digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

Interview Noah Shachtman


A contributing editor at Wired, Shachtman writes about the intersection of technology and national security. He blogs at Danger Room. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 5, 2009.

It feels like we're in the middle of almost a revolution in terms of how the military is embracing digital technology.

I think the military has always been interested in what the next technology is, whether it was missiles back in the '60s or digital gadgetry today.

“Until they've got a video game that can replicate your beating heart, the smell, sounds, sense of distance in war -- war and a video game is not at all the same thing.”

It's not just a single crossroads, but there's a constant series of crossroads, one after the other after the other, and each one is coming quicker than the next.

We're also in an odd time. It used to be that if you wanted the latest in high-tech advances, you'd go to the government first. You'd go to the space program, let's say. But now the military is looking more and more to the commercial world, to Apple and to Microsoft, for its innovations. So in a way, the sort of polarity of all this is flipped. ...

For example, I was at a base in the Middle East recently, and there's a group of Air Force targeteers, they're called, guys who pick out targets to hit in Afghanistan or in Iraq, and they were using a giant Google Earth database to do so. So it's them using commercial technology for a very specific military objective. ...

How much of it do you think is about this digital generation that's coming of age and is joining the ranks? ...

The military understands that if it can't get geeky, can't embrace today's digital youth, they are never going to recruit the kind of soldiers and airmen and Marines that they need to have for the next century. So whether we're talking about drones which are controlled by Xbox controllers or about the Pentagon backing off and now allowing troops to use Facebook or MySpace or what have you, there's a real attempt to try to meet these digital youths, this millennial generation, where they're at.

Has there been tension with leadership, especially the older generations?

Absolutely. There's a lot of older-generation officers who don't understand why a young soldier might want to stay in touch with his family day after day. After all, in Vietnam or Korea or World War II, they maybe only got letters home once every couple of weeks.

So there is a digital generation gap, but the military is working hard to try to correct that. Even when I've been in really remote outposts miles and miles away from anything that looks like suburban civilization, there's almost always some kind of network connection. ...

What are they doing? What have you seen?

There's every kind of way you can think. At every big base in Iraq or Afghanistan there are these phone centers where people can call back home as if it was a free phone call down the street. There's tons and tons of computers at these big bases, and at every single one of these computers there's soldiers or Marines on MySpace or Facebook or Twitter. And then in the more isolated outposts, even there you see one of the four or five computers they have, [it] might be used for the public Internet so that folks can write back home.

Have you seen Skype?

Sure. They use Skype all the time to communicate. Soldiers will even sometimes buy their own satellite dishes, rent their own satellite Internet time, just so they can get on MySpace or so they can play a game like World of Warcraft with their friends back home.

Do you think that this ability they have to remain connected ... makes it difficult for them to leave home completely? It makes them more homesick in a way?

I don't know if it makes them more homesick necessarily, but what it does do is it makes it really difficult. There's a difficult censorship game that goes on, right? These soldiers and these troops are constantly connected to their loved ones back home, but they really don't want to tell their loved ones how much danger they're in. Or, on the other hand, sometimes these guys aren't in much danger at all, and they want to brag -- (laughs) -- to their girlfriends back home about just how tough they are. So there's a really delicate balance that these guys have. They want to be connected, but they don't always want to be truthful.

Is it fair to say the military is somehow capitalizing on the immense popularity and success of video games?

The military is absolutely capitalizing on it. There's a game called America's Army that was developed out of West Point, and it's been used blatantly as a recruiting tool to draw teenage kids in to make the Army look cool and to make it look bloodless. ... It's a shoot-'em-up game where there's never any blood. ...

[When] you think about all the money that's been poured into commercials and recruiters and recruiting stations, actually developing a video game for a couple million bucks is kind of cheap. And the folks I've talked to said it's very successful.

It's also interesting, too, because video games have become an R&R tool to soldiers that are deployed in the field. So at these big bases, you'll often see soldiers who go out on patrol during the day and then at night will come back to the base and play war games.

What do you make of that? ...

