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

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.
PHOTO: JEFFREY MACMILLAN P’14

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.

Unmanned MQ-1 Predator drone with Hellfire missiles
Unmanned MQ-1 Predator drone with Hellfire missiles
PHOTO: ERIK SIMONSEN /GETTY IMAGES

A through-line in Singer’s work is an interest in what he calls the seamy side of modern war. His books also are linked by an interest in military “outsourcing,” broadly defined. Working for a United Nations-financed group in the Balkans during two summers in college, he noticed that “the entire military balance” in the region hung on the work of Military Professional Resources Inc., or MPRI, a private company tasked with no less than training the Bosnian military. Singer’s interest in the then-arcane subject of the outsourcing of such work to for-profit companies continued through graduate school at Harvard and led to the publication of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, in 2003. 

Several years before the private security contractor Blackwater USA would become infamous for killing at least 17 civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Singer was asking: What rules of war apply to such forces? Can they abandon their posts if they decide their interests don’t coincide with the professional army’s? Even now, no satisfactory answers exist to such questions, demonstrating the risks that the United States takes in embracing privatization. 

His next book, Children at War, highlighted the scourge of armies and militias in such places as Congo and Sierra Leone conscripting children under 18, but Wired for War was his breakout book. A best-seller, and promoted by the comedian and satirist Jon Stewart as “awesome,” it could not have been better timed, arriving just as drones were becoming one face of American foreign policy. Wired for War makes clear just how unexpected was the rise of inexpensive, unmanned, armed aircraft, even within the U.S. military. In the mid-to-late 1980s, a company named Leading Systems built a prototype of an unmanned drone, named Amber, that could fly for many hours, over great distances, but the Pentagon showed no interest and the company went out of business. What place did this ungainly, cheap (1/85th the cost of a  stealth fighter jet), propeller-driven vehicle have in today’s bleeding-edge military? A company named General Atomics picked up the pieces, renamed it Predator, and the CIA showed interest. “The rest,” Singer wrote, “is robot ­history.” 

By now, some 8,000 drones have been deployed in combat zones, as well as 12,000 earthbound robotic vehicles, including such stalwarts as the iRobot and Talon, which can be sent ahead to scout dangerous terrain or defuse improvised explosive devices.

An early champion of drones was Virginia Sen. John Warner, who argued that they would be useful when public opinion ran against committing its young men to combat. “[I]n my judgment, this country will never again permit the armed forces to be engaged in conflicts which inflict the levels of casualties we have seen historically,” he said at a congressional hearing in 2000. “So what do you do? You move toward the unmanned type of military vehicle to carry out missions which are high risk ... .”

Some military officers, including Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the former Air Force chief of staff, have argued that drones are simply another weapons platform, and that they don’t change the calculus of when — and if — to strike. But Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (2010), counters, “Drones are different.”

In theory, the Pakistan strikes of recent years could have been carried out using traditional fighters or bombers, but “we wouldn’t have bombed using manned aircraft,” Zenko says. “We just put pilots at too great a risk — the combat search-and-rescue packages required, the escorts that might be required to protect the craft. You just wouldn’t do it.” (The drone attacks in Pakistan are officially covert, as are those in Yemen, so no details are available about on-the-ground targeting assistance by U.S. agents or allies, or even if such forces are needed.)

Zenko’s book was about debates, dating back to 1982, over uses of force falling short of war, and often it was that risk to pilots, and related issues, that tipped the balance against using force. Drones remove those challenges, providing an ever-tempting option for policymakers. “Nothing sucks the oxygen out of a debate over what to do about a country more than military force,” he says: No policymaker believes that drone strikes are a long-term solution for the appeal of terrorist groups, yet the availability of drones makes force frictionlessly available — the default option. 

Zenko adds, “One thing that is clear about drones is that, wherever they go, they take on more missions than they initially had.” Already the line between striking people who pose an immediate threat to the United States and those who threaten mainly their local governments has been crossed, he argues.

Other observers, however, think drones represent less of a break from the past than does Singer. “I share many of Peter’s concerns about being more systematic about how we use drones, or more clear about how we’re using them,” says Michael O’Hanlon ’82 *91, research director for Brookings’ ­foreign-policy program and a visiting lecturer at Princeton. But when it comes to being seduced by technology into thinking that war can be relatively costless (for us, anyway), O’Hanlon says, “the 1990s were in many ways a more troublesome decade than the more recent one.”

