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Joint Doctrine

Joint Force Quarterly 74 (3rd Quarterly, July 2014)

News | July 1, 2014

Book Review: Killing Without Heart

By Daniel P. Sukman Joint Force Quarterly 74

Killing Without Heart

The United States faces a stark decision on how to prosecute and conduct future warfare. Accordingly, every national policymaker and decisionmaker should read Killing Without Heart to be better informed on the morality of unmanned and autonomous weapons systems. With advancements in technology, the Nation has the capability to continue down the path toward a military of unmanned and autonomous robots on the battlefield. Continuing on this path will isolate the men and women in uniform from the dangers of the modern battlefield, calling into question the morality of how we fight and whether we can achieve national endstates without sending actual people into combat.

Riza provides a detailed analysis of the limits of robots in warfare. First and foremost is the absence of the empathy that will always reside in human beings. Robots lack that sense much as psychopaths do. They do not feel guilt or sympathy or any other emotion when taking a life. When robots kill, the question of who is responsible for the deaths will always be an issue. Employing a robot that mistakenly kills a family at a checkpoint or drops a bomb on a funeral procession can have strategic effects without a definitively responsible party. Is the commander who employed the robot responsible although he did not man, equip, or train the robot? Or is it the designer, the programmer, or nobody?

In addition to the lack of empathy and other feelings unique to human beings, the difficulty in employing lethal robotics on the battlefield is displayed in second-, third-, and fourth-order effects. Soldiers and Marines and fighter pilots on the battlefield must often make instantaneous decisions on the use of lethal force. They consider not only whether someone seen through the scope is an enemy, but also what taking that life will mean for the local populace, the tribal leaders, and the individual’s family, and whether taking that life will create more enemies in the long run. It is difficult to imagine that robots will consider such factors or will even have the capability to sort the relevant from the irrelevant.

The author brilliantly contrasts what the U.S. military can achieve today and in the anticipated future against the morality of its capabilities. Striking enemies from a longer distance using unmanned and autonomous robots removes the element of mutual respect between combatants on the battlefield, which has persisted over time. Without mutual respect, it becomes nearly impossible to conduct dialogue with adversaries. Without dialogue there is no way to achieve endstates, which in turn leads to persistent conflict. Moving to robotic unmanned and autonomous systems removes the risk to combatants on one side of the fight and transfers it to noncombatants on both sides.

Riza warns that in our effort to minimize casualties among our own Servicemembers on the battlefield, we have opened a Pandora’s box of unanticipated second- and third-order effects. Are remote pilots in Nevada who are controlling unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan legitimate targets on their way to work? More broadly, if our enemy cannot engage us on the battlefield, do Servicemembers become legitimate targets in the homeland? We are taught from the time we are young lieutenants and ensigns that our adversaries adapt. Riza postulates how they may adapt to robots and the risk we take when we remove actual people from combat.

A shortfall in Riza’s analysis lies in not explaining some of the practical albeit low-level advantages robotics and autonomous systems provide. They do not get driving-under-the influence citations; they do not return home after a deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder and beat their wives and children; they do not visit the payday loan shops and gentlemen’s clubs often found outside military installations. Financially, robots do not need TRICARE benefits, nor do they receive a pension after 20 years of service.

Killing Without Heart leads us to the ultimate conclusion that how we win wars is as important as winning itself. Riza is able to weave in the writings of Michael Walzer and combine his theories of just war with the strategic guidance that today’s American military operates under. This is the seminal book for considering the ethics and moral standards of a future battlefield filled with everything but human beings. Riza warns against becoming a nation that is more warlike without becoming a nation of more warriors. JFQ