• The Second Amendment in Iraq, Combat Robotics, and the Future of Human Liberty

    by  • September 2, 2008 • The Big Deal • 13 Comments

    Inspired by US Military to be 30% robotic in 12 years.

    Third draft. This one is almost good.

    This is a relatively heavy piece which contains a lot of extremely speculative original thinking. Parts are written from the perspective of the population, and other parts from a policy perspective. From both perspectives, the current drive to develop combat robots is a bad long term move, and it must be avoided at all costs. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this, and I welcome your feedback – try the comments, or email me directly: hexayurt@gmail.com.

    If the response is generally good, this will wind up on Gupta Option.

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    The war against the Iraqi government was short, it was effective, it was a war between unequal forces with a predictable and final result: the government of Iraq was gone.

    That government, like all government, was a high level emergent structure. It has a visible form – people, a chain of command, buildings, but all that was swiftly and effectively overcome or destroyed. The “monopoly on legitimate use of force” rapidly passed to the American military, and then… something happened…

    The people of Iraq started shooting.

    Now, at this point, we’re going to take the gloves off. The US military has been fighting a war against the people of Iraq. The Iraqi “militias” are directly equivalent to the well regulated militia that the Founding Fathers discussed as the last line of defense against government oppression – US government oppression. The fact that this oppression is occurring in Iraq rather than on US soil does not change the role of guns as tools of self-determination. The Second Amendment is guarantee of a right, but that right is based in observable reality. It is operating in Iraq today, and the streets run with blood as people exercise their right to die and kill for what they believe, however misguided it may be.

    The Iraqi people are demonstrating the Second Amendment. It seems to work pretty well: 18 million people have turned out to contain a large enough population of stubborn bastards who will not submit to US authority, or the authority of the US-backed regime, to make the country more-or-less ungovernable for years. The loss of life, the waste of potential, the meaninglessness of the destruction are undeniable, but that is why they call it war; those things can be minimized but never prevented.

    What you are seeing in Iraq is a Second Amendment War. Make no mistake about that – it is small arms and improvised munitions on one hand, and massive State power on the other. There are superficial parallels to the revolutionary war, in that lightly armed insurgents are fighting an empire bent on controlling the political destiny of their land, but few precise tactical or strategic similarities exist. America is, of course, in the role of the Empire this time around, although the cultural myth that Americans are still scrappy upstarts persists. Of course, the basic model that most of the Iraqis are fighting for is pretty awful – theocracy and warlordism – and the willingness to murder over religion is a far cry from the original fight for freedom and self-determination which was at the root of the American struggle. But we are discussing methods and consequences here, not primarily goals. That many Iraqis are attempting armed self-determination is the important thing, not their particular and peculiar taste in governance.

    So the response to this Second Amendment War from the Pentagon has been to fund the development of weapons systems which are capable of defeating the Iraqi population, with their rifles and improvised bombs, so that the next population that chooses to resist the US military can be swiftly and effectively defeated. What this effort will do, if it is successful, is defang not just the population of Iraq, but all populations, overthrowing the protective effect individual firearms ownership, destroying the intent and effectiveness of the Second Amendment, and unbalancing the Constitution permanently through evolving technology which end-runs around the original intent of the Framers. It is the one blow that the Constitution cannot recover from: bad laws can be unmade, and unjust men can be hanged, but once the technologies to upend the Constitution exist, it is indeed finished.

    Weapons can be returned to the population, but once effective combat robots are here, those rifles will no longer be effective, and the limits to tyrannical government imposed by an armed citizenry will be gone forever.

    We have until effective combat robots are developed to regain control of government, and to renegotiate the agreement which protects the liberty of all people. This does not mean just the US government, this means government period. Because these combat robots are coming, and many are already here, if we do not prevent their global deployment by the time you and I are old we will see robots on street corners with guns that run software we do not control, implementing policies beamed to them over the airwaves in encrypted communications, accessing databases of faces and retinas, ever watchful for enemies not of the State as we currently understand it, but of the people who own the right to program the machines which watch over us. The State will have become technocratic – fascism by remote control – and the dream of control, coveted by evil men for generations, will have come to fruition. We have a scant few years to arrest the development of these technologies or to rearchitect the social foundations of liberty to survive a situation where combat robots leave the population largely powerless to resist tyranny, whether they have their rifles or not. To develop the technology to defeat the rifle utterly in the field is roughly equivalent to absolute, final, global disarmament of the population.

