The Game of War: The American military is blurring the lines between virtual reality and warfare, with chilling consequences

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Author: Joseph Evans

Two videos, from two very different perspectives, caught my attention this week. In the first, 13-year-old Mohammed Tuaiman documents his life in Ma’rib Province, Yemen, in the months after the death of his father and brother, who were killed by a U.S drone strike while herding camels. The strike left Mohammed struggling with the responsibility of caring for his 27 siblings, and his video gives a snapshot into life in an area that has become a hotbed for Islamist organisations, instability and violence.

The CIA, Pentagon and Yemeni government have refused to comment on the attack, and Mohammad states that the only support his family has received is from the local al-Qaeda group, who provide money and hand out leaflets; an al-Qaeda flag hangs conspicuously from the rear-view mirror in his car. The video ends on a chilling note: “On January 26, 2015, Muhammad himself was killed in another drone strike”, while traveling to a neighboring village with his brother-in-law and another man. Once again the CIA has refused to confirm whether any of these men had been identified as al-Qaeda militants. Mohammad’s video paints a chilling picture of the human impact of the ‘war on terror’.

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Above: an American ‘Reaper’ drone

The second video flips the direction of the lens completely; focusing instead on the young soldiers tasked with piloting the U.S drones, and, consequently, with taking the shots that killed Mohammad and his family members. The video is an abridged version of a feature length documentary film entitled ‘Drone’, due for release at the end of this month. Far removed from the arid deserts of central Yemen, the video features interviews with two former drone pilots about their experiences, as well as a number of experts criticizing the usage of drones. One of the documentary’s greatest insights is its examination of the recruitment process for drone pilots, revealing another facet of the unsettling relationship between war and entertainment touched on in last weeks post. As Lt. Col. Bryan Callahan of the 42nd Attack Squadron, United States Air Force, reveals, the military authorities are “trying to get our arms round what really does make the best candidate for unmanned aircrafts, and how can we identify these people early”. As the camera pans around the thousands of flickering screens at Dreamhack, the giant European gaming convention, we are informed that one method that has proven successful thus far is the development of virtual reality and video games aimed at identifying prospective pilots, allegedly as young as 12.

This unsettling revelation sheds light on a number of worrying trends in the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and the future of modern warfare more generally. The relationship between video games and violence has been a subject of debate for decades, flaring up periodically in the American media in response to events like school shootings and gang violence. As somebody who has played, enjoyed and consequently defended video games from an early age, the practice of using gaming as a military recruitment tool seems all the more unsavory. The argument about whether video games encourage violent behavior has always seemed nonsensical to me; children have been exposed to violence for thousands of years and, at the end of the day, it is just a game. However, by blurring the lines between virtual reality and real warfare the American military is breaking down this boundary in a particularly disturbing way, deliberately playing on the psychological detachment created by pilot’s geographic and mental distance from their targets.

One of the most revealing interviews featured in ‘Drone’ is with Michael Hass, a former U.S drone pilot who was stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada before he was 20-years-old. It becomes clear that the military played on his familiarity with video games; when asked about his recruitment, he replies “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world… I get to play a video game all day!” Now no longer employed by the military, he is candid about the impact that the extreme level of detachment had upon him; “it’s easy to have that lack of empathy for human life, and its easy just to think of them as something else … they’re not people, they’re just terrorists.” Divorced from the impact of their actions, the young drone pilots act entirely at the command of their superiors, who are themselves relying on the CIA’s notoriously shaky information (only 7 of the 779 inmates held at Guantanamo Bay were ever convicted of a crime). This combination of emotional detachment and questionable intelligence may go some way to explaining the disproportionate number of civilian casualties caused by U.S drone strikes.

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Above: the aftermath of a U.S drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan

Seeing nothing but faceless shadows on a computer screen—“bugsplats” as drone operators call them—removes the pilots from the reality of their actions, but the cost to those, like Mohammad and his family, who live under the drones, is all too real. Data released by the human rights group Reprieve in November 2014 suggests that even when drone strikes are targeting individuals —what President Obama calls “targeted killing”—they often result in many more deaths and require multiple strikes. As of November 24th last year, the CIA has attempted to target 41 individual suspects. In the process, an estimated 1,471 people, many of them unknown and children, were killed.

This is only a snapshot into the overall picture; Reprieve’s data focused only on individuals targeted more than once. Absent are individuals killed on the first attempt or those killed in “signature strikes”; strikes aimed at unidentified groups based on repeated patterns of suspicious behaviour. What is perhaps most shocking is that these murders were carried out in Pakistan and Yemen, two countries that America is not even at war with. These don’t even scratch the surface of the potential civilian casualties caused by drone strikes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The ability for individuals to bomb targets from thousands of miles away, anywhere in the world, with absolutely no oversight, is a chilling prospect for the future of warfare.

A new global arms race is under way to acquire military-grade drones, as nations scramble to get their hands on the technology that, arms manufacturers hope, will revolutionise warfare. The UAV industry is projected to reach $18.7 billion turnover by 2018, and a number of countries have begun assembling their own unmanned armies. At a NATO conference in 2012, former Turkish president Abdullah Gül expressed his intention in using drones to suppress Kurdish rebels. Israel have utilised their own ‘Hermes’ drones during the recent offensives in Gaza. The Iranian military, working with a captured American UAV, have allegedly reverse engineered their own stealth drones. Even within the United States, the impact of drones has manifested itself in facilitating unprecedented levels of surveillance; California police are now allowed to fly spy drones without any probable cause, thanks to a veto by Gov. Jerry Brown on a bill that would have forced them to obtain a warrant first. Unfortunately, it appears that drones are here to stay.

What we are seeing is the unfolding of a new chapter in the history of war. Gone is the valorised warrior, the humble soldier, the idealistic revolutionary. In their place we have young men, sitting in bunkers in the Nevada desert, causing untold suffering to thousands of families around the world based on unseen intelligence at the bequest of unseen CIA officials. The American military is preying on young men and boys by bridging the gap between virtual reality and warfare, suggesting to impressionable minds that war really is just a game after all. “It just feels like were going through a bad science fiction novel,” former drone pilot Bryan Bryan said. “If we dehumanise war, if we take the human aspect out of it, what’s to stop us from just sending a bunch of automaton robots into another country and let them wipe out the entire population?” [sic]

This dystopian nightmare may not be as far away as we thought; in 2010, British weapons manufacturing giant BAE Systems revealed that it was working on the ‘Taranis’, a completely unpiloted drone, launched by the click of a mouse. Until the CIA and the Obama administration remove the thick veil of secrecy surrounding the use of American drones and open up space for an honest, open discussion of the ethical ramifications of drone strikes, we have no idea how many more families like Mohammed’s will be torn apart by drones. Worse still, by refusing to provide support, or even an explanation, to families affected by drone strikes, we have no idea how many innocent young men will be pushed into the hands of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. When the only people providing victims with aid is the worlds most wanted terrorist organisation in the world, you have to ask yourselves who the real terrorists are.

We dream about drones, said 13 year old Yemeni before his death in a CIA strike – Video: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/10/drones-dream-yemeni-teenager-mohammed-tuaiman-death-cia-strike

Drone Wars: the gamers recruited to kill – Video: http://www.theguardian.com/news/video/2015/feb/02/drone-wars-gamers-recruited-kill-pakistan-video

Drone will be released in cinemas 27 February 2015. A fully cited version of this post is available at www.elnawamis.wordpress.com

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