Real war today -- especially in a counterinsurgency kind of operation that we're in, in either Afghanistan or Iraq -- real war can be boring. You can just sit around all day. Or you can go through a market and have a lot of inconclusive conversations with people who really don't want to talk to you at all. It's kind of boring; it's kind of frustrating, whereas a shoot-'em-up game, well, then you get to be a hero every second. And it's fun, and it's lively, and you get to shoot your weapon. ...

Are they aware of that? Have you heard them talk about that? Is it blowing off steam in some way, a pent-up need to fire?

No, I just think if you're 19 years old, that's how you have fun. Even in the most remote outposts, all these 19-, 20-year-old young soldiers bring their laptops with them. They watch movies on them, and they watch the [Dave] Chappelle show, and they trade music clips, and they play video games. That's just what they do. ...

I think you saw some of our video shot at the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia. ... What do you make of that place?

It was pretty remarkable, right? It's high tech; it's sleek; it suburban. It's like Chuck E. Cheese run by Uncle Sam, and it really seemed to appeal to young teenagers, which I found really interesting. This was like pre- pre- pre-recruitment. Just plant the seed in their head, and then see what happens a couple years later. So I found it fascinating, I found it amazing, and I found it a little bit disturbing.

What's disturbing about it? ...

I think the idea of luring teenagers in with play to then go do a very serious job, especially post-9/11, or really go to war, there's a fuzzy boundary there. ...

Should we be concerned that kids think that war is going to be like that? ...

I don't think we should underestimate how smart the average kid is that joins the military. And if you're joining the military in 2009, 2010, you are joining it knowing that you are going to war, right? And so the idea that video games might somehow trick a kid into thinking that he's not going to war, well, that's just not going to happen. ... And honestly, a lot of the kids that I meet ... joined the military to go to war -- not to play games, not to do simulated war, but to go to war. ...

You have played games, and you have been to war. Is it at all like a video game?

No part of war is like a video game. Not even the part of war that involves a lot of glowing plasma screens is in any way like a video game. War can be slow; war can be deliberate; war can be boring; and war can have very serious consequences. None of that is true about a video game.

Even the parts of war that would seem the most video game-esque -- controlling a drone, remotely operating a heavy weapon, doing some surveillance -- even those things are so plodding and so deliberate, and the consequences are so great, that they're really nothing like a video game whatsoever. ...

Until they've got a video game that can replicate your beating heart and the smell and the sounds and that sense of distance or lack thereof, war and a video game is not at all the same thing. And that's why I think sometimes it's a little misguided to use digital technology as a way of replicating war. I think it actually sanitizes it in some ways, and it takes away from that visceral feeling that an actual simulation with actual humans does.

Most soldiers, for example, go out to this big desert in California called the National Training Center, and there they have the play-war games, one against the other, and they deal with actual Iraqis and Afghanis and how they're going to interact. A video game doesn't really offer that, even the most sophisticated video game.

We went to Camp Pendleton and trained with Marines who are practicing close-quarters combat -- busting down doors, going into houses, clearing houses. They couldn't have real people 10 feet away as the Marines are busting in and practicing, so they had these big digital screens with these video game characters. And they're responsive, so the Marines could fire and practice, take out the guy with the suicide-bomb vest but don't take out the woman next to him. What do you make of that?

I think that those kind of immersive infantry simulations are useful, but there's no way they're going to replicate the real thing. It's sort of like punching a punching bag instead of actually getting into a boxing ring. Nice, but not the same thing. ...

You played WoW [World of Warcraft], and EverQuest. They're really immersive, seductive virtual worlds, right? It really can suck you in. So why doesn't that extend as far as experience training for war?

Video games can be seductive in a hypnotic kind of way. A lot of times you're doing the same thing over and over and over again, and it kind of gently lulls you into the world. I'm not sure that a war game is quite the same thing, nor am I sure that we want to be hypnotically seduced into a war simulation.

So I don't think that commercial video games are really the equivalent of today's war simulations. I think they're actually trying to do two different things. One is trying to lull you hour after hour into ordering pizza and keeping your hand on the mouse; the other one is really trying to teach you some skills. And I think those two things are very different.

But it feels like so often in the process we're conflating the two. Why do we do that?

