Just a shot away: war at the click of a mouse

A bulky, metal transport craft called a Higgins Boat gets as close to the beach as its coxswain dares to take it. Plunging its bow into the shoreline, it disgorges its cargo, a thirty-man platoon of the 29th Infantry Division.

A bulky, metal transport craft called a Higgins Boat gets as close to the beach as its coxswain dares to take it. Plunging its bow into the shoreline, it disgorges its cargo, a thirty-man platoon of the 29th Infantry Division.

They wade through the bloody surf, littered with red pieces of what can scarcely be recognized as having ever belonged to human beings. The cold English Channel weighs down their boots as automatic rounds pop and spatter the water surface, filling the air with a lethal rain of steel stretching eighty miles along the beaches of Normandy. Operation Overlord has begun: D-Day, the allied breaching of Hitler’s European empire.

In the course of a few hours, roughly the time between breakfast and lunch back stateside, over two thousand American soldiers lay dead on the French coast, in whatever god-awful position the German armaments had left them. By the end of the operation, the number of American dead would reach almost 2,500. Two-thousand five-hundred crying families, letters home and young lives for whom history ended that overcast morning in June, 1944.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marines were engaged in their own D-Day, in Operation Detachment, better known as the Battle of Iwo Jima. The most lasting legacy of the operation would be the famous photograph of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi. The other legacy would be the 6,812 Marines that would never leave that tiny island in the Pacific.

We’ve come a long way since then.

That was seventy years ago. The year is now 2011, and twenty-first century warfare may very well go down in history as the first time mankind made robots fight his wars for him.

True, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone, the workhorse of the U.S. military’s unmanned aerial-vehicle fleet, is not a robot in the independent, sci-fi, Imperial Probe Droid sense, though it gets pretty close. They may function autonomously or by remote ground control, and can travel several hundred miles to a given target, loitering in enemy airspace for hours uninterrupted. Though variations exist on the basic MQ-1 model (such as the faster and more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper), the original was met with such approval that the U.S. military now operates some 7,000 of the beasts.

Predator drones are responsible for the successful removal of a number of Taliban and al-Qaida figures, most of whom have been deftly picked off from the tribal regions of Pakistan, a country which, thankfully, we’ve seen no reason yet to invade. This is indeed one of the primary functions of the drones: to circumvent the tricky issue of national borders to pursue our terrorist enemies who phase in and out of the conventional battlefield at whim.

One of the biggest concerns with the use of drones is their habit of detaching their operators from the battlefield, turning a soldier into less of an active participant and more of a casual observer. There’s some merit to this. It’s perfectly accurate to imagine a drone operator sitting at a desk in Langley, watching a grainy live feed on a PC, clicking the little human-shaped smudge, then getting a cup of coffee, while somewhere in the world a guy on the terror list evaporates in a blast of Hellfire missiles.

What does it mean for our foreign policy, when the operation of war becomes so painlessly artificial? Will we be more keen to enter into armed conflict, with no threat to the lives of our service men and women? What about the rules of war, whatever those might be? What does it mean for the future when killing people is as simple and inconsequential as a game of Starcraft?

Despite the unnerving ethical implications, make no mistake; drones save lives. Would any rational military put its own sons and daughters at risk, when the same mission could be accomplished by an easily-replaceable machine? Yes, the collateral damage that has become so grisly a hallmark of drone operations remains a disturbing issue. Though, it should be said, civilian casualties relating to drone strikes are—debatably—overstated.

President Obama has proven to be somewhat trigger happy with this little bit of technology (drone strikes have increased threefold since his presidency began). It’s not hard to see why.

Drones are cost-effective, safe, unimpressive and politically quiet, at least domestically. On the international stage, it’s a different story. The Pakistani government is not pleased with having its territorial sovereignty so routinely and loophole-ishly violated by missile-toting American robots. Who can blame them?

For that matter, who can blame President Obama? He would be a fool to neglect the tactical value of such a useful piece of technology.

But then, he would do well to appreciate the limitations of unmanned drones. There is a great deal of territory along the strategic spectrum that the drone, no matter how armed, simply cannot cover. Drones can’t capture or hold ground, and certainly can’t contribute to winning hearts and minds.

Drones have their place, no doubt. But for the time being, the decisive factor in warfare will remain some poor, crazy bastard with a rifle and boots planted firmly on the ground.

Which reminds me of the situation in Libya… ?