Saturday, 30 July 2011

Drones - where fact is only seconds behind science fiction

Drones in scifi have been around for a long time. In Frank Herbert's Dune series small drones were used to assassinate people, and similar (though sometimes more peaceful) concepts are used today in a number of Iain Banks' novels. Probably the most famous drones are from Star Wars, with R2D2 and C3Pio. Only recently, however, have they entered our lives, and the theatre of War, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week's Economist has an article discussing the ethics of drone warfare - how, for example, might a remote pilot thousands of miles away from his or her drone, be prosecuted if the drone destroys a school bus instead of a truckload of 'insurgents'? Furthermore, what if the pilot is CIA rather than US Army?

The article mentions moral issues but shies away from what I believe is a current moral balance sheet in the so-called 'war on terror'. The idea of War that most of us have instilled in us is of two sides fighting a battle with soldiers, seamen and pilots who can see each other. The idea that one side can pick off people from afar doesn't seem 'fair'.

But ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, since Hiroshima to be precise, War has evolved. ICBMs can fly missiles to pretty anywhere on the planet. With the exception of so-called rogue states, this is avoided by the mutual destruction principle and general rationality: if you push your launch button, I'll push mine.

But with the advent of terrorism, morality has changed. The Lockerbie bombing caused outrage, a single man blowing up a passenger plane killing all plus many on the ground. The September '11 attacks on the US took this strategy to a new level: people on their home territory going about their normal lives, suddenly killed, orchestrated by people thousands of miles away. Not drones as such, but the same principle. How do you defend against something you can't see?

So I wonder if one reason there has not been so much debate about the ethics of military drone usage is because some feel it is an appropriate and proportionate response to the horrors of terrorism, and in particular its methods; therefore fighting one evil with another. This is of course little comfort to any family mourning loss of a loved one, a civilian who was accidentally killed by drone warfare, effectively 'collateral damage'.

Because this is not meant to be a political blog, I turn back to science fiction: where does this leave scifi writers, where drones are already fairly advanced. We can add more intelligence, make them alien so that aliens could wage war on Earth from afar - many writers have already explored such ideas. Science fiction writers themselves could turn to address the ethics of drone warfare, since that is one of the roles of scifi - ethical issues can sometimes be seen in sharper colors when placed in an 'alien' context. Perhaps it is time to address the human (or alien) faces and responsibilities behind remote warfare. I've done this recently in a short story I've submitted to a SF magazine, called Executive Decision, about a woman who fights a war hundreds of light years away, only to reap very personal consequences.

When I grew up, I knew nothing of terrorism, not even the word. Now it is part of our daily lives, part of our global culture. Technology grows with us, and so drones are probably here to stay. Perhaps they can be put to more friendly civilian use, now that War has advanced their technological capability. I hope so.

I recently finished a short story (The Sapper) centering around a terrorist plot. Then the terrible Norwegian bombing and shooting occurred, the latter scarcely believable and difficult to comprehend. I thought about shelving the piece, but then, we need to write about this issue, to explore it, and to unearth better ways to live with each other.

One day, I hope, drones will be more like the way Banks writes about them, a service, not a threat.

See Iain Banks: The Player of Games.
See also 'Stories' on this website.

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