Because they look similar? Look, just because a Call of Duty and an immersive simulation and a drone operation out of Creech Air Force Base all involve screens and have some connection to war does not mean all three of those things are the same thing.

I don't know what your experience has been since you've been reporting on the drone pilots at Creech, but mine has been that when you bring it up, people are like: "Oh, God, that's so creepy. So weird. It's just like a video game for them."

I do think it's a little bit creepy. I do think it's a little bit weird that you can pull a trigger in Nevada and have a missile fire in Afghanistan that can kill real people.

Whether that's like a video game is a whole different question, and I don't believe it is. I don't think that it has the same pace as video games. A drone flight can take hours, days to develop. And I do think that the pilots there really have a sense that when they pull that trigger, it's going to have very, very, very real consequences. And obviously no one playing a video game feels that way. ...

[What was it like to watch the drone pilots at Creech?]

When it really hit me that we were actually looking at real people but thousands of miles away was there's a crew that was flying a Reaper -- that's the most heavily armed, most sophisticated drone in the U.S. arsenal -- and ... it was late at night in Afghanistan. And a man got up -- he was sleeping outside in a courtyard -- and he got up to take a leak. And we watched him. And he didn't know we were watching. And then we flew away, and he went back to bed. And that moment, that simple, intimate moment was when it really hit home to me just how weird and sometimes creepy this technology can be. ...

The captains, the colonels, they insist over and over again, when we walk into the GCS [ground control station], when we walk through the turnstile, we're there; we're in theater; we're in Afghanistan. Are they just telling themselves that?

I think an Air Force colonel's definition of being in theater is very different from a Marine captain's definition of being in theater. For an Air Force colonel, that might mean flying overhead. Well, guess what? Flying overhead is not the same thing as actually being there on the ground, sharing some lamb and rice with a village elder or getting shot at by that elder's cousin. It's just not the same thing.

Remember also that the risks are all one-way, both whether the pilot is in the air or whether the pilot is sitting on the ground north of Las Vegas. In today's wars, right now, the pilot gets to do all the shooting and never gets shot at, and that creates a very different attitude than somebody who is both dealing out risk and is accepting risk.

What does it mean for us as a society and our choices about when we go to war, how we go to war?

I think we already see what the consequences of some of these technologies are. Pakistan has made it very clear that they do not want any U.S. ground forces there to help with their insurgency, so instead, we've sent our flying killer robots to assist them instead. ... So it's actually made it easier for us to go to war. And let's not make any mistake about it: We are at war in Pakistan. ...

... Up until now, war has meant you're in danger if you're on the battlefield. We remove that from our side, what are the repercussions?

We've already seen some of the repercussions of removing the danger from one side, right? In the first Gulf War, virtually no Americans got killed by hostile fire, right? I think that that encouraged decision makers in the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to look at it as a fairly easy operation, one that might not cost a lot of American lives. So the lack of danger the first time actually added to danger the second time.

How so?

There wasn't planning for the kind of irregular guerrilla warfare that actually took place. Had there been that kind of planning, had there been that sense of danger to our troops, that we weren't just going to roll through and crush some army and then game over, I think things would have unfolded differently.

... How important are drones to the war in Afghanistan?

Drones are very important to the war in Afghanistan, and every commander on the ground would like to have a drone overhead 24 hours a day. Absolutely. They love the idea of getting that God's-eye [view] of what's going on around them. Right now, even though the number of drones has been tripled in just the last couple of years, still most commanders feel they don't get enough coverage, and they will take all they can get. And the Pentagon is working super hard to get as many drones as possible over there. One top official joked with me recently that we were going to blot out the sun with spy drones. They're hugely important.

How do the guys on the ground talk about them? ... Are they acknowledged?

Drones are very much acknowledged. Manned aircraft are very much acknowledged. Surveillance cameras are very much acknowledged.

