Seated in front of video screens thousands of miles from the theatre of operations, sensor operators and pilots remotely control UAVs by way of a games console or keyboard. Increasingly powerful cameras provide them with good optical pictures of individuals on the ground. The image resolution is high enough to distinguish between a man and a woman. After launching a missile, at the end of their shift, military personnel involved in these operations go home to their families.
Not surprisingly, this way of war-fighting and the high-resolution images of the effects of a UAV attack are taking their toll on the “remote-control warriors,” many of whom suffer from considerable mental stress. One US Colonel explains why:
In a fighter jet, ‘when you come in at 500-600 miles per hour, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens,’ but when a Predator [a type of UAV] fires a missile, ‘you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it's very vivid, it's right there and personal. So it does stay in people's minds for a long time.’
It also makes war more real and less impersonal for the attacker, a change in perception that may mitigate the dehumanization of the opponent so common in today’s conflicts. Yet, this has nothing to do with the chivalrous concept of face-to-face combat that underlies many of our modern-time rules of warfare – after all, the victim hardly shares the attacker’s sense of proximity.
As to the visualization of weapons effects, both the Ottawa Process leading to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Oslo Process on Cluster Munitions testify to the powerful impact of images on people’s minds. These processes were successful not least because survivors and campaigners effectively and graphically communicated the impact that mines and cluster munitions have on people.
This has led some cynics to observe that only weapons that have recently caused a humanitarian catastrophe can now successfully be banned. The 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons (Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) is evidence to the contrary. Blinding lasers were banned before they were ever deployed.
Hopefully, we will not have to witness with our own eyes the effects of all emerging weapons technologies before we bring ourselves to outlaw at least those that cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering or affect civilians and combatants without discrimination.
Photo credit: "Help" by lette_applejuice on Flickr.