George Tarr

Technological Progress: The Case of Drones

This article was published in Oxford’s International Relations Society Journal, ‘Lighthouse’, in 2017. Views may have evolved since writing.


The dueling concepts of time and progress often suffer treatment as something close to synonymous; the latter painted as the necessary and inviolable fruit of the former’s work. This determinism about progress is harmful in more ways than one, yet its consequences are perhaps nowhere clearer than in the arena of international security and conflict. In this discipline, where developments are thought to rest upon the ever upward trajectory of science and moral reason, we have become worshippers of the present tense.

Seeming to herald the halcyon days ahead, the 20th century brought what many have called a revolution in military affairs. This systemic shift is the cargo of a multidisciplinary evolution; a simultaneous surge in media, machine and morality. Its clearest symptoms have been in US-led conflicts in the Arab world, which have seen precision-targeting and speed like never before. Against the cinematic backdrop of two costly and messy world wars, a new age appears to be dawning. In this age, conflict, when it occurs, will be swift, effective and nearly bloodless. The future itself is announcing its arrival – and it is furiously bright.

Such it is that the harbingers of the revolution race like Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit, consumed by his pocket watch, ever frantic for the important date ahead. In essence it is a kind of temporal arrogance – what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery” – barely slowed in its tracks by the warning signs that line its path[1].

The 2003 Iraq War was one such signpost. While recognised for its flaws, the failures of this infamous conflict are never thought to derive from any kind of technological regression. In spite of widespread assertions that the war should never have occurred, the banner of progress still flies over its fruition.

In the conventional first phase of the war, the US-led coalition invaded to disarm suspected nuclear weaponry as planned. Satellite warfare was used extensively, securing, superficially, the quick surrender of Iraqi armed forces. The strategy marked a historical shift. Traditional Westphalian war was a brutal affair between two sovereign states, governed by rules and with roughly proportionate methods. But the advent of satellite warfare and the use of drones brought about an unprecedented asymmetry of means. Iraq’s weak grasp of anti-satellite methods left it virtually powerless in the grasp of the US-led coalition.

General Tommy Franks, US Army Former Commander, emphasised that “the command and control of air, ground, naval, and SOF [Special Operations Forces] from 7,000 miles away was a unique experience in warfare”, achieving “unprecedented real-time situational awareness”.[2] President Bush praised the effectiveness of these new means, calling the war in Iraq “one of the swiftest and most humane military campaigns in history”[3]. More recently, building on these innovations, the US coalition has conducted 34,264 drone strikes on Syria and Iraq in the ongoing operation against ISIL.[4]

It is within this ‘scientific and moral progress’ that new, unintended evils have arisen, rooted in psychological factors far from the mind of the high-calibre invading army.

The first factor has been a shift in the ground-level perception of ‘the enemy’. When soldiers patrol the streets in US uniforms, wielding AK-47s, the immediate enemy is easily defined. Quite apart from ideological concerns, the enemy to the insurgent on the street is simply that man: the armed invader himself. The man in the urban alley, and the immediate threat he brings, becomes the fulcrum around which hatred and resentment turn.

With the advent of precision-targeting drones, however, the specificity of the enemy was replaced by faceless objects, spiralling towards faceless targets. Drone development removed this focal point, releasing the tension in a fire of undirected vengeance: the enemy, losing its immediate identity, became ‘America’ and ‘the West’.

This is compounded by what Edward Jones coined as correspondent inference theory, whereby observers tend to interpret the objective of an agent in terms of the consequence of their action.[5] If you notice someone close a door and the room becomes quieter, you assume they closed it in order to make the room quiet.

In the instance of the soldier on the street, witnessing him open fire will instil a perception that his intent is to kill those he has found, fuelling resentment and a desire to avenge those deaths. In the instance of a drone, the faceless enemy, with no detectable hesitation, causes repeated, extensive destruction and civilian casualties. It is inferred from this consequence that the broad opponent has the intention of wreaking unrestrained havoc, destroying the very fabric of the nation it victimises.

What follows is a shift in the norms of acceptable warfare. If the enemy is faceless, of seemingly endless might, and of broad, unlimited ends, then the inferior power becomes justified in its ruthless response.

After the clinical US operations, Iraq erupted into unrestrained guerrilla warfare; fighting was conducted tooth and nail, and street by street. Insurgents turned to identity-driven appeals for violent support from those located within the offending nations themselves. They turned to a broad campaign of terrorism; a struggle against the Western world. As noted by American political scientist Robert Pape, recent escalations in suicide attacks can be directly traced to feelings of an insurmountable struggle against foreign intervention.[6] While in previous wars such tactics remained peripheral, the Iraqi forces turned them into an overarching strategy.

The subsequent costly affair sparked a long-running, hyper-resilient hatred of the West amongst particular members of the Iraqi citizenry, by direct consequence of the ‘progressive’ asymmetry of means thought to bring swift resolution. To those on the ground, the pattern was clear. In 2005, US Lieutenant General Chiarelli noted a substantial shift in Iraqi perceptions of the West as a whole, remarking that “in many instances, we are our own worst enemy”.[7]

The glorification of drones as military progress is one manifestation of a temporal arrogance which ought to be continually checked. There are other examples on the horizon. Technological developments which echo science fiction, such as the emergence of fully autonomous weapons or so-called ‘killer robots’, could create extensive issues of accountability in the future. Even presently, we see an unnerving lack of effective investigation into and punishment for unlawful drone killings, in part fuelling the desperate retaliation of those affected[8].

The purpose of this article is not to vilify progress, but to condemn the idealistic notion of its linearity. Enlightenment is never an achieved destination. The present is rather more or less enlightened in various respects. It is possible, we must remind ourselves, to choose incorrectly between the good and the bad of the past; to build on the least of our inheritance. Indeed, our pride in the present has borne a harmful freight. Following the White Rabbit, racing into the future and blind to the past, has led us down the rabbit hole more than a number of times.

[1] Lewis, Clive Staples. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. Vol. 320. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1956, 206.

[2] Williams, Linda B. Intelligence Support to Special Operations in the Global War on Terrorism. Army War Coll Carlisle Barracks PA, 2004, 13.

[3] Bush, George W. Bush Speech: Full Text. BBC News. Accessed March 30, 2019.

[4] Airwars. US-Led Coalition in Iraq and Syria. Accessed March 30, 2019.

[5] Jones, Edward E., and Daniel McGillis. Correspondent inferences and the attribution cube: A comparative reappraisal. New directions in attribution research, 1976, 389-420.

[6] Pape, Robert A. “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism.” American political science review 97, no. 3 (2003): 343-361.

[7] Crawford, Neta. Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars. Oxford University Press, 2013, 82.

[8] Buchanan, Allen, and Robert O. Keohane. “Toward a drone accountability regime.” Ethics & International Affairs 29, 2015, 15-37.

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