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What if drone warfare had come first? [Oct. 27th, 2012|03:08 pm]
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Epistemic Status: Interesting to think about, but not nearly as aimed at expressing a strong position on this issue as it might sound.

I am somewhat happy that no one has torn my calculations apart on the drone warfare article yet. Only somewhat happy because I hoped someone would try and I would get either independent confirmation or competing data to take into account.

But several people did respond, and the overall tone was that drone warfare has more problems than just raw death count. It's dehumanizing. It makes warfare "too easy" and hides the real cost. It gives too much power to whoever makes drone-related decisions. It violates the rules of war.

These are all good points. But I can't help but think back to the old Less Wrong article If Many Worlds Had Come First. It's sort of about quantum mechanics, but it's also about the dangers of applying higher standards to later innovations than to entrenched conventional wisdom.

There are sometimes strong arguments for doing this. For example, doctors often prescribe older, apparently-worse drugs over newer, apparently-better drugs (especially in pregnancy) just because they feel like they already know the side effects of the older drugs whereas the newer drugs might have side effects that are yet to reveal themselves. This model certainly has implications for drone warfare: it looks good now, but we don't know the long-term effects.

Still, in the spirit of that Less Wrong article, I can't help but wonder what people would think if drone warfare had come first:

The scene is the Oval Office. Three of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GENERAL HAWKE, GENERAL STEELE, and GENERAL RIPPER, are meeting with THE PRESIDENT. The meeting has been a long and exhausting discussion of drone strikes, and they are reaching the end.

PRESIDENT: I think we only have one more matter left to discuss. As you know, I have recently been worried about the moral cost of our drone war. So many lives lost. So many civilian casualties. I tasked DARPA with coming up with a new type of warfare, one which will end some of the troubling moral quandaries with which we are forced to wrestle every day. I believe General Ripper has been briefed on the results?

HAWKE: Mr. President, once again, I object to this pie-in-the-sky project. Drone warfare was good enough for our ancestors and it is good enough for us. The Romans used surgically precise ballista strikes to assassinate Hannibal without harming the Carthaginian populace. Abraham Lincoln used guided hot-air balloons to knock out top Confederate officials and keep this country united. Literally hundreds of people died in World War I before the British were finally able to kill Kaiser Wilhelm with a carefully-aimed zeppelin. To abandon drone warfare now for some untested new project would be an insult to their memory!

PRESIDENT: General Hawke, I appreciate your concerns, and I promise I will not be overly hasty to embrace these new ideas. But I'd like to hear what General Ripper has to say.

RIPPER: (interjecting) Guys!...Guys! Guys, listen! This is going to be so awesome. Listen to this! We take hundreds of thousands of people...guys, listen!...we take hundreds of thousands of people, give them really really really powerful automatic weapons...this is going to be so awesome...we take hundreds of thousands of people and give them really powerful automatic weapons and put them on planes and give them parachutes and drop them into our enemies' cities and then they just start shooting everything BLAM BLAM BLAM until our enemies run away and we're like HA HA HA HA HA THIS IS OUR CITY NOW and then we win!

STEELE: What the hell, Ripper?

RIPPER: No, listen, this will totally work! We take hundreds of thousands of people. We can use young kids and poor people and minorities, because we don't have to pay them as much. And then we give them really really big weapons. Like, not just the kinds of guns hunters use. Not even the kind of guns we give police. Guns that just NEVER STOP SHOOTING BULLETS! You can just swing them in a big arc and it will leave an arc of bullets everywhere and anyone anywhere in that arc will be dead! It will be SO AWESOME!

HAWKE: Ripper, are you mad?

RIPPER: Guys, think about it! You're Ayatollah Sistani, or Mullah Omar, or one of those motherf@*kers. You're having breakfast in your house one day when WHAM! A hundred thousand American teenagers and minorities RIGHT IN YOUR CITY with guns that never stop shooting bullets! There are bullet holes in your walls and in your gardens and now they're shooting your water supply and your power plant and everything. Do you think you're going to keep having your f@*king breakfast? Or do you think you're going to start waving an American flag and get on board with American policies like, right away?

PRESIDENT: General Ripper, frankly your idea seems at best ill-advised! Just to take one of many objections, we'll never be able to gather a hundred thousand Americans in secret. Ayatollah Sistani will hear about our plan long before we can surprise him.

RIPPER: And what could that motherf@*ker do about it?

STEELE: Well, he could get some Iranian teenagers and minorities, give them these super-guns of yours, and have them lie in wait for our teenagers and minorities outside his house.

RIPPER: Oh my god that would be so awesome! Because we have more technology, so we could have better guns than they do! And we're richer than they are, so we could hire more teenagers and minorities! Right? RIGHT? So everyone would be like BLAM BLAM BLAM with their super-guns and there would be this huge fight and in the end we would win and get that sunavab*tch anyway!

