Captain Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo at the controls of an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. Image by Master Sergeant Steve Horton.

It’s become something like accepted common knowledge in the literature concerning barbarization in warfare that technology increases not only the scope and devastation of the nasty things that human beings are willing to do to each other, but the willingness of people to do those things.

Technology dehumanizes, this line of argument holds, and increasingly technological warfare increases the distance between soldiers and the violent acts in which they’re participating. Aerial bombardment of urban centers is credited with being a milestone in the history of direct civilian targeting. The guilt and psychological fallout that pilots in bombers feel has been correlated to the height at which they were flying at the point that they let their payload drop. As violence becomes more technologically augmented and more scientific, scholars like Joanna Bourke and Elaine Scarry claim, additional violence is done to our very ways of thinking about violence against human bodies: injured flesh vanishes under the calculations of “wound ballistics” and the terms in which military operations are discussed become, in Bourke’s words, “a numbing glossolalia of techno-speak”.

This same line of argument holds that this effect is intensifying as the battlefield becomes increasingly “unmanned” but mediated and managed through technological means, by means of satellite and other forms of surveillance, and through the use of drones. The popular image is of a soldier sitting in a remote location and piloting a drone through an interface that resembles a video game. If this image is all we have to work with, discursively – and we go no further – then of course it makes sense to assume that technology must have a particularly alienating effect on the soldiers who are engaged in killing and a dehumanizing effect on the people they kill.

(The assumption that video games can’t and don’t engage us emotionally is problematic in and of itself, but that’s another post.)

What I would argue is that when we stop at that image – when we go no further in a consideration of what augmented warfare actually is and means – we do both it and ourselves a disservice. As in other discussions of augmented human experience, we should steer clear of problematic assumptions that technology is inherently cold and inhuman, and instead look for how it actually affects human connection to experience and action – both how it reduces and enhances that connection.

When we assume that technology removes the soldier from the battlefield emotionally as well as physically, we desensitize ourselves to experiences like those discussed in a New York Times article this past week:

Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong…Many drone pilots once flew in the air themselves but switched to drones out of a sense of the inevitable — or if they flew cargo planes, to feel closer to the war. “You definitely feel more connected to the guys, the battle,” said Dave, the Air Force major, who flew C-130 transport planes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the article points out, remote piloting technology also has the potential to extend a soldier’s connection with the occupants of a theater of war to moments outside actual combat. Rather than dehumanizing, by allowing a soldier to see some of the non-combat related mundanities of life in the area through which the vehicle is moving, technology can have an intensely humanizing effect:

From his computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs, Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of insurgents, his intended targets, going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for weeks.

“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.

I think that Scarry and Bourke actually have it pretty much correct: the subtle dehumanizing effects of increasingly augmented warfare are not in the practice of the war-fighting itself but in the collection of official discourses that we construct around that warfare. We like to think of more highly technical warfare as cleaner, more controlled, less messy, less human – at least on our end. This kind of discourse is classically digital dualist; it assumes that the relationship between physical and digital – or between human and technological – is zero-sum in nature, and that less of one is necessarily more of the other. It rejects the notion that humanity and technology have been, are, and will be enmeshed, that the relationship between the two is complex and constantly evolving.

I’ve already discussed on this blog some of the ways in which technology – especially documentary technology – actually has the potential to enhance the discursive power and meaning of injured human bodies, to forge powerful connections between observers and violent events. It makes sense that this could hold as true for soldiers as for unarmed activists. As our methods of warfare become more profoundly augmented, it’s vital that we recognize the complexities inherent in that kind of augmentation – and reflect them in how we think and talk about the wars we’re fighting.