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The moral buffer of death: Missy Cummings on military drones

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Missy Cummings in the U.S. Navy

Missy Cummings has the right stuff.

Cummings spent 11 years (1988-1999) as a naval officer and military pilot in the United States Navy reaching the rank of Lieutenant. After the Combat Exclusion Law was repealed in 1993, Cummings became one of the Navy's first female combat fighter pilots flying F/A-18 Hornets. A consummate military professional, Cummings was equally at home being catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier or dropping bombs on a tank. 

But that kind of stuff is small potatoes. Where Cummings showed real courage and intestinal fortitude was in standing up to the sexism, misogyny, outright hostility, and even sabotage that she faced from both peers and superiors as a woman encroaching on ultimate macho turf -- the terrain of the jet fighter pilot. She chronicled her experiences in a striking expose, Hornet's Nest: The Experiences of One of the Navy's First Female Fighter Pilots.

Hornet's NestEventually, after years of harassment, Cummings told the U.S. Navy to stuff it, packed up her uniform and reinvented herself as an academic, blazing a trail through the cutting-edge disciplines of artificial intelligence and human-machine interactions. Cummings is now the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences in Durham, North Carolina, as well as being the director of Humans and Automation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The Navy's loss was academia's gain.

I had the opportunity to talk with Missy Cummings at the Halifax International Security Forum where she was one of the panelists in a plenary session entitled "Robot Wars: The Technology Strikes Back." Cummings' article, "Drones have flown the military coop" had just been published the previous day in the Globe and Mail and I wanted to ask her some questions that probed the technical and ethical issues around the development of this robotic technology. With her in-the-air combat fighter experience and her academic knowledge of the discipline, there's scarcely anyone who can bring a more multi-dimensional perspective to this intersection of warfare and technology.

In conversation Cummings is warm, generous, funny, and engaging. Her inquiring mind, wide-ranging intellect, and broad knowledge are evident in her responses to the many complex issues that surround the use of drones. Much more than military macho, this is where the real right stuff shows.

Christopher Majka: Does drone technology make killing too easy? Do operators of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), located at great distance from the theatre of conflict, begin to regard their targets as blips on a screen, making it too easy to press a button to end their existence? Can drone operators become desensitized to the gravity of what it is they are doing? Is there an emotional disconnection with the reality of death?

Missy Cummings: It's actually something that I've written about called "moral buffers." That technology can put a moral buffer between us; that distance puts that feeling of artificiality into the world. When I first brought that up 10 or 12 years ago it was actually before drones, it was about cruise missiles. Those same arguments surfaced in World War II in the direct bombing raids; and before that in terms of tanks versus horses. What was the first distance killing technology that we had? The bow and arrow? Some people say it was when we learned to throw a stone. So when did we actually go down the slippery slope in terms of human killing-at-a-distance?

Resistance to KillingIt probably happened with high-altitude bombing. When you are in a jet, or in a B-52 you're releasing bombs from about 30,000 feet. That's about as low as you want to go because it keeps you safe. When you're five miles over the target you don't see anything on the ground.  And then when we got cruise missiles and drones our precision started to get within a metre. So the technology has allowed us to be more precise, but at the same time it's increasing that standoff distance. When you think of cruise missiles and drones they are identical; the technology can be operated from anywhere in the world.

I would put it to you that there is something unique about drones that previous technologies did not have, and that is group consensus in warfare. When I was a fighter pilot bombing from five miles up, I was given a set of orders and coordinates, maybe some pictures, and told, "You go get this target." And that was the last time I talked to anybody. Radio silence is huge when you are in an airplane because you are in some danger.

CM: And after that, it's your decision, right?

MC: It's your decision. In today's warfare -- and I've actually been in some of the trailers [where drone pilots work] -- it's amazing. Because of technology the drone pilot is not actually the one in charge. He's talking with the theatre commander, who is potentially talking to people on the ground. There could be a dozen people in on the teleconference call. And there's a lawyer [asking about] the Geneva Conventions. So when we talk of killing-at-a-distance, drones are really just an extension of the technologies that we've had. The difference is that now technology brings everybody together.

Reaper Drone

There is more discussion about whether a weapon should be released today. In my time this would have been inconceivable. Nobody ever talked about it. You pulled the trigger and that was that. I will tell you that yes, there could be moral buffers introduced into this process [but] having so many more eyes and so many more perspectives on whether the weapon should be released is an overall benefit.

CM: Looking at this from another perspective, the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something that has caused concern in Canada in recent years. In earlier times, combatants were simply told to "suck it up" …

MC: They weren't even told that; they were told not to talk about it at all.

CM: So, what are the psychological and emotional effects of drone warfare upon the men and women who operate these UCAVs?