PRESIDENT: (horrified) You realize what you're suggesting is the deaths of dozens of Americans and Iranians, right? Maybe even hundreds!

RIPPER: No, look. It would be okay. Listen to this. We would come up...we would come up with this new philosophy where once a teenager or minority got a super-powerful gun from our enemies, it would be okay if we killed them. Because if we didn't kill them, they might use that gun to shoot us.

HAWKE: But they're only doing that because otherwise we would...I can't believe I have to say this...otherwise we would parachute teenagers with giant guns into their city to shoot the ayatollah.

RIPPER: I KNOW RIGHT? We're going to parachute teenagers with giant guns into their city to shoot the ayatollah! THEN EVERYTHING'S GOING TO GET BLOWN UP AND IT'S GOING TO BE SO COOL.

STEELE Everything...blown up?

RIPPER: Oh man I totally forgot this part! If we just have the super guns, people might hide inside buildings, right? And then we couldn't shoot them and then the ayatollah wouldn't have to agree to do everything we say. So...ohmigod you guys are going to love this...we take cars, right? And we cover them in armor and put giant caterpillar tracks on the bottom so they can drive over walls and sh*t. And then we put HUMONGOUS GUNS on top of the cars. Guns so big they can BLOW UP WHOLE BUILDINGS. And then we just KEEP BLOWING UP THE CITY until the Ayatollah agrees to do everything we want.

PRESIDENT: (to buzzer under desk, in a whisper) Uh, Secret Service? One of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has started acting really weird. Maybe you could stand outside the door and, uh, monitor the situation?

RIPPER: And then! And then we have these planes, right? And we arm them with lots of bombs, and we fly them over enemy cities, and...

HAWKE: Oh, thank goodness. You're starting to see sense and admit that the old ways of drone warfare are right after all.

RIPPER: No, it would be totally different! Because, get this! There would be people in these planes! We'd train them at special schools and whirl them around in centrifuge until they were able to work at 5 g-forces without passing out. Whirl! Whirl! Whirl! And sometimes they'd bomb our enemies, and sometimes our enemies would shoot them down and they'd get captured and we'd have to send in special teams of super-spies to rescue them before they got tortured and told our enemies everything they know!

STEELE That's...horrible!

RIPPER: And instead of trying to only target high-profile enemy leaders? We'd have a special rule that they couldn't target high-profile enemy leaders! They would have to hit power plants and dams and weapons factories and...

PRESIDENT: Weapons factories? Wouldn't those explode if bombed?

RIPPER: OH yeah. HUGE explosion! BOOM! And then when everything had been destroyed from the air, we could send in our hundred thousand teenagers with super guns and they could send in their hundred thousand teenagers with super guns, and we could send in our cars covered in metal with caterpillar treads and they could send in their cars covered in metal in caterpillar treads and then it would be all BLAM BLAM BLAM for WEEKS AND WEEKS and we win would because we would both kill each other and destroy each other's cars but we're bigger so we would have more of them and the Ayatollah would have to agree to do everything we say.

STEELE What if he doesn't?

RIPPER: We could kick him out, and say okay, city, you're part of America now! You're following American laws! You fly the American flag! And then America would be even bigger! And we could take their stuff too, like if there was any oil in the city, then it would be our oil!

PRESIDENT: General Ripper, this is highly unorthodox but I am going to have to relieve you of command effective immediately. This so-called "plan" of DARPA and yourself appears to be no more than the rantings of a deranged and homicidal lunatic. Your request to further develop this new type of warfare is completely denied, and honestly you seem to have so little regard for human life or the rules of warfare that I do not want you anywhere near our nation's drone fleet.

STEELE: Wait, I just realized something. Maybe this isn't about having little regard for human life. Maybe it could even help preserve human life?

PRESIDENT: (skeptically) What do you mean?

STEELE: Think about it. Nowadays, our drone controllers plan strikes from the safety of the Pentagon, never knowing the horrors of warfare, never seeing their victims as real people. But imagine what would happen if we did war Ripper's way?

HAWKE: What would happen?

STEELE: All our teenagers and minorities would see the looks on the faces of their victims as they got shot. Reporters would go into the cities and televise the devastation that our cars with armor and humongous guns had caused. People would come back traumatized, and we'd see them and understand their trauma and with it the trauma of warfare.


STEELE: And we'd only need to do it once. Think of the hundreds of people who died in World War I, Mr. President. Think about the waste. If we had done things Ripper's way, the Allies would have encountered the Germans. They would have realized they were human beings just like them. The people in the capitals would have had to think twice about sending their young men off to die just because they wanted to play stupid games with the balance of power. And they would have thought twice. They would have said "No, this is horrible". Instead of those hundreds of zeppelin-related casualties, we would have had both sides pull back from the brink of war, and join together in their common humanity. It would have been a War to End Wars.

