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When Drones Come Home to Roost


The age when war was limited to a clearly defined battlefield is long past. In modern wars, civilian populations are bombed, targeted for genocide +and terrorism, and made to suffer by wreckage of infrastructure. The dogs of war, once loosed, respect no fences.

We can expect things to get worse. New remote combat technologies — drones and robots controlled by operators far from any delimited battlefield — will bring violence home in ways that will destroy the feelings of safety and security Americans once took for granted.

Militarists who tout these technologies claim that they will mean fewer dead soldiers. This is likely to be true, at least for the side that holds a technological edge. When neither side has better killing tools, the death toll will even out and resume ratcheting upward.

Militarists see other advantages to remote combat: less popular opposition to war if there are fewer body bags coming home; an easier job of teaching recruits to kill if “combat” is as familiar and bloodless as a video game; and more discord among the ranks of enemy leaders because drone strikes often rely on tips from insiders who are trying to eliminate rivals.

The forces driving the development and use of remote combat technologies are partly military and mainly economic. These are enormously profitable technologies for which there will be unlimited demand as nations strive to keep up with each other in a new high-tech arms race. This will be an arms maker’s fantasy come true.

As always, ordinary citizens will pay the bill, and not only with tax dollars. We will pay with more fear, fatalism, and isolation. The feel of daily life will change.

The eventual equalization of technological capability will mean the use of drones and robots to strike at targets in the United States. There will be no need to hijack planes or plant car bombs. Drones, some as small as a suitcase, will be launchable from offshore or just outside U.S. borders. These killing machines will be nearly impossible to stop, as is the case with the drones the U.S. now uses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

But the problem is not just technological equalization and blowback. The problem is that remote combat technologies have changed the rules of engagement. Stealth assassination anywhere at any time, collateral deaths, and explicit targeting of militarily-employed civilians are the new norms.

When U.S. military and political leaders tell us that a Taliban or al Qaeda leader has been taken out by a drone attack, they would have us believe this will seriously weaken the opposing force — so much so that the deaths of nearby friends and family members are an acceptable, if officially regrettable, cost.

Whether this kind of remote killing truly weakens an opposing force is a matter of dispute. What seems clear, however, is that such attacks strengthen the resolve to pay us back in kind. It’s not hard to understand why.

Drone attacks often strike people in their homes, away from active battle zones. Which is why these attacks have killed thousands of innocent bystanders, mainly women and children. What better fuel for revenge? As others have noted, for every alleged Taliban or al Qaeda leader killed by a drone attack, ten recruits are created. Americans too, we can imagine survivors thinking, must learn what it feels like to see their loved ones killed by assassination machines. They must experience this in times and places where they thought they were safe.

This retaliation, when it comes, will be justified as necessary, given that Americans have chosen to wage war with killing machines operated from their homeland. The person who flies a drone from a base in the U.S. will be seen as a combatant, hence a legitimate target — and not only while at work but at any time, preferably when most vulnerable. Perhaps while standing next to you at your daughter’s soccer game.

University-based researchers who devote their talents to inventing new remote combat technologies — like the shapeshifting ChemBot developed at the University of Chicago — will also become targets. Technicians in a laboratory, students in a classroom, and anyone else nearby will become collateral damage. War will come to campus in a way it never has.

“Ironic” is too weak a word to describe the situation toward which the inventors and deployers of remote combat technologies are taking us. We will be told that we must use sophisticated machines to kill at a distance to keep violence at bay, even as the inevitable diffusion of this technology brings violence closer to home.

We will be told that we are fighting to preserve the rule of law against the forces of lawless terrorism, even as presidents and their minions assume the prerogative to carry out remote assassinations as they deem fit, with no judicial oversight or public accountability.

We will be told to be grateful that remote combat technologies make it possible to limit war, even as we exhaust our treasury to pay for it, even as our society becomes more militarized, and even as we experience more fear of dying in conflicts that seem to have no end.

Most Americans have not yet learned a lesson well known to partisans of anti-imperialist struggles: from the standpoint of political and economic elites striving for global dominance, no one who might someday oppose them is innocent, and the deaths of the innocent are not important, except when such deaths become ideological liabilities.

The inevitable use of drones and robots against us will perhaps force Americans to learn this lesson. When violence arrives at our door, we should ask, Who invited it? The answer is not simplemindedly “us.” The answer is, Those who have purported to lead and protect us, while profiting from the invention and use of ever more powerful killing technologies.

When that day of awakening comes, Americans might begin to see that what we needed is not just a new set of leaders but a new society, a society that is radically democratic and in which human monsters cannot create mechanical ones to keep the rest of us under control.

MICHAEL SCHWALBE is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at



Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at

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