This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
An unremarkable paragraph in a piece in my hometown paper recently caught my eye. It was headlined “White House Believes Karzai Will Be Re-elected,” but in mid-report Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times turned to Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s “redeployment option.” Here’s the humdrum paragraph in question: “The redeployment option calls for moving troops from sparsely populated and lawless areas of the countryside to urban areas, including Kandahar and Kabul. Many rural areas ‘would be better left to Predators,’ said an administration official, referring to drone aircraft.”
In other words, the United States may now be represented in the Afghan countryside, as it already is in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border, mainly by Predators and their even more powerful cousins, Reapers, unmanned aerial vehicles with names straight out of a sci-fi film about implacable aliens. If you happen to be an Afghan villager in some underpopulated part of that country where the US has set up small bases–two of which were almost overrun recently–they will be gone and “America” will instead be soaring overhead. We’re talking about planes without human beings in them tirelessly scanning the ground with their cameras for up to twenty-two hours at a stretch. Launched from Afghanistan but flown by pilots thousands of miles away in the American West, they are armed with two to four Hellfire missiles or the equivalent in 500-pound bombs.
To see Earth from the heavens, that’s the classic viewpoint of the superior being or god with the ultimate power of life and death. Zeus, that Greek god of gods, used lightning bolts to strike down humans who offended him. We use missiles and bombs. Zeus had the knowledge of a god. We have “intelligence,” often fallible (or score-settling). His weapon of choice destroyed one individual. Ours take out anyone in the vicinity.
He made his decisions from Mount Olympus; we make ours from places like Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, and Davis- Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. Those about whom we make life-and-death decisions, as they scurry below or carry on as best they can, have–like any beings faced with the gods–no recourse or appeal. Seen on screens, they are, to us, distant, grainy figures, hardly larger than ants. This is what implacable means.
Soothing the Children
And none of this strikes us as strange. Quite the opposite, it represents reasonable policy. Comments like the one quoted above are now commonplace. In the Washington Post, for instance, Rajiv Chandrasekaran recently recorded the thoughts of an anonymous US officer in Afghanistan: “If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, he concluded, the overall US effort to stabilize Kandahar–and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan–will fail. ‘We might as well pack our bags and go home…and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the Al Qaeda guys who return.'”