MC: It's a great question. There has been a lot of interest in the PTSD issue. Most people just want to jump to the conclusion that because we are doing remote forms of killing that this is somehow going to introduce new or worse forms of PTSD. There are lots of hypotheses and conjectures about that.

Drones are a nascent technology in terms of the history of warfare. We've been killing each other for 5,000 years. We've only been killing each other with drones for the last 15. So we have to understand that as humanity -- or more specifically Americans or Canadians -- we have no idea what killing another human in war does in terms of [causing] PTSD. The troops on the ground; maybe we're starting to get a handle on it. In terms of pilots [the situation] is even worse because from the time your training begins you are told to never, ever admit to any weakness. You cannot have any medical problems; you especially cannot have any mental problems because you will never be allowed to fly again. So even more than for your average warrior, for pilots there is a real stigma against having even a glimpse of weakness.

F/A-18 Hornet Fighter JetI can tell you personally that I know lots of pilots with body counts. I know a pilot with a Canadian body count. In the first Iraq war, one of the pilots I flew with, an F-18 guy, accidentally bombed a group of people that he thought were enemies -- and they were Canadians. He killed four Canadians. All those guys, every single pilot that I know of -- and they are all men -- every single one of them who has a body count -- going back from the Vietnam War to the most recent Gulf War -- every single one of them is an alcoholic. When you kill, whether or not you kill accidentally, or whether you kill under orders when it's considered to be completely legitimate -- this is just in my personal experience -- but every single one of them is an alcoholic. Some are divorced; some have killed themselves.

I think PTSD is a big part of that, but [those pilots] are never going to go in for any kind of evaluation. It's only now that we're starting to feel more comfortable in talking about PTSD. I don't think we'll ever be able to make any comparisons about the past to say that we now have more or less PTSD than had in Vietnam or in World War II or in medieval times. What we can say is that is that we're going to start studying this in a principled, scientifically sound manner.

CM: Does the use of drones undermine political sovereignty and stability? For example in Yemen and Pakistan where the population may regard the local government as being responsible for allowing such strikes, or resent western countries for undertaking them? Doesn't this create political problems that can exacerbate conflicts rather than ease them?

MC: I'm not so sure that I buy that argument. There's never been a technology that doesn't have some negative consequences. For example, nuclear weapons. We can now say that maybe it wasn't such a good idea. But we still did it.

When people claim that drones are recruiting more people to Al-Qaeda … well … we're still going to kill people if we use conventional weapons. If we don't kill you with a drone we're going to kill you in some other way. So what is better? Is it better to have Navy Seals come after you? Is it better to have a sniper? Is it better to drop bombs from five miles up? If we outlawed drones today, targeted killing, at least by the American military, would still happen, because that is a political decision. Drones are just the platform for that decision.

Predator DroneFrom a psychological perspective, I'm fascinated by such arguments because I think it's actually less about the "evil" use of a new technology and "those evil Americans." I think it speaks to a larger discomfort with technology. Where are we going with technology? We can kill people with cruise missiles. Their warhead is phenomenally bigger than the warhead coming off a little missile on a drone. An enlisted man with a hand grenade can probably do a lot more damage. I don't want to minimize anyone's pain and suffering, but in the larger scale of weaponry, the missiles that come off drones are very, very small.

There are some really lethal weapons. There's one called "Oddjob." It's a weapon that sends out all these rotating disks that slice people in half. There are weapons that potentially violate the Geneva Conventions.

CM: These things exist?

MC: Oh, yes. It's called "Oddjob" after the character in the Bond Movie [N.B. In Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, "Oddjob" possesses a bowler hat with a razor-edged rim that is used to decapitate people.]. There are some wickedly, wickedly bad technologies.

Oddjob and James BondSo I ask, "What is different about the drones?" I think what really bothers people, is not so much the mechanics of the killing, but that there's nobody there for them to shoot back at. And maybe that does violate a sense of fairness. The Yemenis actually feel very similar to the way that U.S. Air Force pilots feel, who also hate drones, because they feel that [the technology is] not "manly." You are not a "warrior" if you are pushing a button from 4,000 miles away. So, it's funny, that these two groups of people, who would never have anything in common, share a commonality in terms of their hatred of this technology that is changing not only our lives but is changing the definition of who we are.

So if the person firing it hates it, and the person receiving it hates it, who loves it? It's the policy-makers. Talk to any theatre commander and [they'll say] "they are so much safer. They are safer for our people. They are also safer for people on the ground." They do create less collateral damage because of that group consensus-decision making and because of the limited warhead on them.

CM: Doesn't the ubiquitous deployment of drone technology open the gates even further for hyper-intrusive surveillance that violates civil rights and privacy? Will this auger in a world in which "Big Brother" is potentially actually watching you all the time under all circumstances?

