A plague of killer robots


Reaper drone firing missileKiller robots are the stuff of sci fi nightmares. To speak of their ethical use sounds like an oxymoron. Their whole point is that they have no morality. But now killer robots — drones in an advanced stage of development — are a daytime reality. They will be autonomous in their operation, able to identify targets, track them down, work out the best way to destroy them, and learn from their failures — all without the need for human direction. These qualities do raise serious ethical questions.

Many of them are also raised in the ethical debate about the use of guided drones in military action. Over 50 nations possess drones, including the United States, with about 4000. They have been used to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, causing a significant number of civilian casualties. Many are launched from neighbouring air bases but controlled in Nevada.

The military like drones because they do not endanger soldiers' lives and are less costly than manned missions. In the face of disquiet about their covert use to kill suspected militants, President Obama defended them on classical 'just war' grounds, saying that they were being used in a just war against the terrorism of Al Quaeda and its affiliates, were authorised by legislation following the September 11 attacks, and responded proportionately to a clear and imminent threat.

This argument is faulty because its misuse of the metaphor of war subverted the point of just war argument. This theory was developed and used, not to justify war, but to insist that war should not be seen as simply a horrible and uncontrollable event without any moral boundaries. War was a human activity in which human beings were involved and had to take responsibility. They had to conduct themselves in human ways. Not all wars, nor all that happened in war, were acceptable

It visualised war, therefore, as between two opposed powers, each with authorities responsible for the making of war, and with soldiers responsible for their conduct. Those who participated in war could imagine from experience its horror and could appreciate the compassion as well as the brutality soldiers show in it. Just war theory rests on a moral imagination informed by experience of its human reality.

From this perspective, to speak of a just war against terror is to misuse a metaphor perniciously. You can no more declare war against terror than you can against hunger, fear, the devil, drought, piracy, people smugglers or death. You can resist, run police operations and be resolute in the face of them, but you cannot declare or wage war on them. The metaphor subverts thinking about just war because it misrepresents the human reality of the actions and relationships it describes. The concreteness of the moral imagination gives way to a soup of analogies cooked with a stock of flowery metaphor. In that, anything goes for those who have power.

If the use of drones cannot be justified as a legitimate action in a war against terror, grounds need to be found to justify it for what it is: the killing of people suspected of crimes without trial, outside the killers' own nation, and without the authority of those ruling the countries where the suspects reside.

The metaphor of war conceals the increasingly dehumanised character of this kind of killing. The killing is done at a distance with no direct human contact with the person being killed. Its processes are bureaucratised, unpublicised and described in the abstract language of technology. People are simply targets.

The use of killer robots continue these trends in the use of military force. It is a further step in the withdrawal of human agency, accountability, imagination and freedom from the planning and conduct of violence. It makes killing a technological question that can be conducted without thought for the innocence or guilt of the person killed, no thought for the community where they are killed, no intimate acquaintanceship with what is involved in a violent death and no human accountability for the taking of blood.

The operational advantages of the use of killer drones may be conceded. They may save military lives and lessen the risk of trauma to those who guide conventional drones. They may be better able to assess local data and to respond to sudden changes in the context than human beings.

But that does not justify their use ethically. If you take away from the conduct of military action human responsibility, human imagination of the human suffering of the intended and incidental victims of violence, human recognition of the shared humanity of killers and victims and human space for compassion in conflict, you will take away the conditions for any humane ethical reflection on it.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, drones, Barack Obama, Just War



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This is a serious and thoughtful article by Andrew. While I was reading it, though, I couldn't help but think of B grade movie epic, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" - truly a movie to wonder at! On a more serious note, I am also reminded of David Malouf's 2003 Anzac Day address in Washington DC. Excerpt: "Futility and the waste of youthful sacrifice, human folly on a scale almost unimaginable in these days of precision weapons, distant engagement, small losses - this is how we now see the First World War. But we also see aspects of it that we were unaware of fifty years ago, or unable to look at. Women, for example, as victims of war."

Pam | 22 April 2014  

It might well be the case that the US use of drones in Asia and Africa was "authorised by legislation following the September 11 attacks". Their use, with its terrible consequences, is a clear indication of the overwhelming success of the 'boxcutter' attacks on the USA in 2001, the intention of such terrorism being specifically to bring about the moral degradation of the attacked society through the corrupting influence of its response. This was well understood over a hundred years ago; see Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' (1907).

J Vernau | 22 April 2014  

"If the use of drones cannot be justified as a legitimate action in a war against terror, grounds need to be found to justify it for what it is."........ Desperate situations often need desperate remedies. There is a lot to be deplored about the use of drones, but what are the alternatives??? What humane measures can be used to counter the spread of conscienceless terror? Please elucidate

Robert Liddt | 23 April 2014  

Human responsibility, human imagination, human recognition of shared humanity - these aren't optional extras in human action. We must find other remedies, or we cease to be human. Perhaps we can win our 'wars' this way - but it would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. Thank you again, Andrew, for your passion and clarity.

Joan Seymour | 23 April 2014  

J Vernau 22 April 2014 The US use of drones is a clear indication of the overwhelming success of the 'boxcutter' attacks on the USA in 2001." ?????? It was reported that when the US went to war in Afghanistan, that Osama bin Laden said if he had known this would be the consequence of the 9/11 attack, that he would not have launched it. Reconciliation of opposing views will sometimes come about only when both sides agree to talk. If only one side wants to do this, peace will not result

Robert Liddy | 23 April 2014  

Robert Liddy, 23 April. Thanks for your comment, Mr Liddy. Do you believe that any nation that has been subjected to 'intervention' by the U.S. and its NATO allies is now in an improved condition? Do you think that the populations of those countries are now more, or less, sympathetic to the USA and its international meddling? Do you accept that the estimated trillion-plus dollar cost of overseas 'wars' since 2001 is deleterious to the US economy? More pertinent to Mr Hamilton's article, do you not accept that the use of drones and the summary execution of foreign nationals, amongst other abrogations of the rule of law, reduces the credibility of the US and its customary 'moral high ground' stance, not least among its own citizens and those of its allies?

J Vernau | 24 April 2014  


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