Changing The Rules Of War

(Over the next few posts, I'll be discussing issues brought up in the spectacular PBS Frontline episode called "Digital Nation", which discusses current issues in the digital invasion of our societies).

The world of the soldier is a world of risk management. You shoot, you get shot at. You go to war, you may not come back. These have been the unwritten rules of war for many thousands of years, and it has shaped the civilizations of the world and the social constructs and hierarchies that we live and relate to every day. the danger of war creates heroes and villains, and it's unique ability to take a staggering amount of life and limb makes it a force worth reckoning, and a serious mover of people and history.

This is why those who play video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor laugh at the idea that it's desensitizing them to war and violence. Gamers aren't stupid, and they realize that they are just pressing buttons in a virtual world, as much as the game designers want them to think otherwise. They understand that the actions they do in the game have no effect in the real world.

When you look inside the Air Force bunker in the desert outside of Las Vegas, NV, you could swear that that a bunch of gamers were getting together for some fun and games in a military setting. It's a bunch of guys, sitting around big screens and keyboards, talking military lingo, and controlling the action on the screen with joysticks. If it wasn't for the military attire, this would look no different than a small gaming convention. As the pilots shout commands back and forth using all kinds of military lingo and abbreviations, the action on-screen heats up. These pilots are playing some kind of simulation that very effectively simulates a precision air strike on targets they would be fighting overseas. No better training exists than this. The action looks eerily real, and the pilots are glued to the screens as if they were actually there, fully aware of their superiors standing behind them, evaluating and pondering every move and every strike.

The simulated target is a bogey on a motorcycle. He's going to meet his terrorist friends in an abondoned warehouse outside the city limits, and the pilots are tracking him to find out where this building is, and then take out the whole meeting with a well-placed bomb. The pilots cycle through all the typical reconnaissance technologies, tracking this guy so closely, you can almost make out his facial features. He takes a few detours. He stops to get a bite to eat and plays with some children in the street. The simulation wants to make this guy act like a real person would, to heighten the believability of the scenario. Finally, the target approaches the building and enters. A few moments later, the pilots are given the order to fire. The air-to-ground hellfire missile slams into the building, practically evaporating it.

Mission Accomplished. The pilots fly back to base, and land. In the real world, in Las Vegas, the pilots take off their headsets, shut off the computers, and go home to their families, safe and sound.

It may have looked like a training mission, but that that building really was destroyed. There was a real plane out there, firing real rockets, and killing real people. These pilots are piloting the newest and one of the deadliest weapons in our Army's arsenal. They are the pilots of the MQ-1B Predator Drones, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is becoming ever so popular in Iraq as the air-strike tool of choice. It's changing the entire landscape of human conflict.

These soldiers are controlling an object thousands of miles away. It may as well be a video game. When they fire a missile, they don't feel it like a real pilot does. When they fly at ridiculous speeds, they don't feel G-forces. They don't wear oxygen masks, and they don't wear seatbelts. If it wasn't for military policy, they could come to work in khaki pants and a T-shirt. If they get shot at, there is only money to lose. If they get shot down, they still go back to their family at the end of the day. And of course, when they kill someone on screen,  that person is really dead.

It's scary, really. When you're that detached from the reality of combat, and yet your actions control the battlefield, it changes the way you think. There's a reason why the military requires military garb in this bunker. If the pilots weren't reminded constantly that they are fighting a real war, this may as well be the most realistic video game ever. When you're on the battlefield, you see the consequences of your actions, up close and personal. In a video game, you can afford to be reckless; your life isn't on the line.

It isn't very good for mental health. When you're being shot at, it isn't hard to fire back. When you're on the other side of the world, and you kill dozens of people with a keystroke, it messes with your head. When you go home to your family every night after leveling city blocks and killing countless bad guys behind the veil of the computer monitor, the emotional gravity of the situation starts to get under your skin, and many of these pilots need therapy for PTSD and other war-related mental health maladies.

on a less personal level, like I mentioned before, this is changing the entire battlefield of human conflict. When wars are fought from behind a computer screen, well behind your own borders, the dynamics of combat will never be the same. War has always been fought as a desperate struggle over human life. If you make a tactical decision, there is always the risk of getting shot at. The Predator drones are taking away the risk of death, and replacing it with the risk of monetary loss.

Many find this controversial. Studies go back and forth trying to determine if the drone pilots take more risks, and endanger the lives of more civilians, than say, an F-15 pilot who is constantly risking his own life doing the same work. I can see both sides of the coin. On one side, the freedom to make tactical decisions without risking life and limb should enable pilots to make more calculated strikes, and striking in ways that will decrease collateral damage. On the other side, the detachment from the actual field of battle could make the pilots detached from the reality and the consequences of what they do, causing them to focus on the objective more than the facts of life and death on the ground. In other words, you never worried about destroying neighborhoods when playing Call of Duty, because it wasn't real, and you knew that the game put more emphasis on completing the mission than keeping collateral damage to a minimum.

The Predator Drone is something out of a Sci-Fi movie. It is, quite literally, a cyborg army. War will be changed forever when robots are dying in place of humans. The only question is, will this change be good for us, or will it usher in a new, bloodier, age of conflict; an age where battles are won by the biggest wallet, where civilians are ignored because the pilots can't see them die. Or will it actually decrease violence in the world? When fighting a war only results in monetary loss, what's the point?

War is hell, true. But is will soon be just a virtual hell. And the world won't ever be the same.

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