Peter Singer: In Wired War, it's still about the Who

Peter Warren Singer is known for his writings on military affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Wired for War. He is  Director of the 21st Century Defense at the Brookings Institution.

If I could summarize his talk in seven words, it would be like this: It should still be about the who. And not just the who of the people who fight, but the "who" of a public that is removed from its cost.

The Geneva Conventions came out the same year as the 45 rpm record player, but Singer runs through a number of examples where technology has fundamentally changed the rules of war since those conventions became writ, and in particular, automated war is doing so. Surprisingly, despite its current lead in the field, the United States does not have a formal robotics war-fighting policy. 

Last year, 4.7 million play war at the video console, but 70 thousand actually considered joining the military. 

With five times the number of remote strikes in Pakistan as the number of them in Kosovo, why isn't the conflict on that soil called the "Pakistan war?" Perhaps it's because the drone war is being carried out by U.S. intelligence services rather than career military professionals.

Singer believes that a fundamental public discussion about remote-control conflict hasn't happened.

Predator squadron commanders with whom he has corresponded describe "going to war for 12 hours," and then driving home for supper with the family. These remote warriors are experiencing high, if not higher, levels of stress and fatigue than many soldiers in a full time role on the ground.

Compounding this problem is the astounding success of the all-volunteer military.

"We" aren't at war, just some of us are.

But the results of this kind of war are resonating in our public lives. Drones, for example, designed for orbservation and combat, are now being used in border security. Remote piloting, or looking "over the fence," raises constitutional questions that may, in fact, soon reach the courts.

The generation entering military service are also changing the idea of a hero. Singer recounts how one recruit, having failed high school English and being unqualified for a helicopter mechanic, was offered instead the opportunity to fly remote drones, something at which he was incredibly good. Singer described how he had saved more lives and inflicted more casualties than the manned fighter aircraft in the theater. Manned systems increasingly can't compete in the amount of damage that can be inflicted.

Today war is increasingly about a future that is happening now. But when "man is taken out of the loop," is it our machines, or is it us that is wired for war?

There were any number of questions Singer raised that weren't captured here. If you're interested, I'd highly recommend his book.