Drone Warfare Debate Reaches Concordia

Wired for War Author Peter W. Singer Discusses the Increasing Use of Technology on the Battlefield

  • Photo Brandon Johnston

The drone warfare debate has landed at Concordia.

Peter W. Singer, an expert on 21st century warfare, discussed the use of robots in war as a part of the Concordia Student Union’s Speaker Series on Nov. 5 in the D.B. Clarke Theatre.

“[Singer’s] fascinated by how the world is changing at such a quick pace,” said event organizer and CSU VP External, Caroline Bourbonnière. “He brought up so many important topics and [problems] such as the way we cover war and the world of technology.”

Singer is the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, among other books. He has also acted as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the FBI.

Singer began the discussion by explaining the reasoning behind the use of technological developments like drones—unmanned aerial combat vehicles—in modern warfare.

“The [advantage] of unmanned systems is that they can take on tasks that they describe as the Three Ds,” said Singer. “Tasks that are dull, dirty and, in particular, dangerous.”

He explained that although the amount of human attention needed for a drone to carry out certain tasks is decreasing, it’s ultimately the human pilot who makes decisions that put lives at stake.

But Singer says the real question is whether the tactic itself of drone strikes is ethical.

“In discussions of drones, we see people focus on the technology, rather than the tactic and how it’s being used; that’s what really matters,” said Singer. “The technology itself is not what makes it legal or not.”

Some rights groups claim drone strikes are a severe violation of international law, while others think they are simply a part of technological evolution.

But Singer doesn’t see it as a clear-cut matter.

“Whether you’re using a stone or a drone, the technology itself is not what makes it legal or not—it’s how you use it,” he said.

Singer does admit that not having to worry about risking lives may affect the way citizens and politicians see armed intervention in a conflict zone.

“It’s changing the way in particular politicians look at the use of force,” he said. “Now it’s made it easier for a limited number of leaders to take a decision, and the consequences are not the same.”

Singer, who has also been a consultant for the popular video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, pointed to the narrative surrounding the decision to kill Osama bin Laden as an example of the relatively nonchalant manner in which U.S. drone strikes are ordered in Pakistan.

“The idea of sending a small elite team into [Pakistan] for just 30 minutes to get the ultimate target was still described as an incredibly tough call for the [U.S.] president to make,” said Singer.

“By contrast, [President Barack Obama] didn’t use that narrative to carry out more than 350 drone strikes into the same country. We didn’t make a movie out of it; we don’t call it the Pakistan War,” he continued.

“The way we talk about it is different because of the lack of risk to us.”

Singer told the audience what one drone pilot told him about fighting a war without having to leave Nevada.

“You’re going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants,” Singer recalled the pilot as saying. “Then you get in the car and you drive home, and within 20 minutes you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”

Despite being physically detached from the battlefield and not risking their lives, a study by the U.S. Department of Defense showed drone pilots are just as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions as pilots of manned aircraft are.

“[Drone pilots] see the gruesome violence and the effects of what [they] do,” former Canadian Army Master Corporal Joseph Leger, who called in several drone strikes during his seven years of service, told The Link after Singer’s talk. “There’s a very intimate thing of watching these people moving around on the ground that you know are real people, and seeing them die.”

However, the general public at times sees drone warfare as comparable with a video game, worrying about the detachment of the pilots from the reality of their jobs and creating a situation where civilian lives are disregarded.

“War, no matter the technology, comes with a real human cost,” said Singer. “If you’re dealing with that kind of stress that means you’re taking this decision seriously.”

But no matter how seriously drone pilots work, room for error still has yet to be eliminated, with a recent United Nations report saying drone strikes have killed at least 400 Pakistani Civilians and 200 “probable non-combatants” since the U.S. took up its drone campaign in 2004. These numbers remain disputed, however.

Another concern is that frequent and unfettered drone usage resulting in civilian deaths can lead to the unintended consequence of neutral civilians turning to extremism because of the fear entrenched in them.

“At the end of the day what matters is the human psychology […] of the users, but also the people in the locale that it’s being used,” said Singer. “For all the terrorists that you may be killing, are you creating more anger in those locations and actually making it easier for those terrorists to recruit?”

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