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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Deny havoc, and let slip the drones of war

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2013: “They became what they beheld.” -- Edmund Snow Carpenter

The Atomic Age debuted in the skies over Hiroshima, Japan, at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Col. Paul Tibbets had yielded control of his aircraft moments earlier to his bombardier, Thomas Ferebee, who would guide the ship on its bomb run. Ferebee’s aim was off by some 800 feet. Given the nature of his ordnance, the bombardier’s near miss was inconsequential.

Tibbets led a flight of three specially modified Boeing B-29 Superfortresses designed to transport and deliver newly developed atomic bombs over long distances. Unlike earlier versions of the aircraft, these “Silverplate” editions were stripped of fuselage armor and gun turrets to conserve weight.

The planes were able to shed their defenses because by that stage of the war, the enemy air forces had been effectively neutralized. The intense bombing campaign carried out by other B-29s bearing conventional weapons had made it impossible for the Japanese to replace downed aircraft and because the American bombers that clear day would cruise at over 31,000 feet, ground fire posed no serious hazard.

World War II was about to end because evolving technology had made the cost of further combat prohibitive. Physicists and engineers won the peace by making total warfare too devastating to wage.

The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction kept an uneasy truce during the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. World War III was simply too horrible for rational governments to contemplate. As a result, limited warfare came into vogue.  Of course, should suicidal extremists ever get their hands on nuclear weaponry, the instruments of our dubious salvation could yet spell our doom.   

Man makes tools, but tools also make the man.  We invent technology that, in turn, reinvents us. The ends can never justify the means because the means ultimately shape the ends. What we reap is a product not only of what we sow but also of how we go about sowing it.

At present, the United States is waging automated warfare in southern Asia and much of the Middle East.  The unmanned aerial drone is the latest addition to the arsenal of democracy.

The device is comparatively cheap and is operated by remote control, meaning that no pilot has to be placed in harm’s way to accomplish its mission. Flying the drone is a lot like playing a video game. In fact, my nephew and his fellow Marines now refer to their counterparts in the U.S. Air Force as the “Chair Force.”

Waging war from the secure and comfortable confines of a command center is more appealing than subjecting oneself to the danger and stress of combat but all progress comes with a price. In this case, the downside is moral hazard — the tendency to behave recklessly when one believes he is acting with impunity.

The operator is in no immediate peril, and neither are the policy-makers he works for. Both are thus susceptible to the delusion that they can act without regard for consequences. Though the people who run the program are in no particular danger, the nation as a whole pays the price for their deeds.

Imagine for a moment that your neighborhood is being patrolled by drones under the control of a foreign power thousands of miles away. The drones observe your every move in public places and are armed with lethal air-to-surface missiles.  Step out of line and they fire.

You can’t reason with them, argue your innocence or even beg for mercy.  There’s no appeal process, all decisions are final — and usually fatal. While most of their targets are insurrectionists, every now and then the drones screw up and kill somebody who’s minding his own business.  Well, mistakes do happen…

That surreal scenario is daily life for many Yemenis, as described in reports by foreign correspondents. Last week, we had to shutter 19 embassies and consulates for the conclusion of Ramadan.  It seems there was a terrorist plot afoot in Yemen.

Admittedly, the drones were originally deployed in response to terrorist activity so they can’t be blamed for the problem itself. But it’s easy to see how their presence could radicalize otherwise reasonable people.

And even our staunchest allies are up in arms over recent revelations concerning the NSA’s global surveillance of electronic communication.  Civilized nations share our concerns about terrorism but still resent the extent of our technological reach into their formerly private affairs.

The point here is that technologies transform those who use them in often unanticipated ways. Most Americans don’t think of themselves as the Martians in War of the Worlds, but given the drone program and our electronic snooping, it’s understandable that others could come to view us as such.

We seem to sense instinctively the technological genie’s ability to escape the lamp and wreak havoc. To allay our fears, we attempt to humanize the inventions that threaten to overtake us. The bomb that Tibbets dropped on Hiroshima was called “Little Boy.” It was ferried to its target aboard a B-29 he’d christened the “Enola Gay." The plane was named after his mother.

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