BROOKE GLADSTONE: The unmanned drones that were recurring characters in David Rohde’s captivity narrative are sources of fear and loathing in the region. Their numbers have soared from just a handful at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 to over 7,000 now, used both for surveillance and assassination of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The drones are maintained by U.S. government employees in the Middle East, but they're operated from as far away as the American West. And it’s that literal disconnection from the battlefield that has made them such a newly popular part of our military strategy – popular, that is, in the United States. In the Middle East they’re reviled because they don't just kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Despite their supposed precision, they also regularly kill civilians. Pakistani’s leading newspaper has declared America enemy number one largely because of the drones, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her recent visit to Pakistan, faced questions like this:
PAKISTANI WOMAN: The drone attacks are being carried out in our country, causing so much collateral damage. What does Madame or America, in general, plans to do about that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clinton said she wouldn't discuss any specifics of our methods or technologies, but in the war of ideas, ignoring the problem won't make it go away. P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, spent years researching the implications of drone technology. He says they're a powerful symbol of U.S. foreign policy, but what they symbolize here bears no resemblance to what they represent over there.
P.W. SINGER: I remember meeting with a newspaper editor in Lebanon. There was a drone flying over right at that moment. And he described how our use of this technology showed how we were, quote, “cowards” afraid to fight, and that all they had to do to defeat us was just to kill a very small number of our soldiers. The message we think we are sending may be completely different than the message that’s being received on the ground.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Generally, these drones are considered a wonderful idea here. They are, by their nature, antiseptic and casualty-free, at least with regard to American soldiers.
P.W. SINGER: Exactly. I remember interviewing one military officer who described the appeal of these systems being that he didn't have to worry about sending a letter to someone’s mother if things went wrong, and the use of these unmanned systems have been very effective by the things that we measure as being important to us. So, the strikes into Pakistan, we've killed more than 20 top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and, more importantly, we've done it in a way that we didn't have to send American troops or American pilots into harm’s way. Also on the civilian casualty side, they are far more accurate than the old modes of war. You know, compare the civilian casualties during the bombing raids back in World War II.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are then the hidden costs here that we generally don't hear about in the media?
P.W. SINGER: What we've seen is among some of these remote units that are operating from places like in Nevada levels of combat stress that are as high as for some of the units physically deployed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
P.W. SINGER: There’re lots of different theories on this. A bomber pilot used to fly in, drop the bomb, fly away. An operator of a predator drone, for example, will see the target up close for hours and hours and hours, drop the bomb, and then, most importantly, then see the aftereffect. But remember, it’s not just watching someone else die. I remember interviewing an NCO in the Air Force. She started to bang the table with her hand, recounting what it felt like to watch American soldiers die in front of her, on the screen. And then this leads to the second thing. Right after that, you walk outside and you’re not at war. It’s like shift work - individuals each day waking up, driving into work, going to war for 12 hours, coming back home, years on end. So it’s not just that you’re killing and watching people die and it’s grinding. It’s that then 20 minutes later, as one guy put it to me, your wife is mad at you for showing up late to your kid’s soccer practice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that these images are becoming a perverse form of entertainment.
P.W. SINGER: You and I can go online right now, go onto a site like YouTube and watch video of combat. The soldiers call it “war porn.” It’s the idea that we can watch more but experience less when it comes to our wars. One of the things I talk about in my book is an experience of getting an email where the title line of the email said, “Watch This.” In this case, the “watch this” was of a predator drone strike. Hellfire missile goes in, hits the target, and you could then watch the bodies riding the crest of the explosion. And that video clip had been set to the pop song, “I Just Want to Fly,” by the band Sugar Ray.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You dove nose-deep into the whole world of roboticized warfare for your book, and you've said it’s the warfare of the future. What’s your thinking as we get more accustomed to using this kind of technology? Do you expect that we will finally have a public conversation or a way of limiting the technology or a series of safeguards?
P.W. SINGER: I hope so, and that was one of the points of doing the book. And the parallels that people make out there to what’s happening right now to give a sense of history is they say, you know, this is a lot like the introduction of the horseless carriage back in 1909, or Bill Gates said, you know, we're at robotics right now where we are with computers around 1980. Other people say, no, no, no, it’s like the invention of the atomic bomb. These are technologies that didn't just affect what happened in war. They changed our entire world. And it would be great if the public was part of that discussion and debate as to how it’s going to change our world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
P.W. SINGER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: P.W. Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. This is On the Media from NPR.
"Pick Up (Four Tet remix)"