Imagine a future where men do not fight and all wars are waged by robots. The robots would be controlled by government functionaries secure in Whitehall or Washington. They could strike foreign enemies – terrorists, militants, suspect Islamists – with pinpoint accuracy. There would be no need for the costly training of soldiers, no state remembrance of the dead, no tabloid cries to “Bring Home Our Boys”, no boys at all in fact; no coffins, no plaques, no graves, no marches, no medals, no prayers, no tears, no tears, no lists of dead reverently and quietly read.
It would be a kind of utopia. The dreams of widows of WW2 would finally be realised: no more lives would be lost. For the West, at least. The veiled citizens of the Middle East – or of, who knows? Africa? East Asia? Eastern Europe? – would have to bear occasional blasts from clear blue skies. But if we tally up the dead from these blasts, against the potential dead from foiled terrorist plots, we can sleep easily at night. Far more would die if the West hadn’t acted.
Machines waging war. It sounds like something out of the Matrix. But it is steadily becoming true. Unmanned drones like the one above are deployed in Afghanistan (where we are at war), and Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (where we aren’t). Like toy jets, they are flown by US government officials thousands of miles away. The President authorises them to strike individuals or crowds of suspected terrorists (called “militants”), based on CIA intelligence.
President Obama relies on them far more than Bush did. Between 2004 to 2008, Bush authorised 42 drone strikes. Obama has authorised more than 300, sometimes up to thrice a week. No trial is conducted. No proof is needed. We rely on Mr Obama’s judgement that these men are terrorists (sorry, “militants”) and they are shot dead.
It would be easy to conduct all wars like this. Is not drone warfare the ultimate counter-terrorism policy? If we had pursued Obama’s approach for the last 10 years, instead of bogging ourselves in two horrific ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Bush did, we would surely be in a happier place. If we had assassinated the Taliban, Osama and Saddam by drone, we would not still be at war now.
Is war by robot the future? I should hope not. It would be the culmination of the machine age. We have been told for the past few decades that everything is better and everyone is freer, as a result of machines. Machine warfare, men would argue, would make things better – our soldiers need not be slaughtered – and would free men from military labour. What possible complaint is there?
Perhaps this is a strange argument, but there is a question of virtue. How honourable would war by robot be? Robots need no courage, no discipline, no military strife. There would be no military virtues to praise, if war was waged at the push of a button. Have we then missed the point of war? A fundamental part of military service surely is a citizen’s will to die for his country and the rituals that come with it. If we have no rituals of war, no honours, no respect, no cause for reflection, where would be the humanity? When would we stop?
Foreign baddies would be massacred without any of our men dying. Should America go that way? It recalls the last days of the might of the British Empire, in all its futility, when battles were fought with superior technology and no moral qualms, against African spearmen. The Battle of Omdurman of 1898, waged against suspected Islamists, left 10,000 “militants” dead and 13,000 injured. Only 47 British died. This is no just war.
The numbers are far fewer today. The New American Foundation reckons that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1800 and 2800. We rely solely on reassurance from the US government that most of these Pakistanis are “militants”. Nevertheless no American soldier has died in a drone strike. The Pakistani government has not authorised attacks on its civilians. We are technically on Pakistan’s side in the war in Afghanistan.
One last moral question. If we can do it there, why not here? Britons have the same rights as Pakistanis. So why not quietly gun down that suspicious-looking Muslim at number 23? If we can bump off “militants” in the middle of the day in Waziristan, why not Wolverhampton?
Mr Obama can keep killing Pakistanis (with whom, I repeat, we are not at war). The only reason he can do so without much criticism is, bluntly, they are foreign. News does not pay much attention to foreign deaths in foreign fields. Were Abu Qatada to be assassinated, there would be uproar. Yet Middle Eastern civilians – be they terrorists we do not know – are killed almost weekly with little attention. 17 died in a drone strike on Monday. This is still yet to be printed by The Times. (In fairness there are 13 jubilee articles to write up.)
“To drone”, meaning to witter on monotonously about dull platitudes, or to kill foreigners by unmanned planes. This could be the word that defines the Obama presidency. In his inauguration speech, Mr Obama said: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The ideal of a just war still matters. A war where our own men do not risk their lives has no honour or justice. There is no humanity in war by robot.