Droneslaughter & the War-Tech Treadmill

There’s a provocative piece in Slate on the increasing turn to drone warfare:

Drones mean you don’t need to win hearts and minds if you’re allowed to blow away the bodies of “the enemy” without risking U.S. lives. But at what cost? Few of us have wanted to scrutinize too carefully a program that holds out the tempting promise of “victory” and thus the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Or to look at the downside: that drone slaughter—whether or not it’s a war crime—is counterproductive, creating generations of potential terrorists from the families of the innocent victims of careless carnage. A 2009 Brookings Institution study estimated that for every “militant” killed, there were 10 civilian casualties. And critics have pointed out that each of them will have 10 grieving relatives who will become “militants” or supporters in all likelihood.

Many “war futurists” have described the long-term, unintended consequences of technological arms races in war. In Mind Wars, Jonathan D. Moreno describes the potential rise of “super soldiers equipped with neural implants, suits that contain biosensors, and thought scans of detainees.” Peter Singer’s Wired for War is the “definitive look at the growing use of robots on the battlefield.” Others propose that there will be growing pressure to use these technologies at home once they are mastered abroad. Even popular films like Sleep Dealer depict the ethical dilemmas of drone controllers in the US who remotely pilot weaponized planes abroad.

At least two aspects of these developments deserve further attention. First, techno-war puts us on a treadmill of technological development. While the US long had an advantage in such fields, misallocation of science and math talent to the financial sector (and its own woeful record of allocating capital over the past two decades) has threatened that advantage. Moreover, as the NAS reports, a number of other trends have undermined (and continue to menace) US science, engineering, and technological education.

Second, the “revolution in military affairs” in the US has featured increasing “contracting out” of core military capacities. According to Jeremy Scahill (in the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army), by 2008 “the number of private contractors in Iraq was at a one-to-one ratio with active-duty US soldiers” (480). Blackwater recently was in the news for “creat[ing] a web of more than 30 shell companies or subsidiaries in part to obtain millions of dollars in American government contracts after the security company came under intense criticism for reckless conduct in Iraq.” The trend toward contractor responsibility ultimately portends a market-based outsourcing of sovereignty. If a foreign government (or even coalition of very wealthy persons) were to outbid the increasingly strapped US government for the best technology, its military advantages could fade.

Langdon Winner has observed that “It is somnambulism (rather than determinism) that characterizes technological politics—on the left, right and center equally.” That’s one reason why he contemplated the possibility that “modern technics, much more than politics as conventionally understood, now legislates the conditions of human existence.” As a master modern technic orchestrating a system beyond the control of democratic lifeworlds, global finance makes that observation truer now than ever.

Image Credit: Lars Hammar; stick figures in peril.

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