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.
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.
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, TED.com 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?