I was recently in Helmand province, which is the poppy-growing heart of Afghanistan, and the Marines there were holed up in a schoolhouse -- a bombed-out, shot-up schoolhouse, and the Marines were sleeping on the floor. There was no air conditioning in 130-degree heat, but there was one air-conditioned room where they kept all the computers. They didn't keep the air conditioning on for the people; they kept it on to make sure the computers were cool. ... They had these big, giant plasma screens with drone feeds, images from manned aircraft and other surveillance tools. It is very much the brain of that operation there, the cooled-down, glowing plasma brain of a very dusty, hot, very dangerous operation. ...

Is it important for us to figure out how [the drone pilots] feel about [what they're doing]?

Last January I was in Israel during the war in Gaza, and I was with a drone squadron there. And the pilot, who's a father of three, a religious guy, was very, very open about the incredibly painful choices he was being forced to make. Does he drop the bomb on the school where Hamas is firing its rockets and potentially kill kids, or does he allow Hamas to fire the rocket onto Israeli soil and potentially kill Israeli kids? ... He was honest about the painful choices he had to make. ... I found it very compelling to put a human face on that robotic plane. ...

Did you notice in the time you spent [at Creech] ... any of the psychological toll on the person who has to make those decisions?

I tried really hard to break through that stone wall of military professionalism and stoicism at Creech. I tried over and over again, and I tried with every tool I thought I had in my kit. And I couldn't do it. They very much maintained the attitude of "It's us versus the bad guys; we're doing this to support freedom and to support our soldiers on the ground, and that's what we do."

What I did see was ... the drone pilots at Creech were very honest about how hard this was on their families and them, because they live an hour away from where they work. They have to drive there every day, then spent 12 hours flying over Afghanistan, and then drive back. And they often work these staggered shifts, so maybe they only get three or four hours at home, and then they've got to head right back out there. And so the toll that that takes day after day, month after month, they're very honest about that.

In addition, they call Creech Air Force base the "roach motel," because once you check in, you don't check out. There's such a need for pilots for the UAVs, for these unmanned [aerial] vehicles, that once you are stationed there, you're there, baby, for the next two, three, four -- who knows how many years. And that kind of staggered schedules, long hours, day after day, little sleep … the pilots there were very honest about what a toll that took.

What about the transition? Going from flying over Afghanistan, sitting in that dark room, staring at that screen, and then transitioning out into the harsh Nevada sunlight and being in your subdivision, with your pool and your kids and their homework? ...

The Air Force pilots I talked to didn't talk much about the difficulties of the transition. They said that that long, slow drive home, whatever that is, 50, 60 miles home, that helped them ease into the transition. I'm not 100 percent sure I believe them, but that's what they said.

But to me personally, it's very weird. I talked to one pilot, and he talked about dropping a bomb on a village in Afghanistan one minute, the next minute he's at home giving his daughter blueberry pancakes. Well, to me that's strange. But to him, he was a professional, and this was his job, and he was going to do it. And he seemed sincere on that.

Do you think we're going to start seeing incidences of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in these guys because of some of these psychological tolls that we're talking about?

I think we'll certainly see psychological issues. Certainly there's stress involved in working a staggered schedule, losing sleep, trying to maintain that work-family balance.

I am less sold about the idea of PTSD 4,000 miles away over a screen. I think until the technology allows the experience to become more vivid -- and of course there's no danger involved to them or to their friends -- ... sort of televised, remote, digital PTSD, I don't see that happening quite as much.

How vivid is it compared to your experiences?

Not terribly. It's not terribly vivid. Let's be honest. Most of these operations are at night; it's a black-and-white screen. Oftentimes the way the screens are set up, the way the infrared sensors are set up, the image appears reversed; it appears that white is black and black is white. It's fairly surreal. It's like watching somebody over a surveillance camera. It is not like being there, not yet. ...

I think that watching drone footage is no more visceral than watching surveillance tapes after the fact of some scene. ... Can it be a little visceral? Yes. Can it be intense? Yes. Can it be exciting? Yes. But it's not the same thing, nor will it be for quite some time.

So then why do they keep insisting that it is just like it? Because they do. They did to me. I'm sure they did to you.