HAWKE: It would never have happened that way.

STEELE: No, perhaps not. Perhaps we should go on with our drone strikes as usual. Keep killing hundreds of people. But perhaps one day we will regret not taking hundreds of thousands of teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds, arming them with guns, parachuting them into our enemies' cities, and having them shoot things until our enemies agree to do whatever we say. Maybe it will end up being the only truly virtuous mode of warfare, the only one that preserves our inherent humanity.

PRESIDENT: (to buzzer under desk, in a whisper) Yes, I'm sorry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff seem to have gone insane. Would you mind terribly coming in and escorting them out?

The Secret Service comes in and escorts the Joint Chiefs of Staff out. The President sighs and starts taking care of some paperwork. A few minutes later, MS. WELLS, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, comes in.

WELLS: Mr. President? I'm sorry to disturb you, but a question has come up. I know you authorized free health care for everyone in the nation, but the doctors are wondering whether it's okay if they buy examination tables made of solid gold. Something about it 'adding a touch of class to the clinic'.

PRESIDENT: Sure. Tell them to go ahead. We have more tax money than we know what to do with these days anyway.

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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-10-27 11:17 pm (UTC)
The story is funny, but I think in positing a past where previous wars were mostly the same except fought with drone strikes it ignores one of the main objections to drone strikes -- that if everyone did it, there would not be discrete wars in the first place; instead there would just be something more like continuing series of drone strikes everywhere. As we've seen, WWI failed to be the war to end all wars; but every conventional war has at least been a war to end war temporarily.
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[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-10-27 11:30 pm (UTC)
Can't... stop... laughing! XD
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-10-27 11:39 pm (UTC)
The best posts can't be replied to.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-10-27 11:48 pm (UTC)
People might need a different sort of psychology to be willing to surrender in the face of a modest number of drone strikes, but the piece is a good solid remember of the way the costs of war get mysteriously dropped out of most people's bookkeeping.
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[User Picture]From: selenite
2012-10-28 03:40 am (UTC)
Nice. I've had some variants on that conversation. Friend objecting that we should hold nations responsible for what happens on their territory instead of violating sovereignty with drone strikes. After a few rounds I asked "So we should kill 18-year-old conscripts instead of the terrorists intending to attack us?" "Um . . ."

Fictional precedent for that kind of war:
The "total war" expansion of assassination was going after the best of the enemy even if they didn't hold political office yet.

The practical problem with assassination-only warfare is probably that we'd wind up selecting leaders for pure physical courage rather than competence (whether this is better or worse than what we're currently selecting for is a separate issue).
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[User Picture]From: olegvolk
2012-10-28 04:47 am (UTC)
That was a great story.

I saw references to the idea that war would be "too horrible to continue" dating all the way back to 15th century (siege cannon) and early 20th (airships dropping bombs on cities). It's interesting to see that Guernica 1937 was considered an outrage but Dresden and Tokio 1945 were routine.

Edited at 2012-10-28 04:48 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-10-28 09:32 am (UTC)
That's a very interesting point. I'm still not sure, but I am rethinking the upsides of drone warfare.
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[User Picture]From: amuchmoreexotic
2012-10-28 09:33 am (UTC)
This is genius.
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[User Picture]From: amuchmoreexotic
2012-10-28 09:47 am (UTC)
Oh, so as not to come across as someone who posts empty "me too" comments, let me contribute a tangentially related but almost irrelevant titbit: the author of this book reckons the Romans had small, man-portable, personal catapults that fulfilled the same role as rifles (although the case seems pretty sketchy, and this slinging forum reckons they were just using slings). So maybe some Roman Leuis Harvius Oswald could have assassinated the Emperor as he rode an open-topped chariot past Dealius Plaza.

It's so weird that assassination of enemy leaders is considered a big ethical dilemma, whereas invading a whole country and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process (as long as you didn't mean to) is accepted as just one of those things.
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From: Samo Burja
2012-10-28 10:54 am (UTC)
This kind of assumes wars are about leaders. Like general RIPPER is totally right about the way you have to fight say science fiction enemies that don't have centralized command structures or where there is always a replacement commander or he is really well protected by all available human and material resource. You have to slog through them one punch at the time incinerating them. Y'know like the Borg and stuff. Or an armed flash mob organized via like a network of computers they wear n' stuff.

Also I have an idea all the Joint Chiefs of Staff might like, maybe we could build drones that still keep fighting after the President is dead! That way we'll be impervious to surgical drone strikes and win all wars forever! Yay! What could possibly go wrong with this plan?