    A cause for concern, I think you will agree.


    I am not suggesting that these combat robots will have human intelligence. I am not suggesting they will be effective policemen in the crime solving sense. They will start as remote controlled weapons platforms, then evolve common sense on navigation, then target selection, then tactics and strategy. What can be automated successfully will be automated, and the rest will be left to men in bunkers viewing screens where blood is rendered in black or blue, not red, and the faces of the fallen are fuzzed out as distractions from the real work of identifying and terminating enemies among the living. The dehumanizing of the enemy moves from wetware to software to hardware reducing all moral sentiment on the part of the soldiers that might stay their hands or cause them to question their chain of command. Without a doubt, how you are allowed to see the battlefield dictates your moral response to it which is why media control has become an essential part of modern war.


    Oppressing the masses is a job that can be automated using robots. It can be argued they are already doing it in Iraq. Hurting people to order with robots is only a few years away.

    So what do we do about this future of oppression at the hands of robots developed to defeat the improvised weapons of freedom fighters, revolutionaries and insurgents everywhere? What do we do about a future where little guy finally has no chance at all against the State, should the State turn against him and seek to drive him to the wall? Indeed, what can we do about that situation?

    The first thing we can do is work to prevent this situation arising.

    I want you to get serious about putting aside your political differences about the economy, and to get serious, left and right alike, about making sure that our children do not grow up in a world where men they will never see or vote for control the box on the corner that tortures you with an invisible ray any time you get out of line.

    I will note that the development of a remote mass torture device contravenes all human and natural law, and the insistence that it will “save lives” is based on the simple misunderstanding, that torture is an effective way of negotiating with a population. In fact, if the people are taking to the streets and screaming for change, and they are tortured where they stand to make them stop asking for change, eventually they will turn to real violence and kill the hand that tortures them to make them comply, if they can. And if they cannot kill that hand, or the people that control that hand, what has been created is a hell: a torture state which one cannot overthrow or escape from. Under these circumstances, acts of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction aimed at destroying the State which controls the torture machines become entirely rational.

    Deploying these technologies risks creating a situation where devastating civilian reprisals of a biological or chemical nature become a strategically plausible response from oppressed populations. If one cannot kill the troops because they fight from bunkers, and each machine destroyed is replaced with a new one, eventually logic will lead some people to the conclusion that a genocidal attack on the home population from which these machines issue is a rational act. Such is the future: an arms race between oppressor and oppressed that eventually takes on the characteristics of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), likely by biological vectors given the limited options of the weaker populations. Enslavement and the resulting genocidal last-ditch reprisals could easily become the new balance of power.

    Worse, what hand will wield these torture machines in a few generations? A thing cannot be recontained once it escapes from the future into the present in most cases. Foolish research has added terrible possibilities to our world which will likely become a whip in the hand of the oppressor for all of future history. Your tax dollars at work, arming the dictators of the future to torture their populations in the streets, in their prison cells, and eventually in their homes. Your tax dollars at work.

    Lines are being crossed here. Technologies which stand every chance of eventually enslaving us all are being developed to win the Iraq war, because the Iraq war is typically of armed resistance to government anywhere. Win at a technological level in Iraq and you can win against an armed population fighting for self-determination anywhere. It is unlikely that Iraq will be settled with these tools, but the lessons learned and the technological research agendas which result are going to haunt the world for generations as the military tries to perfect the capability to win against civilian populations.

    We must face these facts. The billions of dollars of Pentagon R&D money are going into creating combat robots designed to win a war nearly identical to the war that the Founding Fathers imagined the population might one day have to fight against a tyrannical government. The clock is now ticking on the complete destabilization of the balance of power between the American people and their government, and between governments and armed civilians globally. Once effective combat robots are developed and field tested, the Constitution is effectively dead until such time as the balance of power between people with their backs to the wall and the American State is restored by mechanisms I cannot yet imagine.

    The Pentagon is pouring money into robot war right now. They clearly see the need for it – after all, a population in Iraq armed with only rifles and improvised bombs has ground the American military machine to a standstill in many ways. That cannot be allowed to happen again, can it?

