Humans Lose, Robots Win in New Defense Budget

The big loser in the Pentagon’s new budget? Ordinary human beings.

About 80,000 Army soldiers and 20,000 Marines are getting downsized. Half of the Army’s conventional combat presence in Europe is packing up and ending its post-Cold War staycation. Replacing them, according to the $613 billion budget previewed by the Pentagon on Thursday: unconventional special-operations forces; new bombers; new spy tools; new missiles for subs; and a veritable Cylon army of drones.

This is the first of the Pentagon’s new, smaller “austerity” budgets: it’s asking Congress for $525 billion (plus $88.4 billion for the Afghanistan war), compared to a $553 billion request (plus $117 billion in war cash) last year.

The idea of replacing human combatants with machines terrifies me. When the results of war are so disconnected from the actual citizens involved in the decision to make war, what stops us from engaging in military actions? The Vietnam War was eventually ended because of the cold reality of Americans seeing American body bags coming home, but what heartstrings would a broken machine body pull at?

Similarly, increasing the budget for mechanized warfare will only strengthen the grasp of the military-industrial complex, for as the perceived benefits outweight the potential sacrifice of human life, combined with the number of jobs and absurd level of profits to be had from producing these war machines, I can’t imagine the trend reversing anmy time soon. You can’t manufacture humans (per se), but you can manufacture mechanized, remote-controlled soldiers now, apparently.

As the technology becomes more proficient, these tools will undoubtedly become more accurate – meaning, fewer collateral civilian casualties for military strikes – which means they’ll be perceived as safer, leading to a positive feedback cycle. But whereas human soldiers can distinguish between a real enemy and a civilain far more accurately, relying on any number of real-world cues, machines will destroy whatever they’re aimed at without regard for potential errors in judgement. Soon, we’ll start hearing more about “acceptable losses” and “military-civilain death ratios” in terms of these unmanned strikes. And reducing warfare to a numbers game, is, in my opinion, completely unacceptable.

Without the remorse of traditional person-to-person warfare, without the moral restriction on civilian casualty, and with an absurdly high profit margin at work, will our humanity be left behind as we continue to engage in worldwide wars on multiple fronts? Can we really stomach the idea of killing foreigners for our own ideology, when we put nothing of ourselves at risk as well?

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