Surgical Strikes: Ideological Weaponry


Andy Bissett (UK)


Some ethical dimensions of the synergy between high technology and warfare have been discussed previously [Bissett, 1997; 1999] in the specific context of the 1990s. The evolution of this close relationship between military imperatives and high technology poses a number of issues for computer ethicists. This paper updates the main areas of concern, and develops one area in more depth – that of the accuracy of modern weapons, which seems to pose the possibility of so-called ‘surgical strikes’. This concept depends upon computer technology for precise navigation and guidance. It will be argued that the discourse around ‘surgical strikes’ is predominantly a misleading and dangerous attempt to legitimise the continued development of high-tech weaponry.

Firstly, there is a need to evaluate the weapons’ manufacturers’ claims. They are as much a ‘sales pitch’ as statements of measured fact. This paper surveys the poor accuracy of high-tech weaponry in actual field conditions. For instance, it appears that laser guided bombs from the F117 ‘Stealth’ aircraft in the Gulf War hit only 60% of their targets, whilst the vaunted Tomahawk cruise missile hit just over 50% of its targets in the same conflict [Keeble, 1997]. Those warheads that missed their targets would have destroyed ‘other’ buildings and people. The inaccuracy of laser guided bombing in the Vietnam War, figures for the Gulf War of 1991 two decades later, the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo, and the effects of aerial bombing in Afghanistan in 2001 all show that in warfare, no matter how advanced the weapons, human and technical flaws will result in extensive death and destruction. Indeed it is likely that the military are perfectly aware of this and accept it. Claims to the contrary exist, for example, in order to assuage the public conscience. Thus the rhetoric of ‘surgical strikes’ takes on an essentially ideological meaning. The surgical metaphor carries connotations of science, precision, control, and asepsis. All of these values are at odds with the actualities of modern warfare, but the language used makes warfare seem more acceptable. The concept of ‘surgical strikes’ contains the additional attraction of a ‘technical fix’ rather than a more difficult and protracted, but eventually less deadly, political solution.

In warfare, the stakes are high – they could not possibly be higher – and a momentum develops wherein military forces and governments tend to do whatever is necessary in order to win. Whilst more accurate targeting in some circumstances may reduce the number of people killed and injured, the enthusiastic promotion of the concept of ‘surgical strikes’ also has its dangers. It implies that war may be prosecuted in a more ‘ethical’ manner, with fewer civilian casualties, for example, but this legitimating aspect is likely to promote the use of force to achieve political ends.

The ‘surgical’ metaphor also misrepresents the fundamental nature of warfare. Bourke [2000: 2] notes ‘the centrality of killing in modern battle’. The argument that weapons accuracy somehow makes war ‘better’, more modern, and ‘clean’, and that technological superiority delivers military victory, fundamentally misrepresents the nature of war itself. One simple fact, readily overlooked as unpalatable by the protagonists of high-tech warfare, is that, as Sir Geoffrey Vickers [1983] succinctly puts it, ‘the use of force leads to resistance’. This resistance may or may not be in the same high-tech coin, but guerrilla warfare and terror attacks also cause death and destruction, as recent history has shown. The temptation to try to achieve an easy solution through the use of technology is likely to initiate a long cycle of violence.

Needless to say, in situations of warfare, the promise of refined technology for more accurate identification and destruction of targets primarily increases the number and range of targets. Arguably this would lead to its greater use, and ultimately a greater number of human casualties. It must be remembered, whilst considering this greater likelihood of warfare, that allegedly ‘precise’ weapons are only ever used as a complement to more conventional weapons. Thus extensive use of high altitude ‘carpet bombing’ B52 aircraft was made in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and recently Afghanistan. Very often these deployed widely destructive ‘area’ weapons such as cluster bombs and fuel-air ‘daisy cutters’. Only 9% of the total tonnage of bombs dropped from the air in the Gulf War were ‘precision guided’ bombs [Keeble, 1997: 148]. Furthermore even ‘accurate’ weapons such as cruise missiles are used to carry indiscriminate warheads such as cluster bombs.

It is argued that most of the high technology ‘surgical strike’ mechanisms are inherently distancing in nature. This introduces a further ethical concern as the possibility of remote destruction may make its deployment easier in psychological as well as practical ways, an issue explored in a different context by Bissett & Shipton [2000]. Chomsky [2001: i] has pithily remarked that ‘Murder at a distance removes the need for elaborate defensive mechanisms’. Using further material from Howard [2000] and Bourke [2000], the paper explores the theme that distancing technologies are likely to encourage, or at least ease, the act of killing. This distancing is a centuries-old trend in weaponry, and it appears that the use of computer technology amplifies the destructive possibilities.

Finally the paper examines another danger in that the scope of warfare may be increased by the lure of more accurate targeting. Thus the possibilities of improved technology could be employed for ‘ethnic cleansing’, with, for instance, laser guided attacks on individual streets and houses, not to mention refugee camps.

In conclusion the paper draws attention to the distortion of informed debate about the political options and strategy that the rhetoric of ‘surgical strikes’ encourages.


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Bourke, J. (2000) An intimate history of killing, London: Granta Books

Chomsky, N. (2001) foreword in Jones Griffiths, P., Vietnam Inc., London: Phaidon Press.

Howard, M. (2000) The invention of peace, London: Profile Books Ltd.

Keeble, R. (1997) Secret state, silent press, Luton: John Libbey Media

Vickers, G. (1983) Human systems are different, London: Macmillan