Perceptions of War in Times of Technological Change

Written by: Michael Kravshik.

I have previously argued that conventional nation-state war is on the outs. To those who gave it a read, I noted in greater detail the effects of political and economic changes on the conduct of war, but only alluded to the significant effect technological changes also have on the equation. This post won’t focus on how the conduct of war is changing due to technology so much as it will discuss the effects these changes will have on our perception of war, and as I will argue, our aversion to it.

Before TV and the Internet, war was often a distant event. When the battlefield wasn’t at your doorstep, people at home had no concept of it outside of the stories they heard and the wounds they saw their soldiers return with. Public support for war was usually at its height when the war started, and eventually diminished as the casualties started piling up. Vietnam changed all of that, especially for North Americans, for whom war on the home front was a distant memory. The intimate video and photographic footage of carnage and destruction streaming back to peoples homes every night forced the public to better understand the realities of war. It also quickly turned the public against it, helping to spawn a whole generational movement. Before the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the public already had a strong aversion to war. 9/11 brought the realities of war right to the heart of the United States once again, but this time they were the victims. The fear that resulted helped push the balance significantly towards support for a retaliatory attack. As people returned to business as usual, and the War in Iraq began, that general aversion to war began to increase once again. The effects of 9/11 were wearing off on the publics’ psyche. In addition, a whole new type of war media started pouring back to the public. YouTube and similar videos depicting real action from the battlefields of the Middle East, sometimes called “war porn”. The public conscience now has to contend with not only old-fashioned news clips, but home made movies, completely uncensored that force us to grieve not only for our own fallen soldiers, but also the civilians directly affected by the war.

A US Predator Drone firing a missile.

That last line is important since it explains my general thoughts on how the public’s perception will be affected by a battlefield that will increasingly become un-manned. In 2009, P.W. Singer presented a fantastic TEDtalk (click here to view) on the future of robotics in warfare and its implications. “The US Military went into Iraq with a handful of drones in the air, we now have 5,300. We went in with zero un-manned ground systems, we now have 12,000.” These new wars have been a catalyst in the progression of robotic warfare. This development has some obvious positive implications. To know that our nations’ sons and daughters might not have to put themselves in harms way to defend our countries anymore is something to celebrate. Mr. Singer appreciates this important step but ponders if this development will result in an increased tendency to go to war, as it will be seen as ‘no risk.’ He then brings up the effects this type of warfare has on the soldiers still fighting it, but from far away. He discusses how the lack of face-to-face contact can result in a mental distancing, and potentially more aggression. In addition, he cited that levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the drone pilots, who drop bombs on Iraq from the US, are actually higher than for the troops physically on the ground in Iraq. The concept of fighting a war on the other side of the world and coming home for dinner is something never experienced before.

A US Foster-Miller TALON SWORDS robot armed for combat.

These new experiences will definitely shape the publics perception of war, but I disagree with Mr. Singer that it will lessen society’s aversion to war. Technology will hopefully allow us to avoid our own casualties, but it also forces us to watch the results of our actions, in progressively higher definition. Whether perpetrated by man or machine, images of death and destruction will continue to turn us off and push us to avoid it. Pictures of American casualties in Vietnam were very impactful on the anti-war sentiment. However, it was the casualties inflicted upon the Vietnamese civilians, such as the My Lai Massacre, and countless images of Napalm reigning fire from the skies that galvanized the people against the War. As the technologies of war change, our aversion to it will not. Western culture, and all Westernist peoples have evolved their aversion to war through a greater understanding of it. Our technology will continue to push us away from war at the same rate as it brings us closer to it. Regardless, Mr. Singer’s talk brings to light the importance that this shift will have on our understanding of one of mans oldest activities. Hopefully, soon to no longer be mans.

P.S. If your interested in hearing about anything from science, to politics, to technology from the experts themselves, is the best place to find it, check it out if you haven’t already.

Also, if your not convinced about the rate of technological change we will witness in the near future, give The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil a read (click here to see a book review from Josh and I).


This is my opinion. What’s yours?

