"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Thursday, August 13, 2009

War Without People???


Imagine, if you dare, a battlefield without soldiers. There was a time, going back to the earliest days of recorded history, when there were essentially just soldiers on the battlefield, fighting each other hand to hand with swords (and daggers, from which swords evolved) made of bronze. Interestingly enough, historians still debate whether the earliest swords evolved out of agricultural sickles. This was war in which the primary characters in this violent event, those injured and killed, were soldiers.

Over the centuries war has gradually evolved technologically as humans attempted to make killing easier and more efficient. There is also an associated profit motive as weapons makers ply their trade in these modern times. More recently weapons have evolved (at an almost exponential rate) to an unimaginable technological state in which some weapons systems allow soldiers to operate them from a distance, sometimes halfway around the earth (by satellites). Systems are also being designed to have some degree of autonomy in decision making, decreasing the human interaction even more.

A recent article in the Arizona Daily Star, Will drones push fighter pilots out of the cockpit?, shows the excitement within the military establishment. "This is massive," said [Col. Paul] Johnson, an A-10 pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the skies, describing the potential changes ahead. "It's a head-exploding topic," he said. But "for us to sit on the sidelines and ignore this new technology would be irresponsible." This pilot was describing the future of military aviation as more and more pilotless drones take to the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other locales (even the United States).

Photo above: Just another day at the office. Airman 1st Class Caleb Force, a Predator sensor operator, helps 1st Lt. Jorden Smith, a Predator pilot, locate simulated targets during an MQ-1 Predator training mission at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force.

Of course, the movement away from piloted aircraft is about much more than decisions about costs of aircraft and risk to pilots; it is about the very nature of war itself. The historian Howard Zinn once said, We might think that at least those individuals in the U.S. Air Force who dropped bombs on civilian populations were aware of what terror they were inflicting, but as one of those I can testify that this is not so. Bombing from five miles high, I and my fellow crew members could not see what was happening on the ground. We could not hear screams or see blood, could not see torn bodies, crushed limbs. Is it any wonder we see fliers going out on mission after mission, apparently unmoved by thoughts of what they have wrought. Bomber pilot at 30,000 feet or drone pilot sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in the arizona desert doing his or her 8 to 5 job; one just happens to be thousands of miles from the battlefield. "Hey, could you take the controls while I duck out for a cup of coffee?"

As if war itself is bad enough, we have been moving down a very slippery slope as we have depersonalized war. It's simply getting easier, and easier to kill. Gone are the days when soldiers hacked each other to death with swords; we now have pilots commanding aircraft from 7000 miles away (Iraq and Afghanistan), dropping bombs and firing missiles, often killing civilians. One pilot quoted in the Daily Star article asked, Are we moving toward a battle space devoid of human beings? And, if so, how will that impact a nation's willingness or reluctance to wage war? Ironically, we seem to be moving away from a battlefield in which our soldiers are present, but in which exists the presence of not only "insurgents" and "terrorists", but also innocent civilians - men, women and children - who are suffering indiscriminately.

It is also ironic that one of the pilots said that, while we are having these technological developments, we can't be afraid to couch them in some larger philosophical discussions about what war is, and what war will be. Indeed, we must have serious philosophical discussions about war, but those discussions are currently being conducted by just those in charge, the Pentagon planners, the people at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the weapons makers. There is no room at the table for those who can ask the humanistic, philosophical questions that go far beyond the sterile questions surrounding efficiency, pilot safety and financial considerations between $85 million fighter jets and $5 million drones.

It is certainly a brave new world we are creating in which there might come a day when we sit in our barricaded homes watching the floor to ceiling television screens (from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) as the drones and robots unleash their horrors on the "enemy" in some far off land. It is certainly not a world in which I wish to live. And it will all be controlled via satellites orbiting the earth. 70% of the weapons used in the 2003 "shock and awe" attack on Iraq were directed to their targets by space technology.

It is time to say NO to military use of space for making war on Earth! It is time to speak out to Keep Space for Peace! Join the International Week of Protest to Stop the Militarization of Space from October 3-10, 2009. Learn more at the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

Just as those earliest swords may have evolved out of agricultural sickles, it is time to turn today's highly technological swords into ploughshares, and stopping the militarization of space is an critical step in doing so.



Read the Arizona Daily Star article Will drones push fighter pilots out of the cockpit?

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