I think the Air Force has an interest in insisting that this is just like real life because they want to maintain very high levels of professionalism, and they have, in the fighter pilot and the bomber pilot and the cargo pilot communities, have really installed an ethos of professionalism and no faults. And they don't want that to falter at this crucial moment, when a lot of those pilots are being taken out of the airplane and are being put in these seats in Nevada. They don't want to take away that sense that they have to get their mission accomplished at all costs and they have to have everything right. If they start doing that, if they start letting standards slip, I think they think they can be in real big trouble, so they insist that this is exactly like real life, which of course it's not.

What's at stake? What happens if they slip?

What's at stake is that these drones that they're piloting from thousands of miles away are heavily armed and can kill dozens of people at a moment's notice. What's at stake is that the convoy that they're keeping watch over could get bombed at any moment by insurgents. If they're sort of asleep at the job or not maintaining the highest standard of professionalism, U.S. troops could get killed. Or civilians.

How do they talk to you about civilian casualty? About collateral damage?

At Creech, the pilots I talked to said none of them ever had a problem with civilian casualties. It's hard to ascertain whether that's the case or not.


Because we don't have the tape. We don't know whether that's true or not, because we don't have the tapes of all their operations.

What I did see, spending a long time with them, spending hour after hour, a couple of days with them, is that they do take a lot of care about civilian casualties. It is very much on their mind. But there's no way for them to really tell. ... All they see is the bomb going into that building and it blowing up. They don't necessarily see what happens afterward, so I think it's hard for them to know. They're pretty sure they haven't, but it's hard for them to know.

But they do see what happens afterward. They can watch it. It's BDA -- bomb damage assessment. They see what happens.

I don't think there's a lot of actual BDA going on. I think the bomb damage assessment is fairly crude. That's my experience.

Because of the limitations of the technology?

I think bomb damage assessment is pretty crude because of both the limitations of the technology and also because it's hard to say. If you bring down a roof on someone's head, you can't go in there with a drone and see what happens next. A drone can't dig through the rubble and see what the consequences of that Hellfire missile was. It can't. All they can do is look from overhead, and that's a fairly limited way of doing bomb damage assessment. If we were in a conventional war, and the idea was, "Hey, blow up that missile launcher," drones would do a perfect job doing bomb damage assessment. But we're not. So what they do is limited.

Do you think drones will become conventional war?

Remotely operated warfare is here to stay and I think that we're going to see more and more remotely operated operations, absolutely. Look, in the last few years, the number of drones has absolutely exploded.

And we haven't even gotten into what happens when the number of ground robots really starts to explode. There have been limited numbers now, and they're used in limited cases. But when that first robotic infantryman is given a command to pull the trigger, then things are really going to change.

How far away are we from that?

I'll put it to you this way: You've got a laptop, right? Sometimes that laptop freezes up. Sometimes it shuts off without you touching a button. Sometimes it does crazy things without you touching a button. The question is, are we willing to let a computer with a gun roam free on its own? Are we willing to let those software glitches ... happen on the battlefield? Are we willing to accept those consequences?

... If we're willing to be seen really as kind of Terminator figures to local Afghanis or Iraqis, then we could have robotic infantrymen tomorrow. But if we're not, if what we're trying to do is make a human connection, to win over those populations and not support the insurgency, then they're going to have to wait. But it won't be forever. ...

How do you feel about all this stuff, the direction we're headed in? What are your concerns, if you have any? Where should we stop and think a little bit, and maybe even be a little worried?

I think we want to make sure that we're never making a reckless decision because the technology allows us to do so. And we don't want to fool ourselves that there's no consequences to our decisions to go to war just because our troops might not be in danger. Right now, Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal, [top U.S. and NATO commander] in Afghanistan, has talked about how tactical victories can lead to strategic defeats. Hey, there's some Taliban in a compound? Blow up the compound, problem solved. Well, no. You've upset their friends, their family, and you've made Americans look like a foreign, occupying, heartless power.

I think that goes all the more for robotic operations. I think we've got to be careful that, just because our troops don't get killed, that we don't get deluded into thinking there's no consequences.

Also, just because we have this technology right now doesn't mean other people aren't going to get this technology shortly or already have this technology. Iran already has UAVs; they've flown them over the Iraqi border. China, Russia all have UAVs. Terrorist groups have some UAVs; Hezbollah, for example.