4 thoughts on “Perceptions of War in Times of Technological Change

  1. Your invocation of Vietnam syndrome is, of course, quite apt. However, it is important though that we are self-aware enough that we identify the myth of the suffocating quagmire as an artificial paradigm. It’s something we have convinced ourselves of. We need to have our expectations mitigated. Baudrillard noted that it was statistically safer to serve in the Gulf War than live as a resident in the continental United States. That’s pretty fuckin’ crazy. That was such a seminal war; the first fully televized, high-fidelity war, it shaped what a Chinese Col. called \’the illness of extravagance and zero casualties.\’ I mean, our high-income, low-birth rate societies do demand low casualties to a degree (if purely from an economic investment lens), but we\’ve been spoiled. We convinced ourselves that that was what post modern warfare is, when in reality post modern warfare is much closer to Vietnam.
    Additionally, I’d argue that while we’re intellectually horrified by war, we’re still quite viscerally attracted to it, and that dissonance is not particularly actionable into anti-war sentiment. Between Act of Valor and Call of Duty, we seem to have a preoccupation with war porn. The most popular level in Call of Duty, as voted by Kotaku or some equivalent game website, was the one where you are an AC130 gunner and is based off one of the first youtube/liveleaks of its genre. Gamers felt like it was real. It felt like they were actually at the controls of a Bofors 40mm raining death on OPFOR.

    I guess that brings us to drones.P W Singer is great, and he\’s always on the bleeding edge of the academic war discourse (his book on the private sector, Corporate Warriors, is fuckin\’ seminal), but as a result his sources and extrapolations aren\’t fully validated. The charge that tele-warfare could result in higher levels of aggression, is quite baseless until a great deal of quantitative psychological-physiological studies are conducted. If anything, the lack of an existential threat creating fight/flight responses should lead to a higher level of diligence and more appropriate use-of-force response. Had Maj. Harry Schmidt been a drone pilot, he may not have felt as threatened by what he perceived to be incoming SAF from the Canadian PPCLI that he bombed out of self-defence, setting a rather ominous standard as Canada\’s first Afghan casualties. And, when one can go home to a dinner with their family, they are probably much more in control of their faculties than if they were in my austere conditions down range (though \’austere\’ may be a bit of an exaggeration for chAir Force living conditions). They are well-nourished and well-rested, they should be much more fit for duty.
    In considering how this would change ad bellum evaluations, potential for casualties was never supposed to be part of the Augustian arithmetic, only potential for success. If you’re a Clausewitzian, you’d hope that modern governments decide to go to war based on a confluence of factors directly related to strategic interests that would only be strengthened by the political willpower that would come from having fewer casualties. In short, yes it may be easier to go to war, but that may not be a bad thing for individual countries. In fact, the strategic stagnation of low-intensity warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq has been economically and socially terrible for Westphalian diplomatic and military resolve. Let’s not forget what Clinton/Oakley did to the global perceptions of the western peacekeeping regime when they pulled out of Somalia in 1993/4(?).

    • Michael: Thank you duff man, lots of insight in that one. Vietnam syndrome is great terminology thanks for adding that.

      The quagmire has certainly taken over our psyche, but unfortunately its something were stuck in again. So, although I agree our expectations are certainly too high, its still relevant that we really haven’t accomplished much.

      Great statistic with regards to safety, although I would doubt the same applies to these two wars. If you have those numbers please share.

      The comment about our de-sensitization to war through media is certainly valid. I think so far we’ve still managed to separate them, but maybe thats just because we haven’t truly reached a point where the graphics look real. It will be interesting to see how the next generation will regard war, and how those types of media technologies will effect it. Singer’s premise is a difficult sell, and I agree I would like some research into the concept before believing it, hence my objection to it. Then again, all analysis of this paradigm shift in war due to technology is speculative at best, we’ll find out soon enough I suppose. The Westphalian model (which I discussed in a different post) will have to adapt if its to survive this change.

      • Non vi e8 alcun beneficiario della grurea, ma gli ebreiAtold grurea, ma le perdite finanziarie e fisicheAd esempio, la grurea in Iraq ha prodotto enormi perdite e ha lasciato migliaia di mortiNo alla grurea, sec alla paceGrazie Yasser

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