P.W. Singer on War as Entertainment

P.W. Singer explores the problem of war as entertainment.
  • Transcript


Question: Is force used more liberally when humans are removed from the battlefield?

Singer:    I went around the world and interviewed all sorts of people working on the robotics trend.  Everything from robot scientists to the science fiction authors who inspire them, to Four Star Generals, to the 19-year-old drone pilots in Nevada, to the Iraqi insurgents that they were targeting, to Red Cross lawyers, you name it, across the board.  And one of the things that was fascinating is that there was one shared concern among all of them and it was that as you move humans out of danger, it also potentially made them more willing to use force.  I thought… an interesting interview was one with the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and he said, “Look, I’m a big supporter of these systems because they save American lives.  There are hundreds of American soldiers who are alive today because of sending out robotics to handle dangerous missions.”  But then he said, “I’m worried though because I’m worried we’re going to have more marketization of war, more [shock and all talk] to sort of defray discussion of the cost.”  And that takes it in an interesting direction because there are already several trends in place right now that I think this may take us to the logical ending point for.  That is, we don’t have a draft, we don’t have declarations of war anymore for some reason, we don’t have war bonds or war taxes, and now you have the trend that more and more of the Americans that might be put in the harm’s way are American machines.  And so you might take those already lowering bars to war and drop them right to the ground.  And so the public isn’t as involved in the way as it should.  There’s another part of this that’s kind of disturbing to me as well.  It doesn’t just de-link the public, it reshapes their relationship with war.  So these machines, you don’t have humans in them so there isn’t the risk there, but they also still record everything that they see.  And so in some ways that can be good because now the public can have an eye into the battlefield in a way it never could before.  That the home front knows what’s going on in the warfront.  But the thing that’s happening is it’s just like these video downloads here.  People use them for education and news, but also people use them for entertainment.  There are several thousand of these video clips of robotics at war up on things like YouTube, and so I call this the rise of YouTube war.  Basically, people are taking the clips and tying them into a form of entertainment.  And the soldiers have a different term for it.  They call it war porn.  And what it is, is they’ll take a clip of some combat footage and it gets e-mailed around just like a video clip of some nerdy kid dancing in his, you know, basement.  One of the ones that was sent to me was footage of a predator drone taking out an enemy site and the bodies blowing into the air, and it was set to music.  It was set to Sugar Ray’s poppy hit “I just want to fly.”  And so, a way to think about this for me is almost like a sports parallel.  You have… When you’re watching an NBA game on TV, a basketball game on TV, you see the players but they’re really tiny, and it’s the difference between watching someone on TV versus sitting in the arena yourself and realizing, whoa, someone who’s 7 feet tall really is 7 feet tall and the whole experience of being at the game is a lot different.  Well, take that and layer on top of it that this is kind of like the ESPN Sports Center version of war.  That is you’re just getting clips out of it, so all of the tactics and techniques and training is all turned into just, you know, slamdunks and smart bombs.