On rocks, rapiers, revolvers and RPVs (drones)

Years have passed since my participation in the early days of drone development at The Boeing Company, and since then, I've become increasingly interested in the role and true impact of Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RVPs/Drones) in our world at war.

While researching and writing West From Yesterday, I was confronted repeatedly by the stark contrast between warfare today and the gunfights I portrayed throughout the novel.

When comparing and contrasting the two realities, it helps to take a look back at our natural history. From the moment our ancestors first used an implement to get food or to defend themselves, we’ve had a permanent common goal: getting food and defending ourselves without getting hurt in the process. We learned that using a club was better than using our hands and using a rock allowed us to put a distance between our self and our prey/foe.

Development of edged weapons -- spears and swords such as rapiers -- took putting meat on the table and slaying an enemy to another level of efficiency. Then along came gunpowder. Suddenly, it was possible to kill people a long, long way away, say over a hill or ensconced behind a castle wall.

When gunpowder came on the scene, the powers that be, especially in Europe, denounced it as “uncivilized”, “unmanly” and “unethical”. The Vaticanissued a papal bull condemning the use of gunpowder and threatening those who did so with excommunication. Nobility despised gunpowder because of its effect on horse-mounted ranks and stonewalled citadels. Indeed, gunpowder was seen as such a threat by those who ruled, gunners and anyone connected with “guns” or other such “infernal devices” were summarily executed when captured.

The problem was that the new technology worked not just in terms of efficiency in reducing redoubts and simultaneous slaughtering of masses of men, but also in allowing “commanders” to be progressively more distant from the physical conflict itself -- and thus less likely to be hurt in all that mass nastiness.

Today, RPVs kill people on the other side of the globe. Others have written eloquently about the politics, legality and morality of this phenomenon, in my opinion none better than Mark Bowden in the October 2013 edition of Atlantic Monthly. Another passage that is particularly poignant to me are the words spoken by Inigo Balboa on Flanders' field in the service of the King of Spain, 1637 in the novel "Captain Alatriste" by Arturo Perez-Reverte:“

He who kills from afar knows nothing about killing. He who kills from afar derives no lesson from life or from death; he neither risks nor stains his hands with blood, nor hears the breathing of his adversary nor reads the fear, courage or indifference in his eyes. He who kills from afar tests neither his arm, his heart nor his conscience nor does he create ghosts that will haunt him all the rest of his life. He who kills from afar is a knave who commands to others the dirty and terrible task that is his own. He who kills from afar is worse than other men because he does not know anger, loathing, vengeance, the terrible passion of flesh and blood as they meet steel, but he is equally innocent of pity and remorse. For that reason, he who kills from afar does not know what he has lost...”

During my time at The Boeing Company we had numerous discussions as to whether or not drones and their efficiency, would make war more or less likely. The case for developing the technology was based on the attraction of “The Three ‘Ds”: drones would do missions that were “dull, dirty and dangerous” to which I added two more "Ds”, dollars and demographics. Drones are at least one-third less expensive than manned vehicles and they allow more expensive-to-train pilots to conduct only those missions requiring a butt in an ejection seat.

Today, I continue to wonder about the impact that remote, robotic killing has on the warrior ethos. Let me be clear about this. It will have an effect, and that effect will be fundamental. Whether it will be good or terribly bad is the question.

If a leader can kill people without acts of Congress, UN General Assembly debates, or awkward funerals would he/she be increasingly inclined to do so? Today, we know the answer. Yes.

Each week the President of the United States reviews a “kill list”, a technician in an air conditioned building outside Las Vegas, Nevada guides an RPV to a target in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Mali or ... you get the idea. The technician depresses a button on his/her joystick, a Hellfire missile roars away and people die. So very efficient it is literally addictive to powers possessing this capability.

Ironically, along with these technological capabilities or perhaps because of them, we also still praise, reward, and celebrate the individual warrior. We find repulsive the idea of giving awards for participation in “combat” to those air-conditioned drone technicians based outside Las Vegas. We still acclaim the individual warrior. Or at least we profess to do so especially if the warrior in question is someone else's son, husband or father.

Mankind has a residual, if grudging, respect for those who face their foes -- literally face their foes -- in mortal combat; Achilles, Sampson, Cetshwayo, Wild Bill Hickok, Medal of Honor winners. All acclaimed for their willingness to put their lives on the line rather than sending others into harm’s way. The motto of the U.S. Army Infantry School says it best: “Follow Me.”

The characters I portray in West From Yesterday are flawed but manifest personal courage again and again and in that long-ago time, personal courage was highly admired. I think it still is. I think it always will be.

Society seems to increasingly appreciate the tiny and shrinking number of our population whose job is to “close with and kill the enemy.” Spartans at Thermopylae, Hickock in the streets of Abilene, the Delta warrior in Mogadishu. I believe, perhaps because of advancements in lethal technology as yet unimagined, our admiration for the individual warrior, while perhaps not politically correct, is nonetheless eternal.

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