The Awful Prospect of Turning War Over to Machines

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The Baltimore Sun

The Awful Prospect of Turning War Over to Machines

"Once in a while, everything about the world changes at once. This is one of those times."

This is a quote from social commentator Chuck Klosterman that I saw atop Chapter 11 in the important and disturbing book "Wired for War" by P.W. Singer. If you doubt the accuracy of the observation, all you have to do is read the book and you'll see there is no denying it. Modern warfare is moving at warp speed to a future where robots and robotic systems do most of the fighting on battlefields. We get a hint of it every time a news story mentions that X number of "insurgents" were killed somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan by missiles fired from an American drone aircraft. We are in the midst of the most astounding revolution in the waging of war since the creation of the atom bomb. wired_for_war.jpg

The U.S. Air Force now trains more drone pilots than it does pilots for manned aircraft. Airmen leave their homes stateside, drive to work, monitor video from Predator drones circling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, and sometimes let loose Hellfire missiles that obliterate people thousands of miles from their consoles. Mr. Singer is an expert on military matters. His previous books reported the details on the rise of private military firms and on the widespread use of child soldiers in modern wars. This one is the result of four years of intense research and interviews with scientists, military experts, science fiction writers, ethicists, inventors and other people involved in or pondering the phenomenon of machines replacing people on the killing fields. The questions this breakthrough raises are many and profoundly important.

Western militaries are notoriously casualty-averse in the 21st century. When President Bill Clinton decided to bomb Serbia 10 years ago, he ordered that our incredibly expensive bombers and fighter-bombers not fly lower than 15,000 feet over their targets. The result was a ridiculously low level of accuracy in the bombing, but not a single airman was lost, and that was goal number one. Since then, the science of robotics and its use in war has exploded to the point where fewer soldiers, Marines and airmen are being exposed to lethality on or above battlefields.

It's tempting to say that this is an unalloyed blessing, but it really isn't. Reading Mr. Singer, you'll come to understand the questions and dilemmas that arise from having this technology to employ. For example, it will make wars easier for politicians to start and - while saving lives - will almost certainly lower the moral and psychological barriers to killing. The so-called "warrior ethos," by which fighting men are defined, will be eroded. There is the possibility of Terminator-like scenarios with robots rebelling against humans, and if you think that's ridiculous, just read the book. Also, technology knows no borders. Other nations, notably Japan and China, are well advanced in robotics, and down the road there is always the chance that nonstate actors, or even determined, Timothy McVeigh-like characters, will be able to deploy machines, sowing destruction for their own malign purposes.

Finally, as for the public and unmanned wars, as Mr. Singer puts it, "Wars, even the best of them, lose their virtue. They instead become like playing God from afar, just with unmanned weapons substituting for thunderbolts." Already, YouTube viewers flock to videos showing vehicles and people blown up by IEDs, or "insurgents" vaporized from on high. War is hideous, and when it is reduced to a spectator sport, something viewed from the comfort of your home or office, with machines doing the killing, it becomes much too easy a thing.

Near the book's end, Mr. Singer quotes cultural historian Paul Fussell, a World War II combat veteran, saying, "If there is no risk, no cost, then it isn't war as we think of it. If you are going to have a war, you've got to involve people and their bodies. There's no other way."

"In the end, he laments, "People will support the next war because the TV tells them to."

Machines are getting smarter all the time. People? Not so much so. As Einstein said, "Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal."

Ron Smith

Ron Smith's column appears in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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