Reluctance to kill was a big problem in World War II. By one military estimate, fewer than one in four American riflemen in combat pulled the trigger, and "fear of killing rather than fear of being killed was the most common cause." The Army tried to solve this problem by making its training exercises feel more like real combat. But what if we could do the opposite? What if we could make combat seem unreal? What if we could turn it into a video game?
That's what many of today's drones do. You sit at a console in the United States or another safe location, watching images transmitted by your Predator from Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. Using a joystick and satellite relays, you pilot the aircraft, hunting and killing from a virtual cockpit. Your colleagues collaborate in the decision to fire, but none of you is on board the aircraft, and collective detachment makes the temptation hard to resist. Remember the tall guy in robes we incinerated on the Afghan border four years ago? From the Predator console, he looked like Bin Laden. Too bad he wasn't.
Maybe we can operate these machines without losing our aversion to killing. But humans have never experienced such a convergence of targeted assassination with video gaming, and the experiment in desensitization is just beginning. Everyone's building or buying drones: France, Germany, Greece, India, the Philippines, Russia, even Switzerland. The Quadrennial Defense Review worries especially about China, which is developing lots of them for deployment and "global export." In the age of jihad, our nightmare is people who don't fear dying and don't mind killing. In the age of the joystick, the nightmare is that we'll become them.