Missy Cummings at the HAlifax International Security ForumMC: Does it violate some kind of law to just take a picture from a geo-synchronous satellite? No. So, at what distance are we talking about? We're having a discussion about this in the United States. You don't want to have a drone hovering above your house? How far above it do you own the airspace? Is it 40 feet? Four hundred feet? Is it to infinity? What about that satellite that's up there? There is a UAV that's under development by DARPA right now that is going to fly for three years at a time. Once it launches it can assemble itself in orbit. They have the same [monitoring] capabilities of drones but they will be at 60,000 or 70,000 feet. We haven't even figured out these issues yet.

CM: In your article in the Globe and Mail you suggest that drone technology has flown the military coop; that highly sophisticated surveillance and weapon's delivery technology will soon be available on the market to commercial clients as well as to non-state and rogue state actors. What should we do about this? Have we not created a sorcerer's apprentice?

MC: In general, drones are not sophisticated. What is sophisticated are the sensors and weapons on them. So while anyone can get a drone on the Internet, they cannot get weapons for them very easily, nor do they have any supporting infrastructure that allows them to fly beyond line of sight.

Missy Cummings and DroneLike every technology they can be used for good or bad. People felt the same way about manned aircraft when they were invented, and I think we can agree that on the whole, even though planes are weapons, the majority of them do good.

We will start to see new technologies [deriving from drones] that have a net positive benefit. We are going to start seeing medical applications. For example, they are going to start using drones for mosquito control in Florida, where the mosquitos are horrific. So we're going to start having all these new positive applications that come out of a technology that was developed for warfare. The cat's out of the bag. What surprises me is just how fast it happened. In 10 years' time nobody is going to be talking about military drones; it's all going to be about the commercial applications.

Technology and warfare

What are we to make of this intersection of warfare and technology? Cummings is correct to draw attention to the fact that drones are simply a technological platform for the delivery of a policy decision. As surveillance tools they are an extension of the instruments we already have at our disposal, from satellites with super-abilities to discern tiny objects and telltale activities from almost astronomical distances. Armed drones are even more consummate extensions of remote delivery vehicles (such as guided cruise missiles) that can attack and destroy targets with ever more pinpoint precision. There's no discontinuity with existing military practices, simply an extension of them.

Indeed, there are those who argue that this technology can be regarded as a progressive development. As Cummings points out, the ordinance they deliver is far smaller than a cruise missile and can be even more precisely targeted, undeniably leading to less of the proverbial "collateral damage" (i.e., unintended death and destruction). On the other hand, does this not pave the way for the increasing use of military drones? There is no risk of life or limb for the operator, and the political blowback of a small strike (correctly targeted or not) might reasonably be supposed to be smaller than that from an erroneous cruise missile strike or errant bombs from a B-52 Stratofortress. Does surgical precision help sanitize the dispensation of death?

MQ 9 Reaper DroneNo country would unleash a major bombing strike against another without a state of war existing between them -- otherwise such an action would certainly risk provoking one. The "surgical" strikes of drones by the United States in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, are carried out with seeming impunity, without the agreement of the countries in question, and yet no formal state of war exists. Does this not risk diffusing the very concept of war, hence sidestepping even what protocols do exist under the Geneva Conventions regarding how conflicts are prosecuted? If military strikes for the purposes of extra-judicial killing are conducted at will, what does this imply in terms of the international rule of law? Is a country such as the United States, which is conducting such actions, at war everywhere against anyone?

These questions are hardly rhetorical. Examining the record of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report similar numbers over the last decade showing that the U.S. has launched 364 such attacks (as of July 2013) resulting in some 2,830 casualties. Of these the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that 22 per cent were confirmed civilians, including 5 per cent who were minors. Eighty-seven percent of these attacks have been launched under the presidency of Barack Obama. A 22 per cent rate of collateral death may sound good (although not so good to the 620+ people who have inadvertently been killed), however, considerable uncertainty exists with respect to the identity of those killed, or how important targets they really were. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that only 1.5 per cent of casualties were actually high-profile targets who, one might argue, would warrant such extraordinary measures.

Pakistan Drone Strikes

The boomerang effect

What all this leads to are some fundamental moral and ethical questions. In developing technologies -- any technologies used in warfare -- are we generating more problems than we are solving? There are doubtless bad people in the world. The list of cruel despots -- Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Radko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Laurent Kabila, Augusto Pinochet -- is almost limitless depending on how far back in history you care to go; to say nothing of their even more numerous and equally brutal acolytes. It is, of course, legitimate not to want such tyrants to visit their cruelty upon anyone, in their home countries or abroad. However, playing whack-a-mole with bombs, cruise missiles, or drones may simply result in more moles that are even angrier.

This may generate what Israeli journalist Amir Oren has called the "boomerang effect" namely that, "An aggressive move does not necessarily result in surrender, but rather counter-aggression, which causes the original aggressor to suffer at least as much as the intended victim," a military expression of the principle of unintended consequences as articulated by sociologist Robert Merton.