    Yes! It can be allowed to happen, and it must be allowed to happen. When the people of an occupied country rise up in arms and fight for self-determination, it is time to admit defeat and leave, rather than becoming the kinds of monsters who can control and defeat a population struggling for self-determination. At that point, the war being fought is not a war for peace and security in the US, but for domination abroad, and this is a line we must retreat from. The US must not develop the ability to win in future wars against populations like we see in Iraq if it wishes to remain a good nation. To develop the capability to defeat armed civilian populations using combat robots will destroy the constitution, and send the world down a path which is similar to mutually assured destruction in that it is a ratchet mechanism (in game theoretical terms) that leads to an equilibrium of torture in the streets and biological reprisals against the civilian population back home. If we do not want to go there, we must not start down the ratchet. This is imperative.

    We have as long as it takes the military to develop effective combat robots to win our future peace and freedom by blocking this path. Once these capabilities are developed and operationalized, the military will not give them up, and we cannot always expect to win the struggle for political control of these tools. We must not start down this path at any price!

    It is time to insist that the military does not learn how to defeat armed civilian populations. We must exert political control over the military to prevent them developing these capabilities, or in some future scenario, these capabilities will be turned against us, and we will have no choice in the matter any more. The point of critical intervention, to safeguard the Constitution and the balance of power, is right now. 15 years from now, it will be too late.

    Turning people into instruments of the state, essentially turning people into parts of the national machine has been the essence of government for a long time. Military scientists working on pure research are cogs in the machine, soldiers that train to be heroes are cogs in the machine, police on the front lines against crime are cogs in the machine. All are the instruments of the state in the end. Scientists engage in “pure research” which is applied in novel weapons used by other people. Soldiers lose perspective on the moral issues that their role exposes them to under the veil of “just following orders.” Police “fight crime,” and crime turns out to include homosexuality, abortion, or growing your own marijuana to control your appetite loss or just because you prefer it to alcohol. Eventually it becomes criminal to express a political opinion contrary to the opinions of the State power apparatus.

    Tyranny has always been dependent on the willingness of the drafted or volunteer soldier do evil. 1984 is about how people are turned into machines by the state, and the ones who remain people are broken. It is about the mass manufacture of hate as a route to social control. But we have moved beyond this old vision of tyranny, of turning a person into a machine and then sending them to do a machine’s job.

    I do not believe that the evil inherent in designing and manufacturing a robot for oppression is direct enough to act as a brake on the will of tyrants in the same way that the difficulties of mobilizing a population to do evil has acted as a brake in the past. As long as there are enough workers for the automated factories that produce the combat robots, the tools will exist to enforce inhuman policies. There is little need for the mass creation of hate to persuade the population to kill: it will no longer require the active consent of the governed to maintain tyranny. What was once the work of deluded, brutal or evil people will have been automated.

    Consider how surveillance, once the work of human spies and informants, has been increasingly automated over time. First it was monitoring by bugging the phone lines, then by CCTV cameras, then by listening to the internet to see what people read and say to each other, and now your position, location and other data are constantly relayed by your cell phone to companies which may well share that data with the government. The telecom companies were rendered immune because they broke the law on privacy, not because they stood up for your rights against government spying. Increasingly not only the intelligence gathering but the filtering and analysis are conducted by ever more sophisticated machines.

    Turned inwards, the possibility for enforcing control on the population is greater than anything George Orwell ever imagined. If you just take a look at the world for a moment, as it sprouts endless eyes and ears, and the governments assert their right to look at anything a machine sees, to hear anything a machine hears, consider how backwards 1984 seems. Back in quaint old 1984 the government did not use your own cell phone as a bug to listen to the room you are in at any time it pleases, whether or not your phone appears to be turned off. It did not trace your social networks. It did not listen to your voice on the line looking for stress and special words. It did not have machines to think for it. As technology accelerates past the 1984 vision, the need to turn people into machines to enforce tyranny grows less: now one can send a machine to do a machine’s job, rather than a person. This, Orwell did not predict. His Big Brother worked through human agency. The Big Brother I fear is largely run using machines.

    First surveillance, and now enforcement, are being automated.

    Imagine this same kind of technological progression in enforcement that we have seen in surveillance. First the robots operate by remote control, then they become increasingly capable of autonomous action, until finally centralized policy changes are rapidly implemented by a network of machines which do what they are told so that you will do what you are told. Automated enforcement of obedience to the will of the state will follow automated monitoring of those persons of interest to the State. First the eyes and ears were automated, and soon the fists and feet and guns.

