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Further Developing the ‘Playstation Mentality’

By Gra­ham Dumas (J.D. Can­di­date 2011)

Philip Alston famous­ly described the use of drones by the U.S. mil­i­tary and the CIA as poten­tial­ly lead­ing to a “playsta­tion men­tal­i­ty,” in which the human and cap­i­tal costs of strikes are so decreased from the per­spec­tive of the strik­ing force that few­er pre­cau­tions are tak­en in con­duct­ing such strikes. The crit­i­cism is valid, although it has been refut­ed by gov­ern­ment lawyers from Harold Koh on down.

Yet reduced costs may not have uni­ver­sal­ly neg­a­tive results. Michael Walz­er, in his sem­i­nal work Just and Unjust Wars, wrote about the moral duty on com­bat­ants to expose them­selves to fur­ther risk in order to save the lives of civil­ians caught in com­bat zones. With drones, how­ev­er, espe­cial­ly the land-based mod­els described recent­ly in the New York Times, the reduc­tion or even elim­i­na­tion of risk to the human oper­a­tor could make it eas­i­er for the mil­i­tary to warn effec­tive­ly the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion ahead of or dur­ing oper­a­tions. What is more, the moral ambi­gu­i­ty of using human sol­diers as tools for the aim of reduc­ing civil­ian casu­al­ties, which aris­es from the government’s duty to ensure (as far as pos­si­ble) the right to life of its own forces, all but dis­ap­pears with the use of drones.

One of the most effec­tive uses of robot­ic vehi­cles in com­bat, then, may not be to kill the ene­my, but to warn the inno­cent. The “playsta­tion men­tal­i­ty” may thus reduce the appar­ent costs of giv­ing effec­tive advance warn­ing to non-combatants–forces will be more will­ing to go far­ther to warn, just as they have been in exe­cut­ing strikes. Tak­ing it a step fur­ther, there could be a legit­i­mate argu­ment that, as mil­i­taries acquire drone tech­nol­o­gy, they could become bound by arti­cle 57 of Addi­tion­al Pro­to­col I to use those drones to ascer­tain the sta­tus of poten­tial tar­gets and to ensure that civil­ians are not threat­ened dur­ing oper­a­tions.

This is, of course, not to exon­er­ate or jus­ti­fy the use of drones in war­fare; the posi­tion I take is neu­tral and with­out prej­u­dice to, for exam­ple, the U.S. military’s cam­paign of Preda­tor strikes in the Af-Pak region.

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