I asked Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, a co-panelist with Missy Cummings in the plenary Robot Wars: The Technology Strikes Back, about this boomerang effect. Harman, a seven-term democratic congressional representative, is a major figure in American political and security circles. She sanguinely replied:

Jane Harman"I am a proponent of the limited use of drones under clearly circumscribed and publicly explained parameters. I think that drones have helped the United States and the West to eliminate some of the most dangerous elements of Al Qaeda. 

"On the other hand, unless our policies for using them are clearly understood, and we can make the case effectively that there is minimal collateral damage -- which, by the way, there is -- I see what an Israeli scholar [Amir Oren] called the "boomerang effect". The idea that what you send out comes back with greater force and takes you out. We have to ask the question that Donald Rumsfeld once asked in one of his famous "snowflakes" -- I paraphrase -- "Are we eliminating the problem or creating more people that hate us?" If America's foreign policy is perceived as a drone policy, we lose. If America's foreign policy is perceived as consistent with our values, and we use force only when we must, then we win."

[N.B. The precise Rumsfeld quote is: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"]

Pandora's box

The unceasing mantra of the right-wing National Rifle Association, the foremost voice for the gun lobby in the United States, is that guns don't kill people; people kill people. In truth, it is people with guns that kill people. By creating weapons do we not presuppose their eventual use?

DC 10During the Manhattan Project similar concerns were articulated. Physicists such as James Franck, Eugene Rabinowitch, and Leó Szilárd all had grave reservations with respect to the development and use of nuclear weapons. Physicist Józef Rotblat, the Nobel laureate and cofounder of the Pugwash Conferences on armed conflict and global security, left the Manhattan Project, alarmed at the ethical consequences of developing nuclear weapons.

Be that as it may, Missy Cummings is undoubtedly correct; drones have now flown the military coop. There are now hundreds of different models of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in existence and programs in at least 57 countries to develop them. Many of these are intended for commercial and civilian applications: remote sensing, aerial surveillance of crops, pipelines, borders and shipping, policing, natural resources exploration and mapping, transport, film production, and scientific research. But twenty-four countries have already developed weaponized drone systems [i.e., unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV's)]. And even some non-military drones, while not capable of deploying explosive devices, might be able to distribute radiological, biological, or chemical weapons -- spraying toxic aerosols on unsuspecting victims below.

Pandora's box has long since been opened.

XX and XY: Militarism in the genes

It's easy to get lost in this thicket of technology, weapon systems, conflicts, military tactics, and political maneuvering and lose sight of the single question that hangs over this jungle -- Why are we doing this? Can we not find better ways to resolve conflicts? Are we destined to endlessly develop fiendish systems for maiming and destroying one another under the pretense that these will somehow make us safer? The MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine of nuclear weapons has worked for the last seven decades in the sense that no nuclear war has been launched, but is this really the best we can come up with? Holding knives to each other's throats to ensure that no one flinches?

I ask Missy Cummings about this who sagaciously responds, "Despite my military background, I agree in principle that it would be best if we could stop fighting, but alas, I believe it is hardwired into primarily the XY chromosome."

I, alas, agree with her.

One needs to ask why there is an evolutionary and psychological imperative for men to be warriors and defenders; to undertake difficult and dangerous tasks; to pit themselves against challenges; to triumph over foes; to save the princesses from the dragons.

I view these issues through a biological lens focused on the role of males in population dynamics, and in particular the part that males have played over the millennia in the evolution of human societies (as hunters, warriors, and defenders providing for families, protecting women and children). It's unrealistic to imagine that the result of hundreds of thousands of years of social and psychological evolution can change overnight. It is, as Cummings observes, in the chromosomes. We therefore have to find ways for channelling those elemental urges towards more constructive ends in societies that no longer resemble the African savannah where fending off attacks by lions and hyenas was an existential requirement. 

Missy Cummings in the U.S. Navy.A year and a half ago I made foray into this terrain in an article entitled "Military subversion: Adventurism, seduction, and transformation on the front lines." My motivation was to explore the ways in which the warrior impulse could be channeled towards better ends. It was my hope that the thrill, adrenaline, and satisfaction of saving people from death, disease, drowning, and starvation; of fighting floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis; of keeping the peace; of interdicting and arresting criminals -- might prove even more satisfying than deploying a weapon.

I don't know how we can accomplish this, but I do know one thing. Only in a society in which there is an equitable balance between XX and XY chromosomes will such results be possible. The surfeit of violence in the world is an indicator of a deeper imbalance between men and women. Never have the challenges we faced as a global society been more dramatic; never has there been a more critical need for environmental, social, economic, and political security and justice. Perhaps the sexism and misogyny that Missy Cummings experienced in the military conveys an important message to us all. 

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

 

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