    Some may say that it cannot be done. I say it must not be done. It can be done, and therefore we must choose not do follow this path that we are on to its logical end: extinguishing freedom using technology in the name of security and control. The combat robots operating in Iraq today are remote controlled vehicles with weapons. The next generations may well phone home to command centers with human operators for a lot of judgement calls, but be generally autonomous at a reflexive level. A riot control robot need not be terribly sophisticated: mace, net and ID anybody who enters this area. It is so much easier than that if lethal force is authorized. From policy to enforcement with minimal human frailty (including mercy) in the loop is the goal, nothing more, and nothing less. Protect the troops, indeed, from both the hazards of combat, and to direct exposure to the psychological consequences of their actions. Direct rule from decision to implementation without giving the fragile human element a critical role.

    The point of a combat robot is to send a machine to do the killing, not a man who has been trained to act like a machine. Once there are automated armies, the requirement to get the consent of volunteer soldiers or the consent of a population to submit to a draft will be gone, and politicians will be able to make war at any time their treasury can pay for the hardware. It will no longer be necessary to lie to the population to stir up their emotions to fight a war, only to tax their docile acceptance a little more to pay for spare parts. The domestic human cost of war will have become essentially zero. If it stopped here, that would be bad enough. What politician could be trusted with such power?

    But tell me, how good does a combat robot have to be to kick in your door, spray the house with mace, and hit anything that coughs with a taser until it stops moving and can be encased in spray webbing for later pickup and processing? How goes does a robot have to be to detain anybody who smells like pot? How good does a robot have to be to break up a political demonstration?

    Not that good. If a robot is good enough to fight wars, its good enough to do political policing. It might not solve crimes, but it can bust heads that protest and capture people who’s position is known and who have been identified as enemies of the state.

    We have one generation to stop these technologies being developed, proven and deployed. Once they have been shown to work, liberty is lost until we find radically new approaches to getting free from the people who control the state, our leaders.

    One generation. Our generation.

    We stand at a critical threshold of history: will we accept autonomous fighting machines into our lives, or will we resist their creation at all costs, as we could have and should have resisted the nuclear bomb given the opportunity.

    Combat robotics must be stopped before it has really started, because once the politicians have these tools, they will not give them up, any more than they were willing to give up nuclear weapons once they had been tested. We must not continue to let them get these technologies into the field, because once combat robotics has been proven to work in putting down rebellions, the terminal check on the power of centralized governments will be gone. This is the big one.

    Get moving. The time to act is now. We must find solidity and unity in our stand on human rights, on civil liberties as the heart of the American state. We must face the big issue: technological support for dictatorship, and the automation of surveillance and soon enforcement.

    We must act before technology makes slaves of all of us.

    If the technological ability to defeat armed populations like those in Iraq is developed and placed into the hands of the current incumbent governments and power groups, the same processes that gave rise to a free revolutionary America will no longer operate, and there will be no more stands to be made against the Empire. Those who stand will be ceaselessly and cheaply cut down by replaceable robot warriors manufactured far from the fray, operated from bunkers, and deployed far away from TV cameras. There will be little or no home front pressure to stop unjust and unnecessary wars because only the blood of the enemy will be shed in armed conflicts. The human cost of war will be borne entirely by the underdog, and therefore the underdogs will have lost their primary means of making the incumbent power groups change course. The risk that the underdogs will develop basement biological weapons to exact civilian reprisals on the population that theoretically owns the government which is killing them by remote control seems entirely real: desperate men do desperate things, and the kind of full-spectrum dominance, with tanks that can come right into your living room and kill you while their operators sit behind consoles a thousand miles away is not going to go unanswered indefinitely. What can be hit will be hit, and only the civilian population at home remains vulnerable in this model of war.

    So here is my conclusion.

    Developing robotic combat capabilities will have three effects. Firstly, it will enable governments to successfully fight insurgencies abroad. The insurgencies will probably not stop, but the drain in lives lost will stop, and increasing automation will tie up fewer and fewer human resources in maintaining those wars. This will lead to political irresponsibility and callousness, as only the other side die in these wars.

    Secondly, those combat robotics capabilities are very similar technologically to the capabilities required to control and oppress the domestic population – American citizens. By effectively removing the Second Amendment, these technologies will break the Constitutional balance of power between the population and the government permanently. It is therefore unconstitutional to develop them, and furthermore, recent events have clearly shown us that once the technological capability to do something like bug every phone call made by the population exists, it will inevitably be made legal and used. Why would we expect this not to be the case with combat robotics? To develop these combat robots and place them under political control simply invites fascism.

