In the grand scheme of human history, the 20th and 21st centuries have become the beacon of innovation, and the birth of modern technology. From the advent of the telegraph, all the way to the unfathomable abilities of the iPhone, new breakthroughs in communication, transportation, and electronics have re-shaped the course of human history. And while many of these creations have served as assets to humankind, there have also been great strides made in industries of a darker nature, specifically in the field of weapons technology to be used by governments in order to wage more modernized incarnations of war. These cutting-edge killing devices have done much to not only increase the scope and destruction of modern warfare, but to desensitize those doing the killing from the atrocities that they commit on a daily basis.
The largest contribution by far to the restructuring of modern war tactics has been the introduction of pilot-less drone warfare, which has recently been utilized by the United States government in various regions of the Middle East under the Obama administration. For the first time in history, soldiers are now able to guide militarized aircraft from the safety of remote locations into areas of military conflict, where they can watch the action from an infrared screen and simply push a button to deploy explosive devices directed at various enemy targets. Soldiers who may never before have been able to muster the courage to move to the front lines of battle can now take part in the action without ever risking an injury, a fact which supporters of drone warfare laud as serving to reduce the number of American casualties. And while it’s true that American lives may be saved as a result of such military tactics, the reality is that drone warfare both desensitizes those who operate these killing machines and create an increased number of foreign civilian casualties.
In a recent Spiegel article, these negative consequences of using drones in combat are highlighted through various interviews with their former operators. The telling conversations range from stories of human compassion being cut back by the call of duty, and go on to recall some of the often-overlooked horrors and realities of war.
A night-time drone patrolmen, Brandon Bryant, tells of watching Afghani citizens having sex on their roofs (where they sleep at night to fight the heat), and of the attachments he developed to many of the individuals he was later instructed to murder. From the article:
He [Bryant] observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
“I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.
Bryant also tells us of the horrific realization he had when, following the deployment of a guided missile, he realized in those few seconds before the explosive struck its target that a child was also to become a casualty of the weapon he’d been assigned to operate. His remorse follows him to this day. Also from the article:
Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
“Did we just kill a kid?” he asked the man sitting next to him.
“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.
Major Vanessa Meyer tells us of the sensation of tremendous power she experienced while operating the drones. She remarks, “Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar.” Her statements reveal much of the sort of desensitization that results from being engaged in (yet physically absent from) conflict: “There was no time for feelings…When the decision had been made, and they [the United States military] saw that this was an enemy, a hostile person, a legal target that was worthy of being destroyed, I had no problem with taking the shot.”
Each of these stories (and the others contained within the text of the article) illuminate the harsh realities of drone warfare. When individuals are removed from combat, they are perhaps far more likely to commit acts of aggression which require merely the push of a button. Any of the courage, skill, and moral determination one might feel while engaged in battle for a just and worthy cause (such as defending one’s homeland from foreign invasion) is forgone, favoring instead a sensation of apathetic duty to simply “follow one’s orders.” When the reality of murder is removed from the act of committing it, it becomes much easier to overlook the blood on one’s hands (and to kill greater numbers of individuals).
Following the announcement this year that General Atomics has been commissioned by the Department of Defense to design new “death-ray” lasers for which drones are soon-to-be equipped, it’s predictable that future acts of war will delve deeper into the pseudo-simulation of a video gaming experience and away from the heinous and traumatic realities of organized murder. Soldiers whose humanities have been dulled by the government mantras of “civic duties,” “patriotic service,” “defending freedom,” and “spreading democracy,” will likely find a thrill in watching targets evaporate via laser technologies, their minds further sheltered even from the previously-standard images associated with 20th-century warfare (such as explosions and ballistic reckonings).
To conclude with a few personal thoughts, I am inclined to wonder if the ongoing desensitization of soldiers through the use of remotely-operated drone tactics coincides with the American public’s increasingly cynical skepticism regarding the true motivations of the United States’ involvements in the Middle East. With more and more Americans (and foreigners, to boot) waking up to the morally-questionable nature of the U.S. military’s intentions for the region, and as the number of soldiers annually enlisting for military service continues to dwindle, it is possible for me to conclude that far fewer individuals are willing to risk their lives on the front lines of combat for a war that is as mysterious to the public in its intentions as it is in its foreseeable duration. It simply makes sense that individuals would be far more reluctant to die in a seemingly-endless, morally-questionable war that may not even be necessary to fight in terms of preserving the domestic tranquility of the United States.
When offered a paycheck, college tuition, and a pension/retirement plan (offers which are desperately needed by so many in these dire economic times) in exchange for operating a remote-controlled killing machine that removes soldiers from battle and does all of the fighting for them, individuals are likely to be more willing to take part in wars they otherwise may have been reluctant to support altogether. Could it be possible that drone warfare has become the solution created by the U.S. Department of Defense to counter the decline in numbers of enlisting soldiers that has resulted from the public’s disillusionment with America’s foreign entanglements? It certainly seems plausible to me, anyway.