So we've also got to start thinking about what happens when the other side gets it and when the other side doesn't need a suicide bomber, but can just use a robotic bomber, what would happen, right? What would happen if instead of having to take over a jetliner, if you could just fly that jetliner by remote control into the World Trade Centers? How much easier would that have been? ...

Would you say some of the most cutting-edge active innovations and uses of digital technology are coming out of the military?

The military can be very creative in how they use digital technologies, extremely creative. But they don't have a monopoly on it, right? ... The fact that a lot of innovation comes out of the commercial sector and a lot of innovation comes out of the military sector can really play with soldiers' expectations.

For example, soldiers used to carry around a cell phone, being able to call anyone he wants to at anytime, right? But the military radios that would enable [them to do the] same thing don't exist. You can't pick up a radio and call anybody else in the military. It doesn't work like that. There's no cell towers in Afghanistan for you to just pick up the phone and call everybody.

So, for example, there's a program called Land Warrior, which basically gives a soldier a radio, and a digital monocle where he's got a map of where he is and where all his buddies are. It is basically no more sophisticated -- in fact quite a bit less sophisticated -- than what you've got on your Blackberry and on your iPhone, except this thing weighs eight pounds. And so soldiers rightly say: "Hey, what the hell? I've got an iPhone. Why do I have to carry around this piece of junk?" Well, the answer is, there's no cell phones in Afghanistan, and your iPhone, if it falls and breaks, no big deal, but if this thing falls and breaks, it's a really big deal, like $10,000 or $20,000 big deal.

Also, if someone grabs your iPhone and gets the numbers off your iPhone, maybe it's a personal tragedy, but it's not a national emergency. Someone hacks into a military radio, well, then a lot of people's lives can be at stake. So there's a divergence.

To go back to Creech, did you find that the younger sensors -- they are largely younger -- did you notice that kind of digital proficiency in them? ...

It's interesting -- the younger the soldier or airman is, the better they are at this technology, right? So whether that's operating a remote sensor or whether that's participating in seven different chat rooms simultaneously, they've just got a level of comfort that the older guys just don't have. And, you know, they're digital natives, and the other ones are digital immigrants.

And I think that's going to change the expectations about the amount of data that can be thrown at one soldier or one airman at a time. There used to be this talk about information overload. I think these kids are kind of wired a little bit differently than us, so their threshold for information overload is a lot different than ours.

Do you think the military is recognizing that and embracing that?

I think some are. I think it's difficult to know exactly where that threshold is, because it keeps changing, and because the military has to make things standard for wide groups of people instead of just for a small, limited number.

What will be interesting is, will they change their recruiting standards? Do you need to do 100 pushups if your job is to sit on your butt all day and program or watch a camera from 4,000 miles away? Do you necessarily need the same skills? Maybe you just need to be a good hacker and have a big butt -- (laughs) -- so you can sit in a chair all day. Maybe those skills are actually more apt.

Is the military wrestling with that? Have they kind of addressed it, do you think?

There's been a lot of talk in the military -- the military is setting up a new cybercommand? I don't think anyone knows what that actually means yet. But they do have a sense that the recruiting standards into that cybercommand might have to be different than the recruiting standards into, let's say, the Marines. ...

We've heard of people talking about the military lifting straight from commercial video-gaming controllers.

The military is absolutely taking straight from commercial video gaming. They've used Xbox controllers and repurposed them to control small drones or small ground robots. That's just one example. They've used the engines for certain shoot-'em-up video games as the engines for their training environments. It's absolutely happening that the military is borrowing from the video-gaming world to build their own technologies.

Why are they doing that?

Because the video-gaming world knows how to appeal to a 17-year-old. Because the video-gaming world has spent tens of millions of dollars to perfect those interfaces. And because the video-gaming world can move faster and smarter than the Pentagon can to develop those technologies. In the Pentagon, it can take two, three years to get a project approved. Well, that's all well and good if you're building an aircraft carrier, but if you're building a new piece of software, that's kind of weak. ...

posted February 2, 2010

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