Monday, May 11, 2009

Video warriors

Anybody catch Lara Logan's report on 60 Minutes last night? The report was a titillating hint at what we, as US taxpayers, are buying with our untold billions of dollars in defense expenditures.

In an all-too-brief, and in my opinion, terrifying exposé, Ms. Logan reported on the new fighter/surveillance drone technology being employed by the US Air Force. In brief summary, these drones are the unmanned aircraft that we occasionally hear about striking targets in Iraq or Afghanistan (or even Pakistan). They are operated by US pilots from Creech Air Force base near Las Vegas, some 7500 miles away from the battlefield, using satellite technology. They can remain airborne for up to 24 hours at a time, all the while tracking potential targets. The report showed declassified video of these drones striking targets (not only convoys and vehicles, but individuals) with bone-chilling accuracy from altitudes of 50,000 feet.

I don't doubt that the prevailing emotional response to the report by many Americans was triumph. But at the risk of calling into question my patriotic blood-lust, I found the report to be troubling.

First of all, I find the concept of killing people in a manner which very much resembles the action in any "first-person shooter" video game to be disturbing. These pilots are in absolutely no danger of being killed or maimed themselves, sitting at their glorified game consoles, dealing death and destruction on people thousands of miles away. Even though the airmen that Ms. Logan interviewed insisted that they were fully engaged, that their safety afforded them clearer judgment and allowed them to call upon mental facilities that are unavailable in more immediate combat, it occurs to me that there is a danger of detachment; an avoidance of consequence. Is it easier to kill a man when he appears only as an animated image on a computer screen? Are the dangers of mistaken attack heightened when the attacker is relying solely on imagery projected from thousands of miles away?

Secondly, are we sure that we want this kind of technology, this awesome military power in the hands of our government? So far as we know, these drones are in use only in the "problem" regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. So far as we know... but, of course, everything that was in Ms. Logan's report was cleared by military officials. What if we were to learn that these drones were being used to watch, for example, the US-Mexican border? Or what if they had been used to watch post-Katrina New Orleans? Or what if, in some restive American future, they were used to watch unruly gatherings of American citizens?

In Ms. Logan's report, we see footage of drones striking trucks, armored vehicles, even two men running in the dead of night, all allegedly legitimate targets on the battlefield. But here's the rub, people: If they can do it to Afghanis or Pakistanis or Iraqis, they can do it to you.


Heather Ann said...

I have been freaked out by these futuristic monsters for a while now! They remind me of Terminators or in another way, of Ender's Game (great book if you haven't read it.) I seems like there should have been a national philosophical discussion before they were sent out to destroy in our name, but of course, if there was one, it would have been classified. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Anonymous said...

The priorities of the nation-state known as the United States of America, as evidenced by how it spends the money extorted from its citizens under the legalistic veneer of taxation, seldom represents what would most benefit those citizens.

Certainly, unmanned US drones dropping bombs on other countries spares the lives of soldiers in the war on terror, or whatever Obama has renamed it. If we are going to tolerate war, we might as well foot the bill for surgically precise killing. Oops, not so precise if you're a civilian in one of the countries the US has chosen to attack.

It's very unlikely that the US would use such sophisticated equipment to suppress its own citizenry. Why, that would be like using black military helicopters equipped with automatic weapons on a couple thousand Bush protesters in a mid-sized northwest American city.

Couldn't happen.

Or did it?


NWJR said...

I don't really see this as much different from long-range missiles, bombs dropped from airplanes, or rocks thrown from a catapult. New methodology, same principle. Humans have been doing this to other humans for a long time, and if you read my three examples, you'll see that the only thing that changes is the length of our reach.