The U.S. military currently has 7,500 drones. They do everything from search and rescue, to scrambling enemy communications, to icing militants in remote areas of Pakistan. Like all military technologies, they're both problematic and full of possibility, simultaneously praised for keeping troops safe and characterized as "videogame warfare," where joystick-wielding pilots kill human-shaped blips on a screen. Perhaps with these comparisons becoming common, it was inevitable that games would cast a critical eye on the topic of remote warfare.
While drones appeared in a number of games this year, three in particular - Spec Ops: The Line, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Unmanned - contain cautionary tales about the problems of remote warfare. Interestingly, these games broke in different directions with their criticism: Spec Ops warns about the problematic nature of target selection from a distance, Black Ops II concerns itself with the looming issue of autonomy, and Unmanned looks at the emotional cost to drone crews. In all cases, the interactive nature of virtual experience gives the player a unique perspective on the topic.
"Are Those ... Civilians?" (Includes spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line)
In the most memorable scene of Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Walker and his men come upon a company of rogue U.S. Army soldiers garrisoning the gates of downtown Dubai. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Walker orders his team to man a white phosphorous mortar and clear out the enemy, with Walker himself (and by extension, the player) calling fire from a UAV. Afterward, the team walks through the devastation they've caused - charred corpses, burning vehicles, soldiers with missing legs begging to be shot - and finds out that they've also killed a large number of civilians the troops had in a holding area. The defining image of the game is a woman scorched down to the muscle, cradling her dead daughter with a hand over the child's eyes.
While the scene itself is a direct criticism of military shooters in general, (like gamers, Walker is perpetrating violence against anonymous avatars through a screen - a sort of game-within-a-game) it's also a commentary on the United States' recent reliance on UAVs. By making the player responsible for calling the targets, the designers directly confront the player with the idea that enemies and civilians may look so similar from a drone's perspective that they're rendered indistinguishable - that the camera dehumanizes everyone down to white, vaguely-human blobs that a user is more likely to kill without hesitation.
It's a problem that's plagued the U.S. UAV program, especially in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Directed by the CIA rather than the Pentagon, the purpose of the U.S. drone campaign in these three countries is to target and kill the leadership of Al Qaeda and its regional affiliate groups, thereby disrupting and dismantling terrorist command structures. The program itself has been highly prolific: To date there have been 354 drone strikes in Pakistan, between 42-52 in Yemen, and 10-23 in Somalia. Targeted killings have been especially successful in Pakistan, where drones have battered Al Qaeda networks in North Waziristan to the point where they have difficulty recruiting and training new fighters. Just this month, a Predator UAV killed Al Qaeda senior leader Seikh Khalid Bin Abdul Rehman Al-Hussainan as he ate breakfast, denying the organization of yet another probable successor to al-Zawahiri (it's happened many times before - there's a joke in the Middle East that being named second-in-command of Al Qaeda is the fastest way to die). This kind of success is why the Obama administration has largely turned to UAVs as its primary terror-fighting weapons - they're an expedient solution to a complex political problem. Drones allow Obama to kill terrorists hiding in foreign countries while avoiding the following irksome political issues: declaring war, risking American lives, terrorism trials, and prisoner incarceration. As a result, drones have increasingly become Obama's favorite weapons in the war on terror - and according to some reports he compiles the "kill list" personally.
But while militarily and politically useful, evidence indicates that the drone programs take a heavy toll on civilians. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, an ongoing report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims that of the 2,597-3,398 people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan, between 473-889 of those have been collateral damage. (A different accounting of civilians killed in Pakistan puts the number at 17 percent of total drone casualties during the Obama administration, down from around 40 percent during the Bush years. It also suggests that fewer civilians are killed each year as strikes become more surgical.) Partially, collateral damage is a consequence of counterinsurgency warfare - which by definition means fighting an enemy that lives amongst the local population - but it is likely exacerbated by the drones themselves. While most drone attacks are sold to the public as "personality strikes" that target prominent terrorists, the CIA also conducts "signature strikes," attacks based on surveillance of groups of unknown persons who exhibit behavior patterns that could be interpreted as indicative of terrorist activity. In a remote region like Waziristan where the United States does not have a great deal of human intelligence assets, this surveillance is largely conducted via drone camera feeds - heavily increasing the chance of target misidentification.
In fact, the difficulty of telling militants from civilians has made waves at the White House. According to a New York Times story based on several White House leaks, President Obama has embraced a controversial method of differentiating which targets are legitimate: Namely, all military-age males killed in U.S. strikes are labeled combatants, unless posthumously exonerated by new intelligence. Advocates of the policy say it's based on sound logic - that Al Qaeda is an insular organization and innocent people don't hang out around them - but human rights advocates and dissenting White House staffers contend that it's a form of guilt by association and deprives people of their right to life without due process. The situation gets even murkier when you take into account other drone tactics. Not only do U.S. drones sometimes target funerals (in hopes of killing associates who show up to bury dead militants) but they also engage in "double tap" attacks, where the drone circles around to attack a site again - targeting anyone who comes to the strike zone offering assistance to casualties of the first strike. Not only does this tactic increase the possibility of killing civilians, but by targeting people rendering medical aid, it may actually fall under the definition of a war crime. In fact, there it's possible that drone strikes are actually counterproductive, since they've become a major recruiting tool for terrorist groups.
While there are many ways to talk about the problems inherent in selecting a target via drone, Spec Ops illustrated the concept in a way that only games could - by making the player part of the decision themselves.