Drone wars: The temptation of automated conflict

David Silverman Getty The Eitan, the Israeli Air Force’s latest generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), flies over a ceremony … Continued

David Silverman


The Eitan, the Israeli Air Force’s latest generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), flies over a ceremony introducing it into the 210th UAV squadron on February 21, 2010 at the Tel Nof air base in central Israel.

Iran is claiming that it shot down a U.S. spy drone. Missile kills drone. This is the future of warfare, where technology fights technology.

Automated conflict is so tempting today. After a decade of costly and ineffective traditional wars that involved troops on the ground and cost a fortune, these drone wars can look pretty tame (and cheap) by comparison.

Even the diplomatic consequences of the U.S. drone being shot down by Iran do not seem that grave, despite Iranian posturing. There is no military prisoner captured. It will scarcely create the kind of international crisis caused by the Russians shooting down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960.

Or will it? Human beings are still involved, and where there are human beings, unpredictability and the possibility of conflict surely will follow. At a time when we need to be doing everything we can to talk the Iranians down from their nuclear ambitions, what did this drone actually cost the world in terms of future conflict? If that future is nuclear, then it will cost us immeasurably.

But even without that doomsday scenario, expanding the use of drones should be resisted. Drones will not reduce conflict. Their very ease of use will tempt nations, our own very much included, to engage in automated conflict.

The problem with automated conflict, however, is that it doesn’t stay automated. People die in drone wars, just like they died from the automation of arrows when the crossbow was invented. War machinery has a terrible capacity to tempt us to think it’s something else.

It’s not something else. It’s still death.

But drones looks so clean, so neat, so “surgical” in their capacity to spy and kill. Troops on the ground are supported by these flying war-bots. An operator in this “Predator Drone” information video refers to a drone as a “guardian angel” for troops on the ground.

But the carnage that can result from a drone attack is demonic, not angelic. A March 17, 2011 drone strike killed at least 38 civilians.

A Pakistani tribal elder, Malik Faridullah, describes the result of this so called “precision bombing.” “There were no bodies, only body parts — hands, legs and eyes scattered around. I could not recognize anyone. People carried away the body parts in shopping bags and clothing or with bits of wood, whatever they could find.”

Should we then be surprised when tribal leaders in this part of Pakistan vow “revenge”against the United States? “We are a people who wait 100 years to exact revenge. We never forgive our enemy,” some of the elders said in a statement. How much is the accelerating failure of our foreign policy goals in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state increasingly at odds with the US, the product of such drone attacks? And how little we may understand of the long-term sabotage of our capacity to re-build this relationship in the future.

Drone technology is clearly the future face of warfare unless we as citizens act to reign them in by insisting they are weapons of war, not ‘peace by other means’. Indeed, with looming budget cuts for the Pentagon, the use of drones may accelerate just because they are cheaper than much of the military’s hardware, though at $4.5 million a piece, scarcely cheap. Cheap is very tempting; citizen resistance must accelerate accordingly.

There is another temptation to drone war. The more war comes to resemble a video game, the more we are morally deadened to its real costs. In the new video game, Modern Warfare 3: Call of Duty, the graphics are very realistic. Astonishingly so. It looks like you are joining a movie already in progress. When you play it online, 8 or 10 people can log onto the same map and try to kill each other. Or, you can log on as teams, and each team tries to kill the other team. As a player in MW3: Call of Duty, you get points for every other person you kill that you can use to buy upgrades in the game.

Then you shut off the computer and go about your day.

I ask myself what drone operators feel when they shut off the drone technology at the end of their days? What do drone designers feel who are rapidly expanding into this business field? What do we feel, we who fund this technology? We never get to the ground, where families are picking up body parts in shopping bags.

In drone wars, the video game war we now are expanding into so unthinkingly, we know less and less about what war is actually like.

When you know less and less about what war really is, you inevitably know less and less about what peace really is and how it actually comes about.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • kpharri

    War is stupid. There is scarcely a better word for it.

    And a war of machine against machine may save lives, but it’s just as stupid.

  • persiflage

    War, like religion, is a primitive instinct. We will have both for a very long time to come, and they are not particularly contradictory, as history has proven over and over again. Our own culture is saturated with both, so we can’t very well blame ‘more primitive’ societies for their own preoccupations with both.

    Our technological superiority and in fact many important scientific discoveries were based on the search for more sophisticated weaponry – as paradoxical as that may be.

    War is horribly destructive from start to finish, but in the USA we never seem to take a hiatus from war for more than a decade or two.

    Don’t think that the masters of war are not planning big things for Iran as we speak……..they should be very concerned about drones, and they are.

    Yes, Pakistan has a right to be angry about this recent incident, but by the same token, the covert Pakanstani support of the Taliban in Afghanistan is quite well established – and they have a nuclear arsenal of some size.

    Among humans and their respective governments, there are no innocents to be found anywhere………..

  • WmarkW

    You need drones to fight an opponent who loves death as much as your side loves life.

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