“Think back to Bosnia, or Kosovo — what you have there is a deep aversion to creating casualties, and a desire to create an antiseptic kind of warfare.” (Notably, the United States had its bomber pilots fly well above the range of anti-aircraft weaponry, trading accuracy in targeting for safety.) In contrast, O’Hanlon adds, “In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a lot of people face-to-face with the enemy in a way that looks awfully old-fashioned to me, in a way that would not be unfamiliar to people who study the wars of the 19th or early 20th century.” In Fallujah, Iraq, for example, 6,000 soldiers and Marines took the city back from Sunni insurgents, house by house. “If anything, the last 10 years have proven that we still are willing to risk our own troops.”

Even if it were proved that drones make it easier to initiate the use of force, that would not end the debate about the morality of their use, points out Bradley Strawser, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Post­graduate School, in Monterey, Calif. He is also editor of the forthcoming book Killing By Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military. “Imagine a case where there was a clear, just cause to go to war — the cause was the protection of innocents,” he says. “And we think intervention could work, but we decide not to intervene because we might lose too many pilots.” In such a case — think of Rwanda, where the Canadian lieutenant general Roméo Dallaire said he could have stopped the Rwandan genocide with a couple of thousand troops — the availability of drones might well be a moral plus.

For philosophers, “proportion­ality” is an important measure of the just use of lethal strikes. Indepen­dent estimates of civilian deaths in drone attacks range from 4 percent to 20 percent. That surely is better than the ratio in, say, Vietnam bombing runs that annihilated entire villages. Still, counterinsurgency doctrine — which holds that winning over neutral or wavering civilians is just as as important as killing armed adversaries — plays havoc with “attrition math,” as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has noted. In an example he relayed to his troops, if there are 10 insurgents in a town and you kill two, you may have eliminated the threat because the other eight give up the cause — or you may have multiplied the number of insurgents tenfold by angering onlookers, depending on the context of the attack. (Former general and former Central Intelligence Agency director David H. Petraeus *85 *87 is the most famous architect of modern counterinsurgency strategy; The Washington Post reported in October that he had been lobbying the White House for more drones for CIA use.)

The debate remains open as to whether drones’ (relative) accuracy or their (alleged) high-handed use has a greater effect on world opinion. In Wired for War, Singer quotes Rami Khouri, a public-policy professor at the American University of Beirut, who suggested that “the average person” sees drones as evidence that Americans “are cowards because they send out machines to fight us ... so we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them.” A report by law professors and students at New York University and Stanford law schools, published this fall, reported widespread psychological distress where drones fly in Pakistan. And the drones are loathed throughout the Muslim world: Drone strikes are opposed by 89 percent of Egyptians, for instance, and 81 ­percent of Turkey’s citizens, according to one survey. The same poll found that 62 percent of Americans support the targeted strikes, while support in other polls has surpassed 80 percent.

Drones may change the reactions of people under attack, but they also change the people doing the attacking, Singer argues. Here the relevant frame of reference is not the strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, a small but consequential program, but the more general use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have been a constant presence overhead — tracking insurgents, monitoring battles (to the point where generals can micromanage street-level firefights), and supplying firepower. In Wired for War, Singer describes how enlisted men — including those who had poor records in high school — can find themselves guiding drones, assuming an air-combat role once reserved for those Air Force aristocrats, fighter pilots. Drone piloting is among the fastest-growing jobs in the Air Force. Of controlling drones, one pilot told Singer, “It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty, but it’s ... cool.” Piloting drones is also a job to which one can commute while living in remote Nevada. “You see Americans killed in front of your eyes” — and, of course, insurgents, too — “and then have to go to a PTA meeting,” one unnamed ­aerial-vehicle pilot told Singer. (Indeed, Singer devised the story for a fictional film titled Unmanned, which he is co-producing, about just such a pilot’s divided life.)

The physical remoteness of drone pilots calls into question “the extent to which it is either necessary or possible for many combatants to cultivate or exercise martial virtues,” writes Robert Sparrow, a philosopher at Australia’s Monash University, in his contribution to Killing by Remote Control. He means such virtues as physical courage, mercy, and comraderie. A contrary argument, however, is that, unlike B-52 pilots, drone pilots can all but look into their victims’ eyes, making the experience in some ways less distant.

Some scholars say the full ramifications of the introduction of unmanned vehicles into warfare won’t be realized until the United States finds itself fighting an industrial power with similar capabilities — “’bot to ’bot,” in the jargon. But that may be attempting to peer too deeply into the crystal ball. Sooner, we may expect weaker states to try to attack the “soft underbelly” of the U.S. drone system, the areas from which drone pilots operate, says Thomas F. Lynch III *90 *95, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University — such as attacks on U.S. bases from which drones are piloted or on the homes of drone pilots. A few suicide-bomb attacks on U.S. soil would make the issue of drone attacks less abstract to the American public, Lynch says.

