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Barbara Ehrenreich: 12,000 Drones, Lethal Cyborg Insects, See-Shoot Robots -- How Machines Are Taking Over War

How far will the automation of war and the substitution of autonomous robots for human fighters go?

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Why Iraq? Neoconservative imperial ambitions have been invoked in explanation, as well as the American thirst for oil, or even an Oedipal contest between George W. Bush and his father. There is no doubt some truth to all of these explanations, but the targeting of Iraq also represented a desperate and irrational response to what was, for Washington, an utterly confounding military situation.

We faced a state-less enemy -- geographically diffuse, lacking uniforms and flags, invulnerable to invading infantries and saturation bombing, and apparently capable of regenerating itself at minimal expense. From the perspective of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his White House cronies, this would not do.

Since the U.S. was accustomed to fighting other nation-states -- geopolitical entities containing such identifiable targets as capital cities, airports, military bases, and munitions plants -- we would have to find a nation-state to fight, or as Rumsfeld put it, a “target-rich environment.” Iraq, pumped up by alleged stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction,” became the designated surrogate for an enemy that refused to play our game.

The effects of this atavistic war are still being tallied: in Iraq, we would have to include civilian deaths estimated at possibly hundreds of thousands, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and devastating outbreaks of sectarian violence of a kind that, as we should have learned from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, can readily follow the death or removal of a nationalist dictator.

But the effects of war on the U.S. and its allies may end up being almost as tragic. Instead of punishing the terrorists who had attacked the U.S., the war seems to have succeeded in recruiting more such irregular fighters, young men (and sometimes women) willing to die and ready to commit further acts of terror or revenge. By insisting on fighting a more or less randomly selected nation-state, the U.S. may only have multiplied the non-state threats it faces.

Unwieldy Armies

Whatever they may think of what the U.S. and its allies did in Iraq, many national leaders are beginning to acknowledge that conventional militaries are becoming, in a strictly military sense, almost ludicrously anachronistic. Not only are they unsuited to crushing counterinsurgencies and small bands of terrorists or irregular fighters, but mass armies are simply too cumbersome to deploy on short notice.

In military lingo, they are weighed down by their “tooth to tail” ratio -- a measure of the number of actual fighters in comparison to the support personnel and equipment the fighters require. Both hawks and liberal interventionists may hanker to airlift tens of thousands of soldiers to distant places virtually overnight, but those soldiers will need to be preceded or accompanied by tents, canteens, trucks, medical equipment, and so forth. “Flyover”  rights will have to be granted by neighboring countries; air strips and eventually bases will have to be constructed; supply lines will have be created and defended -- all of which can take months to accomplish.

The sluggishness of the mass, labor-intensive military has become a constant source of frustration to civilian leaders. Irritated by the Pentagon’s hesitation to put “boots on the ground”  in Bosnia, then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously demanded of Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, “What good is this marvelous military force if we can never use it?” In 2009, the Obama administration unthinkingly proposed a troop surge in Afghanistan, followed by a withdrawal within a year and a half that would have required some of the troops to start packing up almost as soon as they arrived. It took the U.S. military a full month to organize the transport of 20,000 soldiers to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake -- and they were only traveling 700 miles to engage in a humanitarian relief mission, not a war.

 
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