International Relations

Is technology making human beings obsolete in war?

Per MAGNUS MUREN (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations 


            Technology and war are two highly interconnected concepts that has defined much of human history. About ten thousand years ago, the nomadic tribes of Kenya began to specialize tools for the purposes of war rather than hunting. This is our earliest archaeological evidence of planned and systematic violence involving clubs, spears and arrows specifically designed to kill other humans.[1] Ever since then, our ingenuity in creating new technologies and war have become increasingly inseparable parts of human civilization. When we think of technology today we usually think of smartphones and computers, but also high tech weaponry like drones, laser guided missiles, and even the dystopian futures of The Matrix or Terminator movies. To a contemporary mind war is fought with technology and technology has become an integral part of war. Using Clausewitz’s writings on the nature of war as well as an Heideggerian understanding of technology, this paper will examine war as a technological concept and look at how technology can be understood not just in an instrumental way, but also as art. Finally, we will look at how modern technology is increasingly making human beings obsolete in war.

            When talking about technology we often refer to specific tools or gadgets, like the smartphone or car, or a particular gun or rocket in the case of war. In his book about the history of technology in war, the last four thousand years, Martin Van Creveld argues that “Every part of war is touched by technology and every part of technology affects war.”[2] This does not simply refer to the development and application of new weapons, but also to every aspect of war that requires logistics, transportation and communication as well as a physical space to fight in. Fighting on land, sea or air is determined by the technology available and might soon include both outer-space and cyberspace on a large scale if we are to believe P. W. Singer.[3] New roads, energy sources, food production and so on affect how, and by what means war is fought as well as the areas in which it is practical to move armies and set up bases. Van Creveld is of course correct in pointing out the effect particular technologies have on war. But like most of us he uses a strictly instrumental understanding of technology. That is, technology defined as the car we transport ourselves in or the hellfire missile we kill the enemy with.

            Technology as instrument is perhaps the most common definition of technology. Heidegger recognized two common definitions of technology, firstly our instrumental or “means to an end” definition and also technology as a human activity. Also referred to as the instrumental and anthropological definitions of technology.[4] This is the standard way of thinking about technology both in reference to war and new consumer gadgets. The word technology, however, originates in the Greek word techne, which means an art or a skill. It is closely connected to the poetic, and the Greek concept of poiesis, which is best understood as bringing-forth or revealing the truth, and episteme meaning knowing or knowledge. Technology in this sense is not just a means to and end but a bringing-forth of truth.[5] Technology for the ancient Greeks were the techniques and methods of the craftsman that allowed him to understand the uniqueness of the piece of wood he was working, the relationship between himself, his tools and the material. We often think of art and technology as separate, and the artist and engineer as different. But originally technology was art, that required tremendous skill from the craftsman or artist.

            But how does technology understood in this sense help us to a deeper understanding of war and technology? Carl Von Clausewitz continuously refers to “the art of war[6] in On War and Sun Tzu’s military treatise have been aptly given the English title The Art of War. These are two of the most influential military thinkers in history that both conceives of war as an art. By our original Greek definition of technology as art, war is a form of technology. Just as the painter knows his canvas and the smith knows his forge, the warrior knows his weapon. But even by the instrumental definition of technology we see that war is a technology in itself. Clausewitz defines war as precisely that when he argues that: “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political Instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”[7] War as an instrument of politics perfectly fits an instrumental definition of technology and we should conceptualize war as both a means to an end instrument of politics and at the same time an art, both allowing us to view war as a technology.

              If technology brings-forth truth and allows us to know and interact with a material or other people, an important characteristic of technology becomes that of defining relationships and acting as a medium through which we experience other people, the world and other technologies. War as medium brings friend and enemy into the closest possible relationship and defines that relationship. Both the nomadic tribes in Kenya thousands of years ago and soldiers at the front lines of a modern war are deeply affected and have a deep effect on their enemy. The mortal relationship between friend and enemy will define both of them and war in this sense is a technology that brings two warring sides extremely close. War, however, is often thought of as distancing or separating two groups or two nations. Especially in the field of International Relations war is reduced to the transmission of kinetic energy between the colliding billiard balls of nation-states. Heidegger would see this a result of modern technology, as opposed to technology as poiesis and art. Both are instrumental in their function, but modern technology in its essence is enframing according to Heidegger. Influenced by the exact science of Newtonian physics modern technology challenges-forth rather than brings-forth and forces nature to stand-reserve.[8] This means that the world is ordered into pre-defined systems, ready to be used as a resource. The art and intimate knowledge of a tool or a technique is replaced by simplicity, effectiveness, order and predictability. Modern technology is specialized and based on problem solving logic rather than problem defining reason.

           In terms of war we see the creation of specialized professional armies, designed to provide security, standing-reserve as a security resource as well as the gradual increase in effectiveness and simplification of the tools of war themselves. The bow and horseman was replaced by the musket, which required less skill and proved more effective.[9] The enframement and logic of modern war seeks to eliminate what Clausewitz referred to as friction. Clausewitz, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, argued that only those with personal knowledge of war can possibly conceive of the difficulties that comes with actually fighting one. He quite poetically states that: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” You might know your objective and it might be quite simple, but you can never imagine or predict the difficulties that might arise along the way. Murphy’s law very much applies to war and it is all those unforeseen problems of bad weather, a flat tire or the enemy doing something unpredictable Clausewitz terms friction.[10] The modern high tech way of war however seeks to eliminate friction. Especially the American or Western way of war in the twenty-first century is based on predictability and effectiveness through technological superiority. Computing power has become a defining characteristic of American war.[11] Clausewitz himself suggested that if we could predict the outcome of a war based on material forces and capabilities alone we could conduct war by algebra. Meaning that we could use deductive logic to fight wars, effectively making them pointless as we would already know the outcome.[12]

            But war, because it is a human activity, determined in its scope and objective by political reasoning is always uncertain. And in uncertainty courage and conviction must make up the deficit in predictability.[13] Modern technology’s answer to this uncertainty, however, is to increasingly remove the human from war, which is effectively what is taking place in the war on terror and in the later stages of the American occupation of Iraq with the use of drones and robots as both combatants, scouts and roadside bomb disposal units. Singer points out that the robotics revolution in war not only “affect the “how” of war-fighting, they affect the “who” of fighting at its most fundamental level.”[14] Substituting human warriors for robots is a huge part of the ordering and elimination of risk and uncertainty ingrained in the essence of modern technology.

