Robot counterinsurgencies

I picked up a copy of Harper’s on the road.

Two articles caught my interest. The first, by Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on counterinsurgency, and the other by freelance writer Steve Featherstone, on “the coming robot army”.

The counterinsurgency article was more interesting, so I’ll deal with it second. Featherstone’s piece on robots describes in scary detail the operation of the next generation of remote-control military equipment.

There are already unmanned drones of all kinds, but the next generation has more power: robots that can climb walls, coordinate with other camera-carrying, intelligence-gathering robots to create a complete picture of the battlefield. The robots are part of a “kill chain” that will enable the US military (which is the only one I think could afford such things) to inflict more casualties and do more damage with reduced casualties. The generation of robots after this one will be able to make decisions and operate quite independently of remote control.

Featherstone extrapolates ethical issues that I don’t think are the right ones. He raises a hypothetical: suppose a drone, following orders, kills a family in the home of an insurgent. Who is responsible? I don’t think this is such a complex issue: it has never been the case that soldiers who commit war crimes are solely culpable. It has always been the case that militaries (and bureaucracies) are organized specifically to diffuse responsibility away from individuals. So people who make the decision to go to war are culpable just as soldiers are. And to the degree that a society is democratic, we’re all culpable to the degree that we have the power to change a policy and don’t.

What I wonder though is whether the robotification of the army has limits. Does the complexity and expense of the organization of an army that uses robots heavily create vulnerabilities? Is such an organization good at some things and not others? And, leading into Luttwak’s article, given that no military can stand against the US military and we’re talking about an army that will be fighting relatively defenceless populations, what are the effects of using such an army on a population?

Luttwak’s argument is as follows. Counterinsurgency is a political and not a military problem and so the astounding and increasing firepower the US brings to bear in Iraq (or Afghanistan), and its ability to kill without taking casualties (which the US population is sensitive to) becomes irrelevant in the face of insurgents who will hide among the population, passively protected by the population, rather than fight against vastly superior firepower. Why does the population support insurgents, Luttwak asks? Because the insurgents are willing to out-terrorize the occupier. Cooperation with the occupier is punished with terrible reprisals. The political solution to this, used by the Romans, the Ottomans, the Nazis, is to be willing to out-terrorize the insurgents. Some high profile massacres will do the job, but the US, because of principled opposition to massacres, won’t do so. The only thing that might help the US if it is unwilling to out-terrorize, is to be willing to govern. But since the US wants to leave governance to the locals, its counterinsurgency program is doomed.

I thought about this a while before I could identify the problems with it, and there are several.

The first is that it assumes that the US has benevolent intentions – Luttwak says that the problem is that Iraqis and Afghans prefer local oppression to the freedoms brought by occupiers. But Luttwak knows that empires (from the Romans to the Nazis) don’t occupy for benevolent reasons.

From the assumption of benevolent empires, it is natural to suggest that support for insurgency comes from terrorizing the population. The reality is more complex. Reprisals are part of the picture, to be sure. So is nationalism, dignity, vengeance against the occupier, and legitimacy, which Eqbal Ahmad, for example, emphasized in his writings on anti-colonial warfare.

Third, the assumption that principle prevents the US from massacring people is false. The US did massacre people in Fallujah, mainly for the demonstrative reasons that Luttwak argues the US would never massacre. There is something to the idea that communication of atrocities to populations with a degree of control over decision-makers can reduce atrocities (something that didn’t exist in Roman or Ottoman times). But if that communication must take place through centralized media corporations and propaganda systems that are part of the system of power, that frees empires to commit the demonstrative massacres Luttwak argues would bring places like Iraq under control.

If Luttwak is wrong, a couple of possibilities follow. One is that Iraq is, for US purposes, under control. That’s hard to believe, but I do think the current situation is more beneficial to the Bush regime, and those who wanted the war in Iraq in the first place, than many think. The alternative though is that the reason US counterinsurgency “fails” (and I repeat that I think it’s more successful than many) is for some reason other than its unwillingness to terrorize. I think it is probably a question of legitimacy – but Iraq, like Palestine, is a place where anyone with any legitimacy is targeted for destruction by the empire. When no one has legitimacy, there is chaos. And chaos, while it may not be as good for empire as stable imperial control, might be a good imperial second choice.

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