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Dec. 12, 2012

Vol. 113, No. 5


Warfare under the radar

Peter W. Singer ’97 explains how we can be at war and hardly notice

By Christopher Shea ’91
Published in the December 12, 2012, issue

Peter W. Singer ’97 in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Peter W. Singer ’97 in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Peter W. Singer ’97’s job is to track and forecast trends in military affairs and war-related technology. To drive home how fast things are moving in that arena, he tells an anecdote involving not a battlefield or a White House situation room but the equipment in his baby nursery: 

When he and his wife had their first child, a son, in 2009, they bought a baby monitor that included a camera equipped with night vision that sent an image to a 3-inch television screen. “We had better technology to monitor our baby than the Iraqi Army had to detect coalition forces during the first Gulf War, in the 1990s,” he says.

In late summer 2012, as Singer and his wife prepared for the birth of their second child, they bought a new system. This time the camera relays night-vision imagery over a data network to a smartphone that can redirect the camera remotely. “Now,” he says, “we have better technology than the U.S. military had just a few years ago.” It pales beside sensors being deployed in the field today.

It always has been hard for prognosticators to divine which technological advances will shape warfare, and in what ways. Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washing­ton, D.C., points out that then-Col. George Custer declined use of a Gatling gun, an early machine gun, when he headed to the Black Hills because such guns were conceived of as a kind of artillery that would only slow down a fleet cavalry unit. Had Custer viewed the new weapon more imaginatively, we might recall his name somewhat differently now. And spare a thought for the general who, in 1938, lamented the “foolish and unjustified discarding of horses” from the American repertoire.

But Singer has a pretty good track record of picking up military trends ahead of the curve. Lately, he’s been arguing that few people realize just how thoroughly technological and social developments have caused modern warfare to diverge from the World War II-inspired Band of Brothers version — men in uniforms facing off against each other — that many of us still hold in our heads, despite years of evidence to the contrary. The outsourcing of military duties to private contractors, the growing use of robotics (especially armed drones), the rise of a professional military and the concomitant divide between soldiers and civilians that followed the end of the draft — all of this has changed the face of war. The changes also may be making wars easier to get into, and the decisions to do so less democratic. 

Consider: Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, what Singer calls a “third war” — the drone war, or targeted-killing war — has begun, extending outside official battle zones into Pakistan and Yemen. “We’ve had almost 350 air strikes in Pakistan with drones,” he says, speaking in September in his Dupont Circle office, which is adorned with posters of war-themed movies and television shows like Syriana and Traitor. “Three hundred fifty is not a small covert operation. This is not the equivalent of trying to kill Castro. This is an air-war campaign. We’ve carried out almost 50 strikes in Yemen. Yet we haven’t had a debate about it, we haven’t voted on it. I’m not knocking the operation, but something that we would have previously treated as a war, we aren’t treating in the same way because the technology is unmanned.”

Moreover, the U.S. campaign in Libya will go down as a historical milestone, Singer thinks, because the Obama administration was able to argue that the War Powers Resolution, which dates to 1973 and was intended to rein in an overly adventurous executive branch, did not apply because Ameri­can servicemen hadn’t been placed in harm’s way — even as U.S. drones blew up ­Muammar el-Qaddafi’s air defenses and guided strafing runs by NATO planes. (U.S. pilots did fly some missions as well.) Plenty of other presidents have tried to circumvent the War Powers Resolution, yet this was a fresh, technologically driven twist on such maneuvers.

“When I was taking a seminar in political science and philosophy at Princeton, learning why democracy was better than all those other forms of government, a main reason was that the public was linked to its wars,” Singer says. “It was both making the decisions and bearing the costs. But what happens if those links are changing in a way that philosophers could never have imagined?” 

Singer is hardly the only one thinking about such shifts: Whether we’re in the midst of a sociological and technological revolution in military affairs along the lines Singer proposes is the subject of heady and sometimes-heated debates among scholars of armed conflict and international law.

Despite a Harvard Ph.D. in government, Singer’s path has not been the traditional academic one: He worked briefly at the Pentagon before joining Brookings, where he soon, at 30, became the youngest person to be named senior fellow. Over the course of three books, he has developed a distinctive voice; in Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution in the 21st Century (2009), he rattles off pop-culture references (to Return of the Jedi, the sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, even MTV’s Real World) at an astonishing pace, alongside the requisite quotes by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. He says straightaway, in Wired for War, that one reason he chose the topic is that “robots are frackin’ cool.” His breezy prose, reporting chops, and telegenicity have landed him some unorthodox side gigs, including consulting for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, set in 2025. And  pop culture is more than tangential to his work, he insists: Sometimes, there can be more insight into the future of war in one sci-fi thriller than in dozens of peer-reviewed academic works.

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4 Responses to Warfare under the radar

Gabe Hanson *64 Says:

2012-12-11 09:40:37

This is the best reportage I've so far seen on this topic. In war combatants may become inured to atrocities, commit them routinely, and so win commendation and promotion. At the same time, a fearful yet disengaged public can be led to downplay, ignore, condone and even root for both the atrocities and those who commit them. Perhaps only crushing military defeat like that suffered by Germany and Japan in WWII can cause the conscience of the public to shift radically and stay shifted for a generation or more. But the U.S. public's mantra is automatically to thank for its service any military uniform around. So it will be up to the few to question and denounce. But their views will not prevail until our drones are crushed along with our armed forces. Such an outcome is over the horizon, not unthinkable but unforeseeable.

Michael Otten '63 Says:

2012-12-12 09:15:48

This article raises important issues, but one can argue that most wars have been questionably justified. We think of Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, but were the Civil War goals really only achievable with the sacrifice of 600,000 Americans? Was the Vietnam War justified and "legal" based on the "Gulf of Tonkin" resolution? Yes, unmanned weapons are new, but questionable intervention is as old as our species.

Emil M. Friedman *73 Says:

2013-01-02 10:49:17

Suppose the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being fought by draftees. Would massive protests similar to those during Vietnam have started several years ago?

Milton Iossi *67 Says:

2013-02-05 09:33:36

Excellent discussion! From this veteran's perspective, the change from the days of the "citizen soldier" with a national service obligation has led us to a looser definition of our national-security interests. No single nation has the will or blood and treasure resources to provide free global police services, without incurring enmity and envy.
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