America Is Detached From the War
A Pilotless Military
If there are zeitgeist moments for products, movie stars and even politicians, then such moments can exist for weaponry as well. The robotic drone is the Lady Gaga of this Pentagon moment.
It's a moment that could, of course, be presented as an apocalyptic nightmare in the style of the Terminator movies (with the United States as the soul-crushing Skynet), or as a remarkable tale of how "networking technology is expanding a homefront that is increasingly relevant to day-to-day warfare" (as Christopher Drew recently put it in the New York Times). It could be described as the arrival of a dystopian fantasy world of one-way slaughter verging on entertainment, or as the coming of a generation of homegrown video warriors who work "in camouflage uniforms, complete with combat boots, on open floors, with four computer monitors on each desk...and coffee and Red Bull help[ing] them get through the 12-hour shifts." It could be presented as the ultimate in cowardice—the killing of people in a world you know nothing about from thousands of miles away—or (as Col. Mathewson would prefer) a new form of valor.
The drones—their use expanding exponentially, with ever newer generations on the drawing boards and the planes even heading for "the homeland"—could certainly be considered a demon spawn of modern warfare, or (as is generally the case in the United States) a remarkable example of American technological ingenuity, a problem-solver of the first order at a time when few American problems seem capable of solution. Thanks to our technological prowess, it's claimed that we can now kill them, wherever they may be lurking, at absolutely no cost to ourselves, other than the odd malfunctioning drone. Not that even all CIA operatives involved in the drone wars agree with that one. Some of them understand perfectly well that there's a price to be paid.
As it happens, the enthusiasm for drones is as much a fever dream as the one President Bush and his associates offered back in 2002, but it's also distinctly us. In fact, drone warfare fits the America of 2010 tighter than a glove. With its consoles, chat rooms and "single shooter" death machines, it certainly fits the skills of a generation raised on the computer, Facebook and video games. That our valorous warriors, their day of battle done, can increasingly leave war behind and head home to the barbecue (or, given American life, the foreclosure) also fits an American mood of the moment.
The Air Force "detachments" that "manage" the drone war from places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada are "detached" from war in a way that even an artillery unit significantly behind the battle lines or an American pilot in an F-16 over Afghanistan (who could, at least, experience engine failure) isn't. If the drone presents the most extreme version thus far of the detachment of human beings from the battlefield (on only one side, of course) and so launches a basic redefinition of what war is all about, it also catches something important about the American way of war.
After all, while this country garrisons the world, invests its wealth in its military, and fights unending, unwinnable frontier wars and skirmishes, most Americans are remarkably detached from all this. If anything, since Vietnam when an increasingly rebellious citizens' army proved disastrous for Washington's global aims, such detachment has been the goal of American war-making.
As a start, with no draft and so no citizen's army, war and the toll it takes is now the professional business of a tiny percentage of Americans (and their families). It occurs thousands of miles away and, in the Bush years, also became a heavily privatized, for-profit activity. As Pratap Chatterjee reported recently, "Every US soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by at least one civilian working for a private company. All told, about 239,451 contractors work for the Pentagon in battle zones around the world." And a majority of those contractors aren't even US citizens.
If drones have entered our world as media celebrities, they have done so largely without debate among that detached populace. In a sense, our wars abroad could be thought of as the equivalent of so many drones. We send our troops off and then go home for dinner and put them out of mind. The question is: Have we redefined our detachment as a new version of citizenly valor (and covered it over by a constant drumbeat of "support for our troops")?
Under these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that a "pilotless" force should, in turn, develop the sort of contempt for civilians that can be seen in the recent flap over the derogatory comments of Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal and his aides about Obama administration officials.
The Globalization of Death
Maybe what we need is the return of George W. Bush's fever dream from the American oblivion in which it's now interred. He was beyond wrong, of course, when it came to Saddam Hussein and Iraqi drones, but he wasn't completely wrong about the dystopian Drone World to come. There are now reportedly more than forty countries developing versions of those pilotless planes. Earlier this year, the Iranians announced that they were starting up production lines for both armed and unarmed drones. Hezbollah used them against Israel in the 2006 summer war, years after Israel began pioneering their use in targeted killings of Palestinians.
Right now, in what still remains largely a post–cold war arms race of one, the United States is racing to produce ever more advanced drones to fight our wars, with few competitors in sight. In the process, we're also obliterating classic ideas of national sovereignty, and of who can be killed by whom under what circumstances. In the process, we may not just be obliterating enemies, but creating them wherever our drones buzz overhead and our missiles strike.
We are also creating the (il)legal framework for future war on a frontier where we won't long be flying solo. And when the first Iranian, or Russian or Chinese missile-armed drones start knocking off their chosen sets of "terrorists," we won't like it one bit. When the first "suicide drones" appear, we'll like it even less. And if drones with the ability to spray chemical or biological weapons finally do make the scene, we'll be truly unnerved.
In the 1990s, we were said to be in an era of "globalization," which was widely hailed as good news. Now, the United States and its detached populace are pioneering a new era of killing that respects no boundaries, relies on the self-definitions of whoever owns the nearest drone and establishes planetary free-fire zones. It's a nasty combination, this globalization of death.