The thing about drones

It’s a reliable rule of thumb: Whatever the U.S