Back to the real world: I should note to clear up a common misconception, enlisted minorities didn't actually disproportionately die as combatants in previous American wars. They actually die less than enlisted poor white farmer boys.

Edited at 2012-10-28 11:10 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-10-28 01:23 pm (UTC)
This is awesome and hilarious!
I think, in such a world, everybody would be constantly carrying out drone strikes on everybody else and consequently living in fear. Whether that is better than the present... maybe.
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[User Picture]From: spacez320
2012-10-28 01:57 pm (UTC)

Funny, but, there is a wider issue here.

This kind of reverse exploration of the drone problem is inventive, and introduces well the up-sides of avoiding the human cost of warfare, but it doesn't do a good job of addressing the very serious problems that today's drone warfare presents, and also doesn't address different aspects of war present in drone vs. traditional military mobilization, or their motivations.

The problem with warfare is that it can either be in the interest of societies (countries or groups of people), or in the interest of those commanding military (politicians, governments). When a ruling party or government promises domestic security to its populace, it must be given the ability to effect and command a military, but also has the ability to declare war in the public interest event at times when 1) war could have been avoided or 2) was done in the interest of themselves or a sponsoring minority, even at the expense of their constituents.

General Ripper is absolutely right when he says that traditional forms of military offense (foot soldiers) are much more publicized. They have to be. There's no way you can move thousands of soldiers into a country, begin a military action, and get away with hiding it from the world or your populace. Drone strikes on the other hand, allow for this much more nuanced control over the potential exposure of your military actions, while at the same time allowing you still to iteratively and effectively extend whatever agenda your military action is hoping to accomplish.

I would argue that without the burden of exposure and public response, politicians and military leaders cannot be easily held accountable for their actions, which is a very scary thought to me.

It is the exposure of the human cost of war that gives humanity a chance to live long periods of time when warfare becomes unquestionable.
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[User Picture]From: anholt
2012-10-28 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Funny, but, there is a wider issue here.

So, aside from scary thoughts, do you think that replacing foot soldiers with drone strikes will actually result in more or less death? (feel free to use relative weights of your choice for civilians, poor kids, and politicians).
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[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-10-28 04:38 pm (UTC)
It sounds like any argument for using soldiers over drones could also be used to justify beskerer units over disciplined, armored soldiers.
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From: deiseach
2012-10-28 08:55 pm (UTC)
"Literally hundreds of people died in World War I before the British were finally able to kill Kaiser Wilhelm with a carefully-aimed zeppelin."

Ah, yes: in exactly the same way that killing Saddam Hussein meant the total collapse of Iraqi resistance and American troops were able to withdraw almost immediately thereafter and there is no longer any insurgency or violence, terror campaigns, bombings, refugees...Mission Accomplished!

Oh, it didn't work quite like that?

Well, how about when Osama bin-Laden was finally tracked down and executed? Heh, that cut off the snake's head and meant al-Qaeda was totally unable to function without its leader!

Er... okay, Afghanistan! Totally pacified when the Taliban were driven out in 2002 and a democratic government established in 2004. Until the Taliban started surging from bases in Pakistan in 2006 and, um, well, coalition forces are talking about withdrawal this time for sure in 2014!

Arthur Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story published in 1887, when he was able to introduce the character of an ex-army doctor who had been invalided home from the wars in Afghanistan in 1880. When the BBC modern-day "Sherlock" was being mooted, the creators weren't sure how they'd manage the character of Dr. Watson - until it was once again perfectly feasible to have a character in 2009 be an ex-army doctor invalided home from the wars in Afghanistan.

Drone warfare may be surgically-precise in its strikes and kill fewer civilians than conventional warfare, but I am old and cynical enough to think that killing off leaders in small groups at a time isn't going to be enough. Suppose the American Joint Chiefs of Staff were all assassinated at one meeting - would that mean the collapse of the American armed forces?

You've had four assassinations of American Presidents in office. These did not lead to the immediate collapse of the government and the inability of the state to function.

Winning wars still means killing vast numbers of people, destroying infrastructure, and civilian suffering to the point that the state cannot function anymore.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-10-29 01:51 am (UTC)
I agree. The premise of the story is impossible: it's really unlikely that a world would ever evolve naturally with only assassination-style warfare. It wouldn't work and people would very quickly come up with the normal type.

I was using this world only as a means of examining our intuition that the normal mode of warfare is more moral than drone warfare, not as a suggestion that we could stop the normal kind of warfare and then we would end up with this world.
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[User Picture]From: Douglas Scheinberg
2012-10-29 06:05 pm (UTC)
There's a quote I once read, by some guy with a magazine column:

"Wars do not end when they are won, but when those who want to fight to the death find their wish has been granted."
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