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The Ethics of High Tech War

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By Eli Ungar

With the recent turn of events in the Middle East, everything seems topsy-turvy. Syria pulling out of Lebanon and asking Israel to help with the process? The Palestinian Authority fighting militants? What’s going on here? In these days of uncertainty, it seems we can’t even rely on the century-old Israeli-Arab conflict to behave properly! While everything seems backwards, one thing remains unchanged: Israel’s development of more and more sophisticated military technologies.

The latest gadget, developed by the Israeli company Tadiran, is a wrist-monitor that looks like it might have been lifted out of a James Bond movie. It is intended to aid soldiers on the ground by feeding them 30 frames-per-second of surveillance video from unmanned flying drones. Even more intriguing this technology has been in use for almost a year by the Israeli Defense Forces in the targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists. According to CEO Yitzchak Beni, the use of the new technology has reduced the time necessary to identify and strike a target from 10 minutes to a matter of seconds.

The promise of Tadiran’s wireless monitoring system is that it will dramatically reduce collateral damage in urban warfare. By having accurate live feed at their disposal, soldiers will be better equipped to direct their force with pinpoint accuracy, thereby avoiding civilian casualties. Upon further reflection, however, the ethical issues involved in implementing and marketing this new technology seem somewhat problematic.

At first blush, it seems reasonable that any technology that reduces civilian casualties should be seen as a good thing. Less innocent people dying is clearly a desirable state of affairs. However, it seems to me that the marketing of this technology is intended in part to mask an even greater injustice than that of collateral damage; namely, the intentional killing of people who haven’t been given due process. Israel’s policy of targeted killings seems to me to be very hard to justify ethically: especially because they don’t only target active militants, they also target political leaders. Under the current ceasefire agreement, Israel had halted the targeted killings, but following a recent suicide bombing the Israeli cabinet is reconsidering the practice.

One of the most serious problems with modern warfare from an ethical standpoint is that the technologies upon which it is predicated make civilian casualties inevitable. There is, however, a meaningful distinction to be made between the unintentional killing of innocent civilians in wartime, and the intentional killing of innocents, as in the case of suicide bombings. Nevertheless, we need to be cognizant of the rhetoric that surrounds discussions of military technology. The contemporary rhetoric, of which this recent press release from Tadiran is a part, is designed to make us feel better about going to war. It implies that only the bad guys will get it, so we don’t need to worry about nasty things like innocents dying. Indeed, it is coming from the same place that the impulse to talk about precision bombing came when we went to war in Iraq. The irony is that the same military industrial complex that developed the technology that made it virtually impossible to launch a war without killing innocents is now investing untold billions into reversing that trend.

Nevertheless, even if we get to a point where technology can truly deliver a “clean” war, we must not allow this to make us lazy ethicists. For although I can’t think of a single war in the history of man in which the rules of Just War Theory were actually adhered to, having just cause and making sure that force is a last resort will always determine the overall justice of any given military action.

April 2005

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