          As mentioned, an important part of technology is to be a medium through which people interact and experience the world. The war of Clausewitz’s day was still an intimate affair. If you are charged with a bayonet you are very much aware of who is attacking you. Swords and spears and short range fire arms allows you to stand face to face with the person you are at war with. Hence Clausewitz conceives of war as a large scale duel.[15] Modern technology however has created great distance between combatants by extending the range of weapons and increasingly removing the human contact altogether. A new breed of warrior has emerged in the form of the drone pilot, who only see their target through a screen and their target never sees them.[16] Much like the musket required less skill than the long bow to operate the global range of a Predator drone allows the pilot to have a less intimate relationship with his tools, the battle field and the enemy, and a more specialized role. War as art or poiesis depends on a highly intimate relationship with all aspects of war. But the distance, effectiveness and ease of modern weapons change or relationship to war itself. Singer warns of war becoming mere entertainment as drones allow us to see war up close but never truly experience it. Like the difference between going to a live sporting event and just watching it on TV.[17] By removing the human from war we lose touch with the nature of war as a violent political tool.

              This short-circuiting of the democratic decision-making process for what Ignatieff calls “the ultimate rationale of nation states” (2000: 176) severs the close bond between the public and the use of force that has traditionally relied on public willingness to share both the human and economic cost of conflict, instead giving rise to a new standard by which the U.S. President seeks congressional approval for military operations only when U.S. lives are at stake (Singer, 2012). Not requiring the presence of U.S. ground troops and without the risk of U.S. casualties, drone warfare is encouraging an alteration in the public and political elite’s perception of the use of force by removing any investment in it on their behalf. Without the financial or human interest of the public at stake the previously weighty considerations inherent in the application of international force cease to be treated as such, no longer viewed with the same gravitas and lowering the threshold that preserves the use of force as a last resort. The decision to apply force begins to take on the character of mundane policy that is met chiefly with “popular indifference” and accompanied by lapsing moral standards and public accountability (Singer, 2009b: 322- 323)

             There is no doubt that technology changes the character of war but Clausewitz would argue that the nature of war never changes, that its essence is always violent, unpredictable and an instrument of the political, and new technology merely changes the weapons used and the spaces fought in. Van Creveld agrees and points out that although technology can make certain forms of war obsolete, “It will remain what it has always been, namely a horrible, messy affair in which some people are killed and others mutilated.”[18] But in the pursuit of effectiveness and predictability new technologies render more than just old forms of war obsolete. The drone as we know it today was only made effective as a military application after the invention of the GPS and a global net of communication satellites. But GPS signals are not perfect and can be both jammed and hacked and as everything they fall victim to Clausewitz’s friction. As a result of the shortcomings of GPS new developments seek to control drones and robots using video aided navigation so they no longer need to rely on GPS. Much like with drones and GPS, war itself is made unpredictable by its navigator, humans. New technology increasingly eliminates humans from the battle field and future wars might see humans as obsolete, which would dramatically change our understanding of war as a function of political reasoning and drive it towards algebra. Removing humans from war naturally seem like a great idea in itself. But the enframing of war does not eliminate violence. At the same time that national militaries replace their soldiers with robots, single individuals and potential terrorist also gain the power to build drones, bombs, biological weapons and computer viruses. And it is quite easy to convince a robot to blow itself up. Modern war might remove human beings from war and with it our intimate understanding of war as an art. But in its place we might find a proliferation of violence that is no longer under political control.


Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Friedman, George. And Friedman Meredith. The Future of War. United States: Crown Publisher, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. 2nd Edition. London: Pimlico, 2004. NOVA. The Rise of the Drones. YouTube. Web. Nov. 13, 2013.

Singer, P.W. and Cole, August. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. New York: HMHCO, 2009.

Singer, P.W. Military robots and the future of war. Ted Talks. Web. April 2009.

Smithsonian. An Ancient, Brutal Massacre May Be the Earliest Evidence of War. Web. Jan 20, 2016.

Van Creveld, Martin. Technology and war: from 2000 B.C. to the present. London: Brassey’s, 1991.

[1] Smithsonian: “An Ancient, Brutal Massacre May Be the Earliest Evidence of War.”

[2] Van Creveld (1991), p312.

[3] Singer: “Ghost Fleet” (2015) depicts a fictional world war fought in the new cyber and orbital theaters of war.

[4] Heidegger (1977), pp1-2.

[5] Ibid, p5.

[6] Clausewitz (1989), p75,86,119,591,604,607,609,610.

[7] Ibid, p87.

[8] Heidegger (1977), p10-12.

[9] Keegan (2004), Ch1: War as Culture.

[10] Clausewitz (1989), p119.

[11] Friedman (1996).

[12] Clausewitz (1989), p76.

[13] Ibid, p86.

[14] Singer: Ted Talk “Military robots and the future of war”.

[15] Clausewitz (1989), p75.

[16] NOVA: “Rise of the Drones”.

[17] Singer: Ted Talk “Military Robots and the Future of War”.

[18] Van Creveld (1991), p311.

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