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Reader riposte: Remote-control warfare


This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.


30 April 2010 11:20

This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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'.

To the law first, and under Article 43 of the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I, only 'Members of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict' are 'combatants', and no one else has the 'right to participate directly in hostilities'. The US Government will not confirm reports that Langley-based CIA (noncombatant) drone operators are targeting militants in Pakistan. Perhaps this is because there are doubts about the legality of what appear to be extrajudicial killings or outright assassinations.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, has repeatedly expressed his concern that 'Predators are being operated in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law.'

Regarding military ethics, and beyond the understudied issue of PTSD, a key concern with remote-control warfare is the distinction between risky and risk-free modes of killing. Military 'pilots' in Nevada operating drones over Afghanistan are potentially exposed to psychological harm, but they kill in a manner that undoubtedly entails no physical risk. The expertise, instruments and minds of drone operators are most certainly 'in the fight', but their bodies are not.

As such, within the warrior profession, the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare’s Henry V said that 'gentlemen in England' would 'think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap...' (And yes, civilian academics like me might fall within this category too.)

Lastly, on the issue of prudence, there is a risk that drone strikes will be counterproductive to the strategic ends of counterinsurgency. Last year, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum warned against expanding or even just continuing the drone war in Pakistan for three reasons: (1) it created an undesirable, anti-American siege mentality among civilians; (2) drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused more civilian casualties than is actually the case; and (3) the use of drones without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public amounted only  to a tactic rather than a strategy.

If drone strikes are 'counter-counterinsurgency', they are imprudent, and any popular ill-will generated can only be compounded by perceptions of illegality, immorality or cowardice.

In the final sentence of his post, Adam makes the broader observation that 'This whole argument about the supposed ease of remote fighting and so-called risk of machines making decisions is just plain silly.'

In response, I would say firstly that these issues are not well understood and I thank Adam and Sam for bringing them to light. But the 'whole argument' is far from silly and is well worth having. Arguably, for example, remote fighting is easier precisely because it is less (physically) dangerous, and machine-mediated decision-making on matters of life and death is fraught with legal, ethical and strategic risk. On these and related issues, there needs to be much more debate.

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