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What Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us about Drones and Cyber-War

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When freshmen in my humanities colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology ask why they have to read stuff by ancient Greeks, I reply that we have much to learn from old guys like Thucydides. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, a clash between the city-states Athens and Sparta, Thucydides recounted a negotiation between Athenians and leaders of Melos, an island kingdom striving to remain neutral.

The Athenians gave the Melians a choice: submit peacefully to our rule and pay us tribute, or we will destroy you. The Melians, completely outmatched by the Athenian army, pointed out that the Athenians were not dealing with them justly. The Melians hadn't done anything to hurt Athens or help Sparta; they just wanted to keep to themselves.

The Athenians retorted, in effect, "Get real. There is no right and wrong, only weak and strong. We're stronger than you are, so we can do anything we like. That's how things have always worked and always will work." The Athenians subscribed to what we would call a realpolitik view of relations between states: Might makes right.

The Melians then appealed to the Athenians' reason and self-interest. The Melians predicted that the Athenians' cruel treatment of Melos could provoke other neutral states into opposing Athens. The Melians were basically trying to get the Athenians to recognize the logic of the golden rule: If you treat others fairly, you are more likely to be treated fairly yourself. Live by the sword and you will eventually die by the sword.

And that brings me to U.S. drone strikes and cyber-attacks. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has carried out hundreds of drone attacks not only in nations that it has occupied, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The New York Times recently reported that President Barack Obama has personally approved attacks on suspects on a "kill list" compiled by national-security officials.

The Administration claims that civilian casualties from drone strikes are minimal. But according to the Times, U.S. officials count all adult males as combatants. Moreover, in at least one case, Obama allegedly approved a raid on a suspect he knew was accompanied by civilians.

In a previous post, I argued that the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for lethal drones may accelerate a global arms race that comes back to haunt Americans. More than 40 nations as well as groups such as Hezbollah have deployed or are developing drones and other robotic weapons. We would be outraged if we were attacked by these weapons, but how can we expect others to abstain from such attacks when we don’t?

The logic of reciprocity applies to cyber-attacks as well. According to a June 1 New York Times report, President Obama approved a cyber-warfare campaign—initiated during the Bush regime and code-named "Olympic Games"—against Iran to disrupt its nuclear program. A computer virus devised for the program, which came to be called Stuxnet, eventually escaped from Iran's nuclear facilities and infected computers around the world.

As I mentioned last year, the Pentagon has warned that it may retaliate with bombs and bullets against groups that target U.S. computers and other digital resources. Meanwhile, the U.S. itself is apparently developing cyber-weapons and launching cyber-strikes. Are other countries likely to do what the U.S. preaches or what it practices? As the Times pointed out, "No country's infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States."

The U.S. carries out drone and digital attacks because they represent relatively cheap, risk-free ways to kill or disable our enemies. We can no doubt achieve short-term benefits from such attacks, whether disrupting Iran's nuclear-weapons program or eliminating those who mean us harm. And for now, we enjoy an advantage in drones and cyber-weapons, an advantage that is tempting to exploit.

But we should think about the long-term consequences of using these weapons. How can we preach against cyber and drone raids when we are carrying out such raids ourselves? Won't our hypocrisy inflame and expand the number of our enemies, thus making us less secure? Wouldn't it be smarter for us to set a moral example for other nations and groups by renouncing cyber and drone attacks and seeking international prohibitions against them?

In pondering these questions, we should consider the fate of Athens, which at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War was Greece's major power. Athenian soldiers eventually overran Melos, killed all the men and enslaved the women and children. But just as the Melians had predicted, the cruelty and arrogance of Athens aroused opposition against it. Sparta and its allies eventually crushed Athens, which never regained its former glory.

Image of Athenian and Melian from Opensocietymaldives.blogspot.com.

Addendum: Tomorrow, June 13, I'll be part of a discussion of "The End of War" hosted by WNYC's Brian Lehrer and including former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and other peace activists. For more information see the WNYC website.

Addendum # 2: The British newspaper The Guardian just published an essay on The End of War by Brian Lehrer. He writes: "Horgan has convinced me that a modern abolition movement could be to war what an earlier abolition movement was to slavery. A 'Just Say No to War' campaign, or a War Abolition Movement, could attach itself to any budding conflict situation, denouncing all talk of war as rarely a solution to anything. It won't stop every despot, or every religious extremist with a violent cult. But it could seek to paint war as an anachronism, and to define the next era in human culture, to change the conversation about heroism and patriotism and piety – to retire war as an obsolete invention, as Horgan and Margaret Mead might put it." Sounds good to me.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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