It’s so easy to kill an animated figure on a screen in a video game. And then another, and then another, each of them so realistic in their detail that they could almost be human. Pretty soon you’ve knocked off hundreds of imaginary people.
Not so easy, though, for most of us to pull a trigger, knowing that a bullet will rip through someone’s heart and stop their existence. Perhaps we instinctively empathize with the victim and fear for our own lives. Or maybe most of us kill with difficulty because the taboo against killing is so strongly instilled in us, that moral sense that taking the life of another human being is wrong, sinful?
The problem with all advanced military technologies is that they turn war into a video game, and by doing so distance the possessors of the technology from their adversaries. Whether the attack is by conventional bomber, missile, drone or the robot weapons now under development that will make decisions independently of their human masters, the technology turns the enemy into video images. I know that this distancing leads to fewer deaths among the attackers. But remote warfare dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill lots of them without giving it a thought. The bombardier doesn’t see the victims below, or if he can, they look like specks. The operator of the drone is even farther away from his intended victims.
At a distance, distinguishing between terrorists and the innocent is difficult, if not impossible, as the latest admission by President Obama that our drones killed two hostages tragically demonstrates. Keep in mind, this incident is just the latest drone fiasco. As the New York Times reports, every independent investigation of our drone attacks has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. “When operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.”
For most of human history, it took a man to kill a man, or perhaps a man to kill 10 men. Soldiers knew full well when they were killing other soldiers and when they were killing civilians, and would often face the full moral force of human society and history when they did the latter.
But now a small group of men can kill 70,000 people with the push of a button, without even considering how many were children and adult noncombatants. I use the number 70,000, because that’s how many people died within hours when the United States dropped a rudimentary atomic bomb on Hiroshima some 70 years ago.
By lowering the cost of battle in human terms, military technology makes it easier for leaders, generals and military industrialists to convince countries to go to war. It makes it easier to propose and implement extreme acts of violence, both from the operational and the moral point of view. Only afterwards, when we read that people we were trying to rescue were killed in our drone attack or that from 150,000 to one million Iraqis died in our war built on lies, only then do we recognize the enormity of our crimes and the bad judgment that went into perpetrating them. Look how it easy was for Obama, who voted against the Iraq War, to get sucked into using drones to target terrorists.
We would have been better off without the invention of bombs and missiles. We would have been better off without the invention of guns. But those genies are out of the bottle. Let’s learn from our mistakes, though, and stop the development of robot weapon systems and stop the use of military drones.
Those who believe that it will be harder to fight the terrorists without drones are living in a delusional world in which American exceptionalism means we’re the only ones who bother manufacturing military technology. Automated weapons efficiently kill the other side, whether it’s the enemy or us. In a few years, the terrorists will also have military drones, unless we stop their development and sign treaties to make sure no nation works on them.
Of course, we can always develop the next generation of weaponry and continue our militaristic death spiral that started with machine guns, tanks and nerve gas.