This issue Current issue

March 2009

The Ethics of Robotic War

by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's blog "Single Doubt"

For the sake of readability I have purposely kept this piece short. I hope to explore this topic in more depth in future posts.

The recent controversy over the C.I.A.’s use of Predator drones in Pakistan raises some interesting ethical questions about conflict in the twenty-first century. Using unmanned aerial vehicles to visit death and destruction on suspected terrorists and insurgents marks a radical departure from the ways we have dealt with enemies in the past. If this is a sign of what's to come, I fear that morality and ethics will be as much under attack in the future as our homeland is.

The history of warfare is, in large part, all about distance. From the stone-age when men used rocks and clubs, to the development of metal spears, then arrows, bullets, and missiles, major advances in military technology have virtually all revolved around the ability to kill from ever increasing distances; or to be more precise, the ability to shoot at your enemy from a greater distance than he can shoot back at you. There is of course a practical rationale for this. To paraphrase General Patton you don’t win wars by dying for your country; you win them by making the other dumb bastard die for his. If an inventor develops a superior weapon that allows you to rain shells on your enemy while his shells fall harmlessly short, unless you have a death wish, you would be foolish not to consider using it.

Whether revolutionary advances in military hardware help end wars or whether they make it easier to start them, is open to debate. It is undeniable, however, that if I have a weapon that I can kill my enemy with before he can even see me – that is to say without cost or danger to myself – there’s relatively little to deter me from using it to wipe him out.

As fascinating as robot tanks and unmanned killer drones may be from a technical and practical standpoint, it is the moral and ethical ramifications of such weaponry that are most interesting to me. Every new development in war technology forces us to reconsider the ethics of warfare. Each invention that makes it easier to wage war; each level of separation from the actual field of battle, lessens the moral and ethical chasm a person must overcome before he can justify the essentially immoral act of taking a human life.

There have been many studies on man’s natural inhibitions against killing. The military has devoted years to developing new and better techniques to overcome this inhibition. Basic training is designed to break down a recruit’s psyche and rebuild it so that when ordered to kill, he will obey without question. Even so, most sane people, including soldiers, would have a hard time mustering the visceral savagery required to put their hands around someone’s neck and choke the life out of them. Put a rifle in a soldier’s hands and order them to shoot, it gets easier. Fire a canon from a mile away, easier still. Press a button to level a village from 30,000 feet? Piece of cake. The farther removed we are from the battlefield, the easier it gets to push the button.

As the attacks in Pakistan have demonstrated, we now have the ultimate in push button warfare. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), armed with bombs and missiles, piloted by remote control, mean the person firing the missile doesn’t have to be anywhere near the battlefield. Sometimes these UAVs are operated via satellite from halfway around the world. If it’s easy to numb your conscience into believing it’s okay to drop bunker busters on a town in Afghanistan from 30,000 feet up, imagine how easy it becomes to pilot a remote control drone that shoots at suspected bad guys while sitting in air-conditioned comfort at an air force base in Nevada, 8,000 miles away?

This is not to say that modern warfare is totally devoid of ethical conflict. In his book: “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” Author P.W. Singer examines some of the surreal moral choices soldiers face today: “While the Pilots are no longer at risk, the experience of fighting from home bases, some 7,500 miles away, does bring new psychological twists to war. ‘You see Americans killed in front of your eyes and then have to go to a PTA meeting,’ tells one pilot.”

The distance from which we can now wage war also raises ethical questions for political leaders – and by extension those that elect them. Modern Presidents have often been reticent to use military force because of the political fallout that comes from soldiers coming home in body bags. But if we can attack without incurring any casualties among our own men, with the only cost to us being the occasional wrecked robot, then giving the order to use lethal force becomes easier and easier. For example, if you suspect a country like Iran of building a reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, it’s a heck of a lot simpler and faster to order the C.I.A. to send an unmanned drone to bomb it to rubble than it is to engage in diplomacy. Civilian casualties are much easier to justify if your own soldiers are not in harms way.

The more we employ robots to do our killing, the easier it becomes to control the narrative of conflict as well. Wars are messy affairs. They are rarely black and white. Yet unmanned vehicles that fire precision bombs and guided missiles allow us to reduce war to a video game with good guys and bad guys. It is no accident that many of the computer interfaces for modern weaponry resemble game consoles. (I could explore the ethics of “Halo” and “Mortal Kombat” here but I’ll save that for a future piece.)

Conclusion: Do I think that the military should give up Predator drones, Robot bomb detectors, and, computer guided “smart bombs” because they make it too easy for us to engage in the immorality of war? Not necessarily. I am not naïve enough to think there are not those out there wish to do us harm. There is always an advantage to having military superiority over your enemies. However, I think it’s important that we not fall into the trap of thinking that just because our slingshot has a greater range than the other guy’s, we are morally justified in using it in every case. Military superiority brings with it a moral responsibility not to use the superior weapons we possess merely because we possess them. There is a martial arts/ zen saying that goes: “The finest blade stays in the scabbard.” If, as Lyndon B. Johnson said about Vietnam, "the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there," then how is it ethical - or even practical - to employ unmanned weapons that only make it easier to kill people?

If robots are not really the answer to the problems we face, perhaps it’s time we stopped developing better ways for machines to wage war and started working on new and better ways humans can wage peace.