Thursday, June 4, 2009

Spirituality and Warfare

Warfare is going high tech, and it's happening without much public dialogue. It seems worth at least pausing to consider some of the ethical and spiritual consequences of remote controlled war.

Warfare has constantly been evolving, from rocks and sticks to spears and arrows, from primitive telescopes and cannons to radar and the atomic bomb, from submarines and machine guns to aircraft and chemical weapons. Possibly the most significant change is occurring right now, with the increased use of remote controlled military robots. By 2010, a third of all U.S. fighter aircraft will likely be unmanned and, by 2015, a third of U.S. ground combat vehicles may be unmanned.

In many ways, this seems like a good thing. It will most certainly save lives and tax dollars. There will be fewer prisoners of war and less post traumatic stress disorder. Robots are expendable, predictable, obedient and fearless. They are small, light, agile, and have no emotional sensitivities. They are precise, impersonal and indifferent.

That’s the good news. But what are the hidden costs? How does remote controlled warfare change the psychological dimension of warfare? What ethical issues arise when an unmanned fighter plane, controlled remotely by a person in a trailer in Nevada, blows up a car full of suspected Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan? What does it mean if soldiers no longer face the enemy in combat, get a sense of their context or motivations, nor stand alongside brothers and sisters in arms?

What is a contemporary spirituality of warfare?

1. Spiritual Warfare

Compassion is central to spiritual warfare. War is awful. No one would argue that point. As tragic as it is to see reports of dead soldiers, and returning wounded soldiers, it keeps the reality of war in the consciousness of society. No one is going to feel any compassion for military robots, and so in this sense part of the cost of war will be hidden.

The remote control “pilots” may still suffer from post traumatic stress. Maybe they will see and suffer the effects of remote controlled war in a new and as yet unknown way. Will they be isolated and lacking in morale? How will they compensate for the lack of the camaraderie that develops in troops actually engaged in warfare activities?

There are also question marks over the accuracy of a robot’s ability to identify objects. This not only presents a clear and present danger to civilians, but also compromises the compassion that is necessary to warfare. Spirituality of warfare accepts the horrible reality of war and seeks the broadest compassion for all involved. In a very real sense, a soldier has to see the effects of war and be able to discern the greatest good for the greatest number in the situation. Robots do not yet have this ability. How can we hand the power of life and death to a machine that has no power of compassion?

2. Golden Rule

The Golden Rule appears in different forms in most wisdom traditions. Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Talmud says, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

If the Golden Rule was applied universally, there would be no war. All would demand the same level of peace and happiness for others that they wish for themselves. Assuming that war is inevitable because humans are not yet capable of living in mutual peace, the Golden Rule becomes a condition of war. Those who command and bring death and destruction on other societies through war accept the possibility of their own death, and they do so because of their commitment to a cause. Robots neither have any commitment to causes, nor do they have fear or risk or anything to lose in battle. The whole psychological and spiritual equilibrium that the Golden Rule offers is lost on robots.

The Golden Rule is a premise of the Geneva Conventions. Death and killing in the line of duty aside, there are boundaries on wartime relations. Wounded enemies, prisoners of war and civilians are to be treated humanely. Torture is condemned. The intent of the Conventions is to create a just battlefield. How will robots be programmed to fulfill the requirements of the Geneva Conventions or any other human rights standards?

It should be expected that other countries will follow suit and develop their own military robots. Therefore long distance warfare could become a global phenomenon. If 9/11 has become the symbol of homeland security outrage, robots could shatter the very notion of homeland security. Countries should only develop war strategies such as military robots if they are prepared to have the same strategies used against them.

3. Keep your enemies close

Ever since very early societies invented slings and spears, catapults and canons, people have sought self preservation by attacking enemies from long distances. Robotic technology takes long distance war to new extremes. That makes huge sense, but also has some hidden costs.

Sun Tzu coined the phrase in The Art of War, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. The phrase is usually applied in personal situations where you want to be able to see what your enemies are plotting. But the meaning may go a little deeper.

Conflict has evolved from fist to club to arrow to bullet to bomb. The devastation increases with each of these instruments. The further away the combatants and the weapons, the greater the damage. Technology used in warfare needs to uphold appropriate standards of humane behavior.

Something else is lost in long distance warfare. Death and destruction become detached from the consequences and purposes of the battle. Only a soldier with boots in the mud can truly hate war the way that war needs to be hated in order to be at all effective. Imagine if war becomes easy and cheap. Wars could spring up all over the place, for all sorts of political and economic reasons.

The issue of cowardice has also been raised in relation to remote controlled warfare. War always runs the risk of sparking counter attacks. As Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Robotic warfare inflicted on tribal peoples who highly value bravery may exacerbate hostility, and increase counter attacks.

Lastly, there may be some consolation in traveling to fight in war. Soldiers can create a healthy distance between their home and family life and the battle experience. No one yet knows the damage that will occur in the lives of soldiers who commute home after a day of remote control warfare. Will they be desensitized to violence, much like the proven affect of violent video games? Will they bring some aspect of their work home, as opposed to soldiers who can somewhat leave their work on the battlefield?

These are just some initial thoughts in what looms as one of the key conversations of our day. High tech warfare is no doubt inevitable. It needs to emerge gradually and slowly enough for all the related issues to be carefully discussed. What do you think about this trend towards remote controlled war and military robots?