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Remote-control warfare

20 Apr 2010 17:29

The Wikileaks video showing an American Apache helicopter killing a group of Iraqis has predictably reignited controversy over the close resemblance modern games have to actual warfare, which is conducted increasingly via pin-point strikes from aircraft safely out of range, or even using flying robots guided by 'pilots' on the other side of the world watching a screen and moving a joystick.

Andrew Sullivan's blog carries a video from a game called 'Call of Duty 4'. Level four of the game is named 'Death from Above', and it's eerily similar to the real Apache footage:

Sullivan also links to a very good interview with Wired journalist Clive Thompson which damps down some of the hysteria about this issue. But there are a couple of additional points worth making.


23 Apr 2010 11:28

Adam, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, writes in response to my post about video games that increasingly resemble real war:

My PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is due largely to targeting decisions — my own in the heat of chaotic battle — offensive actions and battle damage assessments carried out in front of my own eyes on a laptop screen (and which I personally directed at times).

Make no mistake: the distinction between fantasy (gaming) and real-world remote warfare is very clear and profound. When you see limbs separated from a man's torso or a fellow coalition soldier dismembered by AQ (al Qaeda) allies on an LCD display, several hundred kilometres from the action, I can assure you that the real human cost weighs heavily on one's conscience. Only a psycho would feel nothing emotionally.

I know of several real cases where US government officials (uniformed and civilian paramilitary) and civvy contractor UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) pilots, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) planners and targeting specialists are suffering very real, chronic and debilitating mental illnesses arising from such exposure, some of which was experienced from a mission control bunker in mainland USA — that is, nowhere near a war zone.


30 Apr 2010 11:20

Christian Enemark from the University of Sydney writes:

An excellent post by Afghanistan veteran Adam. He insists that 'the distinction between fantasy (gaming) and real-world remote warfare is very clear and profound', and I am inclined to agree and to sympathise with anyone suffering PTSD.

The psychological hazards faced by those who kill from afar is a subject worthy of more research, but Adam's post raises broader concerns about the legality, ethics and prudence of drone-based warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In particular, I am intrigued by his reference to 'US government officials (uniformed and civilian paramilitary) and civvy contractor UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) pilots'.


30 Apr 2010 11:52

In his email on the remote-control warfare debate, Christian Enemark claims to be making an ethical point when he says that, in physical terms at least, drone pilot put themselves at no risk of harm when they go to war. He goes on to say that 'the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity.'

But that's really a sociological observation, not an ethical one — Christian hasn't really demonstrated why the use of drones is particularly problematic on an ethical level.

Yet I can see some ethical problems arising from the Christian's line of thought. After all, don't governments and citizens have a moral duty to protect those who fight on their behalf? And don't drones serve that purpose? If drones are ethically questionable because they allow armed forces to fight without risk of physical harm, then what other military technologies ought we to consider unethical on those grounds?


3 May 2010 10:47

Peter Layton writes:

Your debate on drones has some resonances with debates about spying on the enemy by listening to their signals. US Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the State Department's cryptanalytic office saying 'Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.' Technology keeps throwing up new ways of making war that need to be dealt with.

In this regard some are concerned that fighting remotely is less manly and courageous. I am sure that the same was said of artillery when it first started being outside the range of the immediate retaliation of foot soldiers. However it cuts to the core of the role of war in Western thinking. War has become instrumental. It has a political purpose. As Clausewitz said, (modern) war has its own grammar but not is own logic. 


5 May 2010 07:41

Matt Currie responds to our debate:

There seems to me to be two separate questions here which are being blurred in this debate. One is practical and the other moral.

Firstly, If playing computer games desensitised people to the act of killing wouldn't there be measurable consequences? Gaming is incredibly popular amongst the whole community (not just the military). I'm no statistician but wouldn't there be a rise in the number of killings;  a higher murder rate? I am not aware of any evidence which supports this.

Even if the games do have a desensitising effect, is there any evidence that this is greater than the effect of military training? Professional soldiers are already conditioned to kill on command. My own experience is that the combination of training, military culture (that emphasizes toughness), the need to follow orders and to do one's duty have a greater effect than playing military simulation games.


5 May 2010 11:06

James Brown has worked as an Australian Defence Force officer and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

The recent posts on the use of predator drones draw out three key issues. Firstly, are they legal or ethical? Secondly, are they effective? Finally, and quite bizarrely, is fighting with drones manly, courageous, or honourable?

Let me consider the last point first. Christina Enemark mentioned that 'the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity'. In the considerable time I’ve spent talking to drone jockeys and targeteers none of those concepts have been important factors in how they do their job. Those operators are happy to leave pontificating on masculinity to poets, philosophers, and singer-songwriters. Drone pilots derive the same professional satisfaction from making tough decisions under demanding circumstances as any other professional. They don’t drive home through the Nevada desert feeling that they haven’t done their bit in the war.


7 May 2010 10:45

Here's a bracing contribution to our drone warfare debate.

In the margin's of yesterday's ICG Asia Briefing conference in Singapore I talked with Samina Ahmed, ICG's Project Director for South Asia. She argues that much of what we hear about the effects of US drone strikes in the FATA areas of Pakistan is wrong — it doesn't drive locals into the arms of extremists, in fact quite the opposite.


11 May 2010 08:41

Peter writes in with this contribution to the drone debate.

A recent article by the LA Time illuminates more aspects of the drone attacks on terrorist groups operating from the FATA pertinent to this ongoing blog debate...

In these drone attacks, as an earlier post makes clear, the US endeavors to abide by law of war conventions meaning that only the terrorist groups leadership and readily apparent foot soldiers are targeted.

As the article observes attacks are not authorised against those individuals that facilitate Al Qaeda operations or fund the group. This approach, while legally correct and ethically sound, does have strategic ramifications when thinking about these wars of non-state actors.

...The drone strikes are then principally focusing on terrorist attrition and disruption. The Times Square bomber and the Christmas airline bomber were not well trained suggesting that the terrorist groups are indeed having difficulties in their redoubts.