The Wall Street Journal had an interesting review of the book, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel, a while back. It is a history of the world’s first machine gun. Interestingly, although the gun was patented during the Civil War and Mr. Gatling urged the Union Army to adopt it—arguing that it would "save lives, wounds and sickness, by lessening the numbers subjected to the perils of war"—nobody listened. It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War in 1898—almost 40 years after its invention—that it was first deployed.
This little lesson in history is directly applicable to a new, modern weapon—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained that the Air Force was not adopting the use of UAVs—also known as drones—fast enough. He further argued that the Air Force generals who weren’t adopting the technology were unnecessarily putting airman’s lives at risk.
Gates is right. UAV’s can now fly for hours over enemy territory and, if necessary, deploy an assortment of weapons. Perhaps it is time that a great many Air Force generals who learned the importance of using fighters and bombers to engage and suppress the enemy now “unlearn” that behavior. The sooner they do, the fewer American lives the military will unnecessarily put at risk.
(Note: As a former military officer, I would like to add that I hope society will eventually unlearn war as a means of conflict resolution altogether, but until such time as an enlightened policy is achieved I think it prudent to work towards policies that prevent, reduce and minimize such conflicts.)