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The Predator drone program: is humanity ready?

As the small group of soldiers lays stranded under cover in an Iraqi urban battlefield, barking coordinates and position updates into a handheld radio, a small bomber flies overhead. With unmatched precision, the bomber pilot maneuvers the lithe jet into a bombing run over the building where the snipers are pinning down the distressed soldiers on the ground.  The soldiers watch as the sleek jet zeroes in on its target and arms its bombs. The pilot sees movement on the building’s rooftop and gets ready to let loose a barrage of firepower that will destroy the building and everyone inside it. The familiar rush of adrenaline as his finger gets ready to press the lethal red launch button is all at once familiar and terrifying. The computer beeps in readiness and the pilot fires the two air-to-ground missiles that will utterly destroy the vulnerable targets below. Stranded for hours, the infantry watch and wait for the wonderful sound of an American bomber and the lovely sound of their Army asses being saved (once again) by the Air Force. The pilot slowly exhales as the missiles hit their targets with precision and panache. He tries not to look at the carnage he just affected on the enemy combatants, but he can’t help himself; He’s a soldier at war after all, and he’s doing his job most admirably.

Once the pilot has gotten confirmation of his kills, he sets the plane to autopilot, takes off his headphones, and gets up from his fancy monitors and joysticks. He looks around at the other pilots, stretches, and looks at his watch. He sees the time and rushes out; he’s late for carpool. As he climbs into his suburbia SUV, picks up his 2 girls from school, and goes home to his family in Las Vegas for a hot supper and possibly a movie, the carnage of the day’s deadly sorties slowly fade into the background as normalcy takes over. Just as with any other night, he falls asleep next to his wife, peacefully dreaming of the next day’s kills.

The Predator drone program has been a subject covered by many a journalist and discussed at many a dinner table, and it’s easy to see why the program is the basis of so much talk. Every once in a while, something comes along and completely changes the face of war Predator drones were like airplanes in World War I; they changed the rules. War is about human capital if anything, and when you can replace your human capital with technology, you’re a step ahead already. Replacing a human asset in the battlefield with an expendable piece of hardware is something that used to be relegated to science fiction and summer blockbusters, and now it’s a part of modern military strategy.

While the advantages of having a drone in the battlefield seem obvious, the psychological effect on the pilots is something that often goes overlooked. The seemingly incongruous dichotomy of a day on the battlefield and a night with the kids is not something to take lightly. In many ways, it seems like these pilots are just playing an ultra-realistic video game. When you take into account the distance from the battlefield, and the security of the human pilot, it’s hard not to make the comparison. It’s a scary thought, because people playing video games act with a certain recklessness that comes from a lack of self-preservation based fear and hesitation. You can run in guns blazing because if you die, you can always respawn at the nearest checkpoint. This really hits on a philosophical debate that has raged since the first automated process replaced human input: is it always a good thing to replace human action with machine action? By making a process less human, will that process lose the capability of empathy? In war, this is an especially troubling dilemma. When the lives of human beings are at stake, how much human can you take out of the system before it starts becoming inhumane?

In a 60 Minutes interview with one of the pilots, this same question was posed.

"Do you think that distance makes it - it's kind of like a video game and not like real life?" Logan asked.

"No, no, not at all," Chambliss said. "Because you know that there's no reset button. When you let a missile go and it's flying over the head of friendly forces and it's flying toward the enemy to kill somebody or to break something, you know that that's real life - and there's no take back there."

For an empathic human being, that sentiment is not hard to grasp. It’s a uniquely human emotion to be able to project into the mind of another and experience something vicariously, shaping your actions with that sensitivity. It’s what makes a soldier hesitate before he pulls a trigger, and what makes many of us averse to violence altogether.

However, this alone won’t quiet the discomfort over the Predator Program that many feel. The drone pilots are blamed for a lot of collateral damage and innocent death. It’s easy to place the blame on the pilots because, after all, they are so distant from the battlefield and don’t have the same qualms about firing missiles at targets seen through an unreal thermal filter. How can you expect a pilot to correctly and competently justify the action of firing a kill shot when his own life is not on the line? It’s a valid question, but this isn’t about the morality of war; that’s a subject I’m not qualified to discuss.

The critics often overlook the plight of the pilots. This technology is introducing a way of life that we have never seen before. The duality of being a soldier by day and a minivan driving suburban dad by night is something totally disconnected from what we call normalcy. This rapid interchange of roles is something that can wreak havoc on a mind if not dealt with. Coming home to your family after possibly killing another family’s father, and doing it every day, is not something that is easy to deal with. The experience of being literally miles above the action can be both empowering and debilitating. You get to see everything, successes and failures. When a friendly tank rolls over a roadside bomb, you see it. When a sniper picks off a friendly patrol, you see that also. Many times, there’s nothing you can do; you’re not there.

Every once in a while, technology comes and destroys everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the world around us and what we’re capable of. This specific brand of technological innovation is testing the limits of our humanity. It asks us how far we can get from the battlefield without losing our ability to approach it uniquely human empathy; it asks us if substituting human capital for bare metal is worth the wrenching experience of living in a dichotomy of war and family; ultimately, it asks us if we’re ready for the changes that we invent. 

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