see your family every night rather than once in six months, which would put a lot less strain on your marriage.
But I think you meant “martial”…

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Alice de Tocqueville 02.09.10 at 12:15 am

This whole discussion, with some standout exceptions – Henri , alex @ 39, tomslee @ 53, simple answer @ 54, noen @ 68 & 69, Hidari @ 74 & 75, and some others – is nauseating. The credulity and just plain ignorance of the reality of an invasion of a country that is full of people who’ve done nothing to us is terrifying. None of you would be talking this way if you had drones flying over your homes. (But you may soon know how that feels; the US is ready to deploy them on “our” borders. They want to use them all over the US, but the FAA objected that they are too easily interferred with by all kinds of radio waves.)

You can’t count the “government” of Afghanistan as anything but an extension of our invading army. There is no such thing as a legitimate election in an occupied country.

There are already signs of a high proportion of PTSD among the drone “pilots” in Nevada and Texas, since apparently these devices deliver pretty clear images of what and who they destroy, that is, innocent women and children almost every time. Then the “pilots” go home to dinner and face the innocent eyes of their own children.

“Unmanned” indeed! Why do you think the suicide rate of Iraq vets is so high? Because the entire war is a racist atrocity, and the only people who don’t know it are armchair posters like you! What do you think it means to BE a man? Kill children? Kid yourself really hard?

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Alice de Tocqueville 02.09.10 at 4:07 am

Have you ever sat face to face and listened to Iraq vets talk about what happened in Iraq? or Vietnam?
If you had, I don’t think you would ever repeat anything the US, or any military organisation, puts out for public consumption.
Here’s an article in Truthout that is quite eye-opening:
The US Military: A Mindset of Barbarism, Part 2
http://www.truthout.org/the-us-military-a-mindset-barbarism-part-256724

Dahr Jamail interviews “Dr. Stjepan Mestrovic, a Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University who has written three books on US misconduct in Iraq: “The Trials of Abu Ghraib: An Expert Witness Account of Shame and Honor,” “Rules of Engagement?: Operation Iron Triangle, Iraq” and “The ‘Good Soldier’ on Trial: A Sociological Study of Misconduct by the US Military Pertaining to Operation Iron Triangle, Iraq.” He has three degrees from Harvard University, including a Master’s degree in clinical psychology, and has been an expert witness in psychology and sociology at several Article 32 hearings, courts-martial and clemency hearings involving US soldiers accused of committing crimes of war in Iraq, including the trials of prison guards involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal.”
On drones:
“Numerous news stories report that the government is currently using drones to kill pre-designated human targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan based upon “intelligence.” These news stories also routinely report that women, children, and civilians are often killed in the process. The mechanical drones are used exactly the same way as human soldiers are used: to carry out the same ROE that applied to Operation Iron Triangle. Incidentally, news stories suggest that the drone operators who execute these missions while sitting in remote control areas in the US are developing PTSD rates faster than the soldiers who actually engage in battle.
It seems to be the case that we are supposed to be mesmerized by the “postmodern” technology that leads to the use of “simulacra” soldiers and missions. The “target” becomes an image on a screen. But real human beings are carrying out the same ROE, whether in face-to-face confrontations or “simulacra” remote control engagements. And the human toll on both the soldiers and the civilian populations is not “simulacra,” but is very real.”

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Substance McGravitas 02.09.10 at 4:11 am

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Alice de Tocqueville 02.09.10 at 4:21 am

By the way, in case I’m not clear, Dr. Mestrovic and Dahr Jamail are very clearly outraged by the fact that officers aren’t ever prosecuted for atrocities that they have ordered those under their command to commit. Another reporter who condemns the military’s abrogation of its duty to its soldiers: Seymour Hersh, who broke both the Abu Ghraib and My Lai massacre stories.

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hix 02.09.10 at 7:46 am

Western military technologly is already at a level that makes trampling down on thirld world countries very low risk. Air attacks in particular are already almost risk free vs vs third world countries anyway.

Thanks to nukes, we wont see any war that is more than trampling arround on third world countries. Those countries that cant manage to get nukes are no serious conventional threat. Anyway, nukes, just mentioning the word should shut down 99,9% of all military debates since they all operate under some odd asumptions that only make sense without nukes.


Hitler’s democratically elected regime, however odious, was the legitimate government of Germany

The NSDAP never had a majority in the elections. Hitler did become chancelor by presidential apointment. After that the NSDAP just used old fashioned force to gain absolute power and keep it that way.

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