On the domestic side of the equation, Robert Gates, secretary of defense from 2006 through 2011, has made a forceful version of Singer’s argument. “Even after 9/11,” he said in a speech at Duke University in 2010, “in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military — no matter how laudable — has become something for other people to do.” Enlistment increasingly comes from the South and Mountain West, small towns, and families with a tradition of service, he noted. 

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, a smaller proportion of the population serves in the military today than at any time since before World War II. Of people ages 50 to 64, 79 percent have someone in their immediate family who has served in uniform. Among those 18 to 29, only 33 percent do. A privatized military helps to make that kind of low citizen participation possible. Blackwater is no more — it has been renamed as the innocuous-sounding Academi — but outsourcing continues to mask the size of the war effort: The final report of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan stated that 260,000 contractors worked for U.S. government agencies in those countries in 2010, with most being foreign nationals.

Kathy Roth-Douquet *91
Kathy Roth-Douquet *91
PHOTO: JEFFREY MACMILLAN P’14

“Our forefathers spent a great deal of time thinking about how a free country, a liberal country that was run by its ­people, could execute war,” says Kathy Roth-Douquet *91,  co-author of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from the Military and How It Hurts Our Country (2006). “The possibilities are that you hire mercenaries, or you develop a caste, or you have people do it themselves. The only path consistent with freedom is that you do it yourself.” Today’s arrangement, she thinks, seems all too close to a caste system. “It’s sort of a ‘blood exchange,’” she says. “In exchange for this terrible thing they do, the larger society becomes dependent on them, and can’t control them, because they don’t know them.” About unmanned tech­nology, she is more ambivalent, while granting the gist of Singer’s arguments concerning it: “Anyone who has a family member in harm’s way would rather have a robot exposed to mayhem than their loved one.”

Her husband, Greg Douquet, is chief of staff for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe, stationed in Stuttgart, and when she met him, she says, it was driven home how little she or her Woodrow Wilson School peers knew about the military. She’s now CEO of Blue Star Families, which seeks to keep civilian and military leaders aware of the needs of military families.

Bridging the civilian-military gap “is one of the central themes of my time here at Princeton,” says Lt. Col. Peter Knight, director of Princeton’s Army ROTC program. He mostly means having his future officers interact with students who one day will take on State Department roles or civilian positions in the Pentagon. But on a more personal and cultural level, he says: “I’m the only Army lieutenant colonel around these parts. Some people see me and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Others look at me and don’t say anything, or they look at me like I have three heads. They’re not used to seeing us.”

The idea that a disengaged public, lacking skin in the game, would be more willing to send forces off to war makes intuitive sense, but is there empirical evidence for the claim? In 2002, Duke political scientists Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver published an article in the American Political Science Review that looked at the link between the American propensity to go to war and the proportion of veterans in the executive and legislative branches. As the proportion of veterans rose, the researchers found, the willingness to deploy force dropped somewhat, but once the decision to deploy force was made, veterans were more inclined to use that force with greater intensity. 

Feaver, who served in the White Houses under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, does not think the findings justify the argument that civilian officials have moved away from a natural disinclination to deploy the military. “I saw no evidence of the cavalier approach to using force that critics sometimes describe — ‘Hey, let’s go invade somebody.’ My experience — and the evidence bears this out — is that [officials] may be wrong, or they may be overconfident, but even when they were wrong, they were wary and not cavalier.”

Although lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have made arguments that sound not unlike some of Singer’s, the Brookings scholar stresses that he’s speaking as an analyst, not an advocate: He is identifying trends that people across the political spectrum need to grapple with. “I’m not saying, ‘Never use the technology,’ or that there’s no circumstance where there are bad guys you can’t get otherwise you might want to target.” 

“Sometimes,” he says, as if to drive home that he’s no knee-jerk dove, “there’s no other choice but to put their leaders in the dirt.”

Singer already is looking ahead to the next new thing in warfare. Will it be computer viruses that take down military-computer systems, swarming micro-’bots, or 3-D printers that hold out the promise of creating spare parts on the spot? And what happens as drones grow ever more autonomous? The Washington Post recently reported that a U.S. drone at a Djibouti base “started its engine without any human direction.” “I’ve seen that movie,” Singer observes, “and it doesn’t end well for us humans.”  

Christopher Shea ’91 is a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal Review.