War was, and is, essentially a pushing game. Soldiers form a line, a square, a triangle or some other shape and then ram hard into their opponent. Eventually, one side crumbles… the command structure fails or too many fighters are lost… and that side is slaughtered or captured. Fleeing could save your life, but it may also cost your side the war.
Kings, nobles, and political leaders once led their armies. They risked capture or death because they were raised into the military life and were best qualified to direct the troops. Ancient technology required leaders to be physically present on the battlefield. However, just like chess, if your king was captured or killed, the game was over. A new king might be quickly crowned, but he chooses to end the war, even if the terms were not favorable.
By the middle of the last century, radio, telephones and other technology allowed generals to leave the battlefield and issue commands from a distance. Often they issued commands from another city or were safe in their own nation, far from the battle. Aside from holiday photo ops by top-ranking politicians, we don’t expect our political leaders to go anywhere near the battlefield. Politicians continue to wield the authority of war, but no longer take the personal risks their predecessors once did.
In the mid-1800’s, around the time of the American Civil War, a significant change happened in warfare. “War as a game” became “Unconditional War”, allowing an army to attack not just other armies, but anything that supported the military. Factories, farms, and cities always suffered damage during a war, but usually, it was “collateral damage”. Now, the enemy’s industrial and commercial infrastructure… anything that allowed the enemy to continue to wage war… became a legitimate target. “Unconditional War” was tested again in WWI, and perfected in WWII, with mass bombings of cities and the use of nuclear weapons. Cities became part of the battlefield.
This thinking was further expanded by M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). Simply put, “You nuke me and I nuke you… and everyone you ever knew.” At the earliest sign of an enemy attack, you retaliate with hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons. Of course, mistakes will happen. Flying birds have been interpreted as a nuclear missile launch. If you wait too long (verifying it is a real attack) the enemy could destroy all your weapons before you can launch. M.A.D., when “successful”, makes the entire Earth the battlefield. Luckily, when the cold war ended in the 1980’s, so too did M.A.D.
Today’s war is based on a new generation of technology. Instead of the “bigger and bigger” philosophy of nuclear war, new weapons focus on accuracy. Smart weapons can almost eliminate collateral damage. Drones are so accurate that you can identify a single person in a crowded city and kill your target without any collateral deaths. Try doing that with a 16″ battleship gun! The old weapons were “impersonal”. You bombed a location rather than targeting an individual. The new weapons are very personal. Consider the death of Junaid Hussain.
In 2015 Hussain, a civilian social media expert who never set foot on a battlefield was targeted by the US military. Because Hussain was constantly in the company of his young stepson, the drones waited for weeks before they identified a clear kill shot. Late one night as he left a cybercafe, a Hellfire missile killed Hussain. There were no collateral deaths. Why did the US military target Hussain, who recruited staff through social media? Because he recruited for ISIS. Uh-Huh. Clearly, new technology is changing the rules of warfare.
By the way, the “rules” are mostly the Geneva and Hague conventions. These oft-quoted conventions (especially if you watch a lot of WWII movies) are products of 20th-century wars. They lay out acceptable behavior during a war. When a political leader is tried for war crimes, these are the documents that determine the legal charges. Oh yes, they frown on assassinating civilians.
That’s not to say that the military can never intentionally kill civilians. But when it is done purposefully, the civilian needs to be found on the battlefield and out of uniform. That makes them spies, and legitimate targets. You can argue that Mr. Hussain’s was as important to ISIS as a general is to a traditional army. You can also argue that assassination has always been a tool of warfare. Just not the primary tool. Adolf Hitler and General Erwin Rommel were targeted for assassination by the Allies. But it was large numbers of soldiers shooting at each other, not teams of assassins, that determined the outcome of WWII.
This raises an unsettling question. If we can target one or two-high value civilians, why can’t we target more? Imagine a stealth bomber flying late at night to another country. They drop a thousand small drones, each carrying a pound of high explosive, and park themselves outside the bedroom windows of every major politician in the nation. Or perhaps just a few key politicians? Then… set off their charges.
The next day, a few hundred politicians (and family members) will have died. Compare this to the thousands of soldiers killed in even a small traditional war. Or the 400,000 (largely civilian) deaths in the Syrian conflict. Decapitating a government will not solve every conflict, but wouldn’t it be more humane and ethical than any other way to wage war? Or are we ready for more Syria’s? This form of “Unconditional War” is, unfortunately, a very real possibility for many future wars.
Politicians left the battlefield a century ago. Then, generals started to distance themselves from battle. Now, drones allow pilots and support personnel to move from the battlefield to air-conditioned control rooms, often back in their hometowns. Soon self-driving vehicles… trucks, tanks, ships, missile launchers, and planes… will virtually eliminate the need for troops on the battlefield. Future wars could be little more than automated weapons systems shooting at each other until both sides run out of replacement parts. Would these bloodless battles settle anything? Or would they just be the opening event? Followed by the leveling of cities and the mass killing of civilians.
Our weapons are rapidly evolving, far more rapidly than our rules of war. When drones pursued civilian targets outside of the battlefield, we crossed a line and created a new norm for warfare. Killer drones have been effective. Killer drone swarms would be game-changing. The military has now developed small mass-produced drones. In theory, thousands can be dropped on the battlefield to target soldiers. How long will it take before military leaders authorize a swarm attack to higher value targets… off the battlefield?
Will the battle stay on the battlefield or will political assassination become the new normal for warfare? What do you think?