Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future
While the distant control of drones may well protect American lives, it raises questions about what it means to have people so far removed from the field of conflict. "Sometimes you felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar," says Lt. Col. Matt Martin, who was among the first generation of US soldiers to work with drones to wage war and who has written a book – "Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot's Story."
Martin agrees that the unmanned aircraft no doubt reduce American casualties, but wonders if it makes killing "too easy, too tempting, too much like simulated combat, like the computer game Civilization."
It probably doesn't reassure critics that the flight controls for drones over the years have come to resemble video-game contollers, which the military has done to make them more intuitive for a generation of young soldiers raised on games like Gears of War and Killzone.
Martin knows what it's like to confront the dark side of war, even as he fought it from afar. During one operation, he was piloting a drone that was tracking an insurgent. Just after he fired one of the aircraft's missiles, two children rode their bicycles into range. They were both killed. "You get good at compartmentalizing," says Martin.
What worries critics is those who are too good at it – and the impact in general of waging war at a distance. Some fret about the mechanics of the decisionmaking process: Who ultimately makes the decision to pull the trigger? And how do you decide whom to put on the hit list – a top Al Qaeda official, yes, but is some petty but persistent insurgent a matter of national security?
As the US increasingly uses drones in its secret campaigns, questions arise about how much to inform America's allies about UAV attacks and whether they alienate local populations more than they help subdue the enemy, which the US has starkly, and almost weekly, confronted with its drone campaign in Pakistan.