    Finally, use of these technologies in foreign wars will force those who wish to do battle with the US for their political autonomy to strike at the US civilian population, as there will be no effective way of combatting US foreign policy in the field. No matter how many robots are destroyed, US foreign policy will not be moderated because nobody cares about robots. The rising deathtoll in Iraq influences the policy discussion about Iraq – this is one of the forces pushing robots forwards: it enables bad policy to continue to be dominant in the debate by reducing the American death toll from those bad decisions. But the natural countermove to being faced with a robotic military is to strike at vulnerable civilian targets behind it to make it completely clear that whatever political decision is being implemented using combat robots is not going to cost only the blood of the oppressed.

    In short, combat robotics do not achieve any of the fundamental goals of the US military. Combat robotics will very likely destabilize the current global order in a way which imperils the already-battered Constitution, and eventually exposes the US population to devastating reprisals from groups who are otherwise unable to make their voices heard above the din of automated war.

    Note that none of this addresses wars with governments. The US capability to win wars with small governments is very strong. With large, nuclear governments, war remains unthinkable. This is a good equilibrium. What is being discussed in the development of combat robots is wars against armed citizens of whatever nation or political persuasion. What is being discussed is the effect of combat robots on the balance of power referred to by the Second Amendment. Robots for fighting governments are one thing – the cruise missile is a good example of such a device. Robots for fighting civilian militias are quite another, and fortunately those robots are not very advanced yet.

    The case that I am making is that these anti-Second Amendment weapons, once developed, will open up a worse new era. The development of the nuclear bomb permanently lifted the specter of an occupied America under foreign powers – and replaced it with the specter of a dead planet, smoldering in the radioactive glow of a final conflict which exterminated the human race in the name of freedom, peace and security. It was a bad move to put that option on the table. The human race survived long enough to find a stable plateaux that we call MAD with good reason, but history appears to be littered with much more probable and fatal outcomes to the introduction of nuclear weapons. The current equilibrium appears to have involved a lot of luck and sudden good judgement to arrive at, and it is not stable as the political and technological situation continues to change.

    Do we want to start another arms race, but this time between armed civilian populations and governments? I think the answer is a resounding no.

    Creating soldiers which cannot be killed simply forces those who oppose empire to hit civilian targets. This is not an equilibrium that any sane government would wish to move towards, any more than a sane government would want MAD given any alternative. But, like MAD, each step on the path towards a “combat robots vs. WMD terrorism” equilibrium looks rational and provides a short-term benefit. We are dealing with a “ratchet” – an evolutionary arms race between competing parties which, in this case, results in an equilibrium which is worse for all parties than staying at the previous plateaux. There is likely no scenario in which the development of effective combat robots or torture rays results in a better world for anybody never mind a better world for everybody. There is likely no plateaux nearly as stable as MAD at the end of this ratchet, and even MAD continues to grow less stable as nuclear weapons continue to proliferate. A MAD relationship between governments, and populations seeded with retaliatory bioweapons capability is never going to be stable, and the alternative is the rampant growth of unchecked government power, free from the counterbalance of armed civilian militias.

    Do we really want to make WMD capability the precondition for effective civilian militia activity? If the answer is no, combat robotics must be taken off the table.

    The only way to avoid the ratchet which leads to WMD-based civilian reprisals for using combat robots in the field is to forgo the ability to defeat armed civilians in occupations and insurgencies.

    The Second Amendment reflects a good balance of power for both sides: governments retain the monopoly on government-vs.-government war, on planes and bombs and especially on nuclear weapons. The people, of whatever nation, retain the ability to make an occupation unworkable by picking off enemy soldiers until no more come because the political will of the opposing population is broken. This is a game theoretical equilibrium that everybody can live with: governments fight governments, but when governments fight the people, they lose enough blood to eventually stop, leaving the population that they were attempting to oppress free to determine its own future for better – or for worse. This equilibrium is good and should be preserved. The break in this equilibrium is genocide, where wholesale slaughter of civilians is implemented using military weapons. Hopefully the international community can keep taking this option of the the table, although efforts in this direction have been lackadaisical at best in the past. But combat robots are going to make that problem worse, not better.

    By globally respecting the right to self-defense recognized in America as the Second Amendment we can avoid an entire set of grossly negative and destructive futures. The limit of government power, at home or abroad, is the reach of the rifles of the civilian population, defending their homes, their values and their futures.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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