The temptation of remote-controlled killing.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 12 2006 10:55 PM

Joystick vs. Jihad

The temptation of remote-controlled killing.

On Nov. 2, 2003, Iraqi insurgents shot down a helicopter full of U.S. troops near Fallujah, killing 16 soldiers and wounding more than 20. It was the worst loss of American life since the declared end of the invasion. Within days, two polls showed that the public, which had previously approved of President Bush's handling of Iraq, now disapproved. The war was in trouble.

On Jan. 13, 2006, a U.S. Predator aircraft fired laser-guided missiles into three houses in northwest Pakistan. The target, al-Qaida deputy boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, wasn't there. Instead the missiles reportedly killed two of his commanders and 12 to 18 civilians, including women and children. Prior to the attack, most Americans approved of Bush's handling of terrorism. What happened to the polls afterward? Nothing.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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Why the difference? It can't be the body count; roughly the same number of people died in each incident. It can't be mission failure; missing Zawahiri and killing all those civilians embarrassed our government and provoked demonstrations in Pakistan. The difference was the nationality of the dead. No Americans were killed aboard the Predator, and none could have been, because none were there. The Predator is a drone, a remote-controlled killing machine.

This is the future of warfare: hunting enemies abroad at little or no risk to ourselves. A year ago, at least 750 unmanned aerial vehicles were assisting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; by now, the number is probably closer to 1,000. The Pentagon's budget and its Quadrennial Defense Review, released last week, propose a near doubling of our arsenal; within two decades, "45% of the future long-range strike force will be unmanned." The QDR shows off photos of the machines in action. Here's a sea-based Predator flying with a carrier group; there's a land-based Raven being thrown like a paper airplane by a soldier who needs to see what's around the bend.

Why use machines instead of humans? Because humans bleed. As the DOD budget explains, in Afghanistan and Iraq, "many convoys and patrols are now accompanied by remote control robotic vehicles that can probe suspicious roadside objects and detonate [bombs] before they can harm U.S. troops." Meanwhile, robots in the air "pursue terrorists without putting our troops in harm's way."

Technically, this is marvelous. Look at the history of weapons development: catapult, crossbow, cannon, rifle, revolver, machine gun, tank, bazooka, bomber, helicopter, submarine, cruise missile. Every step forward consists of a physical step backward: the ability to kill your enemy with better aim at a greater distance or from a safer location. You can hit him, but he can't hit you.

In the Cold War, we used satellites to spy and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deter. We could track the Red Army and level Moscow in minutes. But those devices won't work in the age of terrorism. You can't see an army, because terrorist don't have one. You can't threaten cities, because terrorists don't own any and don't care how many people die. Our lame attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden with cruise missiles in 1998 exposed the obsolescence of satellites and missiles. We need machines that can hunt and kill closer to the enemy.

Drones fit the bill. In Kosovo, we used them to spy. After Sept. 11, we armed them with missiles. We hunted and blew away one al-Qaida operative after another—at least 19 hits in the last four and a half years, according to U.S. officials. Whenever a commando assault in unfriendly territory risked too many casualties, we sent a drone to do the job. We couldn't match terrorists' love of death, their willingness to take their own lives in the course of taking ours. But we could counter their expendable human killers with expendable inhuman killers. The joystick answered the jihad.

In the long wars before us, limiting American casualties isn't just helpful. As we've seen in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq, it's the central factor in sustaining public support and ultimately prevailing. That's why the White House added a public-opinion expert, Peter Feaver of Duke University, to the National Security Council last summer. Feaver says faith that we can win is crucial to public support for war. But he acknowledges that such expectations merely modify the underlying variable: our "tolerance for the human costs of war." Eliminate the costs—kill with impunity—and you can wage war forever.

That's one reason why drones make it easier to kill. The other reason is that you don't have to face your quarry. We think we're more civilized than our ancestors, but the comforting distance of modern killing technology more than compensates for our moral improvement. To kill with a knife, you had to cut your enemy's throat or shove the blade between his ribs. With a gun, you just pull a little strip of metal. With a semiautomatic weapon, a twitch sprays down a whole row of human beings, but you still have to watch them die. It's easier from the air: Drop your payload and fly off. Or tap a button on one continent and send a missile to another. There's no flesh on your monitor; just coordinates.