War of the Killer Robots

In an article published on June 7, 2011, in Foreign Policy, “Don’t Fear the Reaper, four misconceptions about how we think about drones,” Charli Carpenter and Lina Shaikhouni warn that “the debate over drones is misleading the public about the nature of the weaponry and the law.” To remedy this confusion they “offer some sensible ways for the anti-drone lobby to reframe the debate.”

Since participating in a ten day vigil in the Nevada desert outside the gates of the headquarters of the Air Force’s drone program at Creech Air Force Base ending with my arrest along with 13 other activists there in April 2009, I have written and spoken about the drones quite extensively. Since then I have also visited with victims of US airstrikes in Afghanistan and have been arrested again last April at a Reaper drone facility operated by the New York National Guard outside Syracuse.

I am evidently among those of the “anti-drone lobby” that Carpenter and Shaikhouni consider are misleading the public by promoting misconceptions about the nature of drones. I do appreciate the effort made to bring clarity to this debate that has hardly begun. The four “misconceptions” that the authors list, however, No. 1: Drones Are “Killer Robots,” No. 2: Drones Make War Easy and Game-Like, and Therefore Likelier, No. 3: Drone Strikes Kill Too Many Civilians and No. 4: Drones Violate the International Law of Armed Conflict, are actually true statements. Far from being misconceptions, these positions that Carpenter and Shaikhouni refute are talking points essential to any intelligent discussion of this issue.

“Misconception” No. 1: Drones Are “Killer Robots.”

“First, drones themselves are not necessarily ‘killers’: They are used for many nonlethal purposes as well,” claim the authors. “Of course, it’s true that drones can be used to kill,” Carpenter and Shaikhouni admit, but if they do not always kill all the time, they are not “killer robots!” The logic of this puts the very use of the word “killer” in question. No person and no system kill all the time and the most prolific serial murderer is only committing homicide for a few hours out of an otherwise full life. Charles Manson for example, has spent more time sleeping and watching television than he ever spent at mayhem. If drones are not killers because they often do not kill, then neither is Charles Manson a killer.

Some gun-rights enthusiasts make similar claims regarding hollow point bullets, Saturday Night Specials and AK47s- It is true that all these “can be used to kill,” the logic goes, but sometimes they are not, and so these weapons should never be labeled killers.

The authors further insist that the drones are not robots at all, killer or otherwise. They attach great import to the fact that the drones “themselves are controlled by a human operator and are not autonomous. With a human-in-the-loop navigating the aircraft and controlling the weapon, the ‘killer’ aspect of these specific drones may be remote-controlled, but it’s not robotic.” To be called robots, Carpenter and Shaikhouni maintain, the drones must be autonomous, without any human control- if they are remote controlled, they are not robots. “This important distinction is easily lost on a concerned public, but the distinction matters.” This distinction clearly matters to Carpenter and Shaikhouni. It is a distinction, though, that is lost not only on a “concerned public” but is lost almost universally on speakers of the English language, scientists and technicians included.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “Robot” thus:

“1. A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.

“2. A machine or device that operates automatically or by remote control.”

Wikipedia’s “Robots” entry begins: “A robot is a mechanical contraption which can perform tasks on its own, or with guidance.”

Strangely, the authors refer to the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and to Brookings Institution scholar and author of Wired for War, Peter W. Singer to bolster their argument. The authors’ link to the ICRAC http://www.icrac.co.uk/index.html, leads to their home page that says: “Armed robots currently have a human in the loop to control the application of lethal force. But there is an inexorable drive to create autonomous robots that can choose their targets and kill them.” Singer clearly sees the Predator and Reaper drones as currently used by the US in warfare as robots.

The Predator and Reaper are killers and they are robots. The concept that a drone would need to be autonomous in order to qualify as a robot appears to be the authors’ own and it does not seem to be responsible to allow their novel construction to form the parameters of this debate. Nor is it comprehensible that calling these killer robots for what they are “is preventing public attention from being directed to a more ground-breaking development in military technology: preparations to delegate targeting decisions to truly autonomous weapons platforms” as Carpenter and Shaikhouni maintain.

“Misconception” No. 2: Drones Make War Easy and Game-Like, and Therefore Likelier.

“It’s a variation on an old argument,” say Carpenter and Shaikhouni. “Other revolutions in military technology — the longbow, gunpowder, the airplane — have also progressively removed the weapons-bearer from hand-to-hand combat with his foe. Many of these advances, too, were initially criticized for degrading the professional art of war or taking it away from military elites. For example, European aristocrats originally considered the longbow and firearms unchivalrous for a combination of these reasons.” Are Carpenter and Shaikhouni suggesting that these earlier “advances” in military technology did not make war easier and therefore likelier? Were the initial criticisms of the military use of the longbow, gunpowder and airplanes proven unfounded?

The community of activists that gathered at Creech Air Force Base in April, 2009, produced a leaflet that reads: “The idea that technology can provide a cleaner and safer battlefield is seductive but has been proven a lie.? From the catapult and crossbow, through the use of gas and airplanes in World War I, helicopters and napalm in Vietnam to the ‘smart bombs’ of the Gulf War, war has only grown deadlier. ?Technological advances may reduce the danger of casualties among the military personnel in the short run, but with each advance the number of civilian deaths multiplies and every war of the past century has numbered more children than soldiers among its victims.”

Carpenter and Shaikhouni cite the post-traumatic stress suffered by drone operators as though it were a fact unknown to the “anti-drone lobby” and as proof that the use of drones does not make war easier and therefore likelier. Of course drones make war easier and so likelier, the PTSD of the enlisted personnel notwithstanding. The health and wellbeing of GIs, whether in the trenches or at computer terminals, has never been a determining factor of our nation’s military policies. The grievous harm done to the psyches of soldiers who kill from a distance is easier for a grateful nation to discount and deny than even the traumatic head injuries that so many soldiers who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are suffering without medical care or recompense. The “anti-drone lobby” has been ever cognizant of the damage done to soldiers, damage all the more dire because drones have made war seem “easy and game-like.”

The easy, game-like appearance of drone warfare is hell on the soldiers but easy on the politicians and generals who call the shots and so it does make war likelier. Senator Chuck Schumer is pleased and proud to have brought a Reaper (Killer) drone control and maintenance center to his state of New York. He gets credit for “bringing home the bacon,” money and jobs to his constituents. The broken lives of drone victims whether they are in a far away country or members of the New York National Guard, will never count as the political liability against him that a local boy coming home in a body bag surely would.

Drones make war easier and more likely. There is nothing helpful about denying this.

“Misconception” No. 3: Drone Strikes Kill Too Many Civilians.

I must admit that I am horrified by the suggestion that “drone strikes kill too many civilians” is a misperception that we in the “anti-drone lobby” need to disabuse ourselves of. It is reassuring, I suppose that Carpenter and Shaikhouni will grant that “in some ways, even one dead civilian is indeed ‘too many.'” (“In some ways!!??) They continue however, “it’s hard to single out drones when we know so little about whether they kill more or fewer civilians than manned aerial bombing or ground troops would in the same engagements — which also, in some cases, save lives.”

The authors seem to be working on the presumption that there are unavoidable, necessary, even life saving missions that the US military needs to do, so let’s do what we need to do with as few civilian casualties as possible. Carpenter and Shaikhouni see the choice as between using troops and manned bombers or using drones; they do not consider any nonlethal possibility. This shows a tragic poverty of imagination. Can they not consider that maybe US aggressions associated with the “global war on terror” are crimes that can and should be simply left undone? Can they not envision the US not killing anyone at all but paying reparations?

A question is often asked as I speak about resistance to drones: “would you rather the US used saturation bombing?” It is likely that saturation bombing such as the US rained down upon the men, women and children of Dresden, Tokyo and Hanoi would kill more people than the current drone program. It is also likely that ground troops would torture and kill more civilians than the drone strikes do. This is really not relevant. Carpenter and Shaikhouni too readily dismiss the thesis that drones make war easier and more likely, but the fact is that they do. Where there is no will to pay the political cost of sending in bombers and ground troops, US politicians will send in the drones.

The authors further dismiss the claim “drone strikes kill too many civilians” as a misconception because an accurate and consistent method of counting victims is lacking. There is no valid logic to this. It is an admittedly odious comparison, but some would mitigate Germany’s responsibility for its crimes during the Third Reich because the numbers of victims were beyond the possibility of an accurate accounting. The perpetrators of these crimes time and again lie and hide evidence of their killings. Consistently, children killed in US airstrikes are called insurgents until proven otherwise. General David Petraeus, it is reported, even suggested that Afghan parents burned their own children intentionally to put blame on US airstrikes! To deny that drone strikes kill too many civilians because the perpetrators of these killings are able to conceal their actual numbers is almost as reprehensible.

It is well documented and it is even, under pressure, admitted by the US government that many civilians are killed in drone strikes. Carpenter and Shaikhouni insist, however, that it is misleading the public to say that this is too many unless we can offer an accurate account not only of just how many civilians are actually being killed but also of how this number compares to the numbers who might be killed in other hypothetical scenarios. (Peace, apparently, is not a hypothetical scenario that Carpenter and Shaikhouni are willing to take into consideration.) Using the authors’ logic, no amount of carnage can rise to the level of too many civilians killed, so long as the killers can keep the actual body count obscured by the fog of war.

“Misconception” No. 4: Drones Violate the International Law of Armed Conflict.

“No, they don’t — at least, no more so than any other weapons platform when it is used improperly or in the wrong context,” the authors claim. As in their treatment of “misconception No. 1,” Carpenter and Shaikhouni are echoing the gun lobby’s reasoning, “Guns don’t kill people- people kill people.” If I had a drone in my garage and just brought it out to fly around at model airplane conventions, it is possible that I might not be breaking the law. If on the other hand I was using it to peek in the neighbors’ windows or I loaded 500 pound bombs on it and sent it over a sovereign nation’s airspace to blow up an apartment complex, might I expect a knock on my door?

The “anti-drone lobby,” in so far as I am aware, is not protesting so much the existence of some pieces of high-tech hardware but how these things are used to kill. This claim that drones do not violate international law of armed conflict can only be made by taking them out of context, by divorcing the drones from their intended use. This is not really possible to do and in any case, the effort renders the debate an absurd waste of time. The drones are the weapon of choice of a nation engaged in several wars of aggression. They are used in violation of international law.

The “real issue” in the authors’ view is not the drones but extrajudicial executions. “Whether this is happening with or without the consent of the Pakistani or Yemeni government is irrelevant. Whether it is being conducted by the CIA or by the U.S. military is irrelevant.” What legal basis is there for Carpenter and Shaikhouni to declare these questions irrelevant? This seems to echo the G.W. Bush administration’s insistence that the Geneva Conventions are quaint and outdated. It takes just such maneuvering to declare the current use of drones legal.

Drones are “killer robots,” they do make war easy and game-like, and therefore likelier, drone strikes do kill too many civilians and they do violate the International Law of Armed Conflict. I am puzzled and disturbed that some feel that the debate over the use of drones in warfare can be enhanced by denying these facts. What Carpenter and Shaikhouni set out to do with their article is to “offer some sensible ways for the anti-drone lobby to reframe the debate.” The reframing that they suggest is for the anti-drone lobby to shut up about the urgent, real and tangible human costs of the use of killer robotic drones and to ignore as irrelevant the obvious and fundamental legal issues raised by remote control killing. The debate will be more “sensible,” less apt to “mislead the public” when we avoid speaking of the drones in the concrete. Let us rather keep the debate focused on drones and law in the abstract, they propose, undistracted by the smoke of burning flesh.

Brian Terrell is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and lives on a Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa.

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Brian Terrell is an Iowa based peace activist. He can be reached at: brian1956terrell@gmail.com