Blinded by the Light: “Unmanned” Technology and War
September 3, 2015
Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, by William M. Arkin, is a book about the increasingly “perfect” vision that has been and is being acquired by our military thanks to drones and other such technology. And without going into detail, I was amazed at the capacity of our technology to see, it would seem, everywhere as that technology proliferates, seemingly without end.
There are, however, some implications of this technology, as Arkin points out, that are or should be troubling. First, as Arkin puts it quite directly, our military has become “assassins.” The goal of this allegedly “unmanned” technology – which of course is anything but “unmanned” if account is taken of the thousands of human beings who fly these devices, those who interpret the data produced, and those who determine whether or not to kill a target – is to kill or “eliminate” a particular “target,” which is quite different than the goal of winning a battle. The goal is, to put it most simply, to kill targets.
On the other hand, the goal of a military, any military, is to win wars. How much killing is to be done in order to win a war is or should be a secondary concern. Soldiers kill only in order to and only as much as it is necessary to win wars. Killing is not the essence of what soldiers do or, at the very least, it shouldn’t be. What Arkin labels “the Data Machine” changes this: “When something is found, when something is heard and geolocated, is it a clue to follow and understand, or is it a target to kill? In immediate self-defense, the answer is always ‘kill’….” [p. 239] And this despite the fact that it is not at all clear that anything much is being accomplished: “Given the efforts expended to reach this level of seeming perfection and equality, the numbers still don’t support the image of a terrorist and insurgent class being eliminated.” [p. 248]
And this forces us to wonder how what we are doing is changing us. “Drones and their puppeteer, the Data Machine, may have developed from some sense of need and good, but no matter what, this Machine is going to kill, and its going to make godlike decisions. In the end, having the Machine between us and the killing makes us less human. The illusion of perfect warfare is little more than a blaring video game endlessly played to higher and higher levels and higher scores, but one being played in a crumbling crack house.” [p. 283]
Secondly, as our “vision” becomes more and more “proficient,” to the point now where individuals can be targeted and killed with great efficiency, our eyesight becomes weaker and weaker or, as some might say, we “miss the forest for the trees.” That is, while we can pinpoint the position of an individual we want dead, target him, and then kill him, we are no better and are probably worse at seeing “the big picture.” So, as weird as it may seem, as we can more clearly “the dots,” as it were, we see less clearly the context in which these dots exist. And it should come as no surprise that “connecting the dots” is a task we are unable to do well. In fact, it shouldn’t be surprising that given the “soda straw” view provided by our allegedly “all-seeing” technology, even those who need to know the bigger picture do not. “By June 2008, [Robert] Gates let loose in a videoconference: ‘I don’t have a feel for how the fight is going!’ he said. ‘I don’t think the president has a clear idea either….’” [p. 239]
So, while it would seem that our technology allows us to make “god-like decisions,” the truth is that this technology and our reliance on it is actually making us blind, both metaphorically and literally. We cannot see who we are fighting and even forget why. As Arkin puts it so well:
‘”Understand the village and its mood, find the anomalies, not just a hot spot or a patched roadway that wasn’t there before, but also the qualities of people’s stares, the level of nervousness of bystanders, the behavior of young boys, the identities and presence and attitude of key leaders. Learn the signs, smell the threats, pick up on the signals, know what to look for and what to see. Most important, do the right thing when you are the foreign organism introduced into the scenario . . . This is not just the laws of warfare or politics or the stuff of commendation medals; it is also intrinsic to orderly existence and self-preservation, a chain of understood behaviors . . . that goes back as far as these stories of mankind and persists even in war, where even though the enemy does not honor any creed, the honorable fighters do. And they do so not just to live with themselves and maintain their humanity in the face of sanctioned killing, but also to forge a peace, to create a space for peace to return, for the sake of every good.” [p. 243]
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