Everybody’s heard of drones, right? They’re the latest Big Thing in western war making– pilotless-but-armed aircraft that circle for hours without refueling, allowing armies to gather information about once-inaccessible territories and attack enemies without warning. The machines are human-controlled in distant command centers, using advanced information and communications technology, but apparently they’re becoming more autonomous, with new AI capabilities. So far only the US has actually killed anyone with them. But other countries are getting into the game, and everyone seems to agree that drones are the new face of battle.
All of which raises some questions.
For now I’ll pass quickly over the most basic– namely, are the people pursuing these projects completely insane? I mean, they never heard of Terminator, Skynet, and all the other dystopian killer-robot scenarios? Who doesn’t know these stories end in tears?
I won’t say more about that side of things here, not because it’s unimportant but because it needs zero thought– any kid with video-streaming knows the score, even if the well-educated Serious People running our public institutions don’t.
But some historically-informed reflection may help in a different way, by sharpening our understanding of the pre-apocalypse arc of the drone story– meaning, how things are likely to play out before we reach a full-frontal Terminator fiasco. That’s because historians have studied the life-cycles of other super-weapons, and we can say something about where this particular instance is heading.
Historical thinking is especially worthwhile here because even the anti-drone camp seems to buy into a basic idea about them– namely, that they fundamentally change the nature of war itself. Historians have encountered that belief in numerous contexts, and up to now it’s been wrong every single time.
As an example, here’s the always-admirable-and-usually-right Ted Rall, arguing that drones put an end to war’s character as a duel between adversaries. That’s what the great war theorist Carl von Clausewitz thought war was, but now (so say Rall and others) it’s closer to a manhunt, a one-sided encounter between predator and prey, because those who have the drones operate in such complete safety, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the killing scene. “The armed drone … unambiguously allows the state to kill anyone and everyone with impunity, without the slightest physical risk whatsoever.”
Rall himself is against this mode of killing, but among the Serious People his anti-drone objections transmogrify into pro-drone justifications. You’ve almost certainly heard some of them: drones save American lives, allow the precise elimination of bad guys, and actually reduce the bloodshed and mayhem of war. Do you want another World War I, with millions of boots on the ground, or robot surgical strikes that allow most people to go about their lives and don’t wreck whole societies? Far from being embarrassed about it, the US actually advertises the manhunt image of modern warfare– our top killer-drone is called the Predator.
Which is why historians have to step up and point out that no, actually war doesn’t change its essential nature, and Clausewitz still applies here in the twenty-first century. We’ve had a long succession of super-weapons– the machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and submarines of World War I, the radios and strategic bombing of World War II, the napalm and B-52s of Vietnam, to cite just some twentieth-century examples. Each time there’s talk of military revolution, new rules of the game, and the new technologies briefly tip the military balance to the side that first invented them. Then the other side adapts one way or another, and the essential nature of military conflict reasserts itself. It’s still a contest of wills and intelligence, and it still centers on hurting the other side enough that they yield.
I mean, in case you missed it: in the last fifty years, the low tech North Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqi insurgents all defeated the ultra-high-tech Americans. They won mostly because the wars in question mattered way more to them than to us.
Now, in most of the big twentieth-century wars, military adaptation meant imitation– the other side started making its own tanks/submarines/atomic bombs. But the Vietnam-Afghanistan-Iraq examples show the deeper reality beneath these technological arms races. In a real war, each side does what it thinks it has to to win, and that doesn’t necessarily mean keeping up with technology fads. It might mean abandoning a great city to the enemy, as the Russians did in 1812, leaving Napoleon to freeze and eventually get the hell out; it might mean suicidal missions like Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive, designed to demoralize the American public that was paying the bills; it can mean roadside bombings and terrorism, as in the Algerian and Iraq Wars, or just hunkering down, as both sides did against strategic bombing of World War II– it killed hundreds of thousands on both sides, but apparently did nothing to shorten the war.
We don’t yet know the specifics of how the drone super-weapon story will unfold. But we’ve got a long historical record telling us there’s no war in which one side gets total impunity, none that isn’t partly a test of wills– and none in which both sides don’t end up hurting. Historically, the side that wins is the side that’s willing to take more of that hurt, not the one with the most toys.
Maybe we’ll avoid the killer robot apocalypse, but we don’t get a free pass on the nature of war.