Drone technology that preserves the lives of American soldiers may come at a price to American civilians.
The world has known its share of warrior kings. A warrior king is not the same as a warmongering king, or head of state. The difference is that a warrior king (or queen) has served in battle, risking life and limb, and has thus imbued the nature of violent conflict into his soul. This doesn’t necessarily mean he loves peace. He or she (Joan of Arc) might fight for national defense, religion or resource and territorial gain—yet still understands the costs of armed conflict on those who wage it, and those who suffer its consequences.
The United States, a democracy with a penchant and skill for war—as are many nations soon to follow—is now in command of an impressive technology that not only allows our leaders to remove themselves from combat in the flesh, but many of our soldiers as well.
Drones have—and will continue to change—the nature of global warfare on scales so small the average Joe hardly notices them—and likely, one day, on scales so incredibly large they will darken the earth and the skies with destruction.
I’m in favor of technology that saves American lives, and keeps our soldiers out of harm’s way. Yet even so, this technology comes with a price, and a heavy responsibility for the end users. When the stakes and risks are diminished at home, the tendency to indulge in a perpetual Orwellian war is often on the rise.
This unbridled destructive force is something our own leaders (Obama), and other heads of state are grappling with now. Some are desperately seeking out the capability to strike anywhere in the world at any time, like Zeus’s mighty thunderbolt, while others are struggling to define just how godlike their ability to rain death down upon their enemies should be. As the power to kill remotely increases, it’s inevitable that coalitions will arise to keep this awesome power in check.
Drones, which can fly through the atmosphere, soar into orbit and run across the land, are in many ways the ultimate sniper rifle, defining kill ranges by thousands and tens of thousands of kilometers, rather than hundreds of meters. That’s quite a scope.
The warrior kings of the past, who rode at or near the front lines, shared in the collective risk—at least to some extent—of the wars fought by their armies and kingdoms. Regardless of their reasons for battle, however noble or ignoble those reasons were, these monarchs and aristocratic generals often bled with their comrades, and when the “king’s ransom” was denied, died with them as well.
Modern leaders typically do not share in such risks. Professional, high-tech militaries diminish the burdens felt by societies under the stress of mass conscription and mobilization efforts. More and more, drones let those in charge carry out military operations of varying scale without ever having to set boots (except special operations forces) on the ground.
In the age of video game-like warfare, it’s important to know when to strike, and when not to. A well-trained sniper understands when it’s time to pack up and head home. Prime ministers and presidents don’t generally get that kind of training. It can be a hard addiction (killing at will) to temper, or control. In a different political climate, or in less-than-charitable hands, a “drone king” could easily set the world on fire, and unlike the warrior kings of old, he could do so without ever getting out of his chair.
There very well may be a time when it will be appropriate for drones to take part in massive attacks, but in the interim, a measured use of this technology should be the guiding rule by which a democracy abides. In science fiction, sentient machines tend to take over and wage war upon humanity (The Matrix, Terminator). Thinking machines don’t worry me yet—although policymakers (not necessarily military leaders) with little understanding of the outside world, who support drone strike after drone strike, do have me concerned. This type of lethality, while undeniably useful at times, is a poor substitute for real problem solving.
A nation can feel fairly secure when it’s at the top of the drone pyramid, and master of the skies, but we should remember that other nations with technological means are vying for that control as well. We just might whistle a different tune when it’s a foreign power’s drones patrolling our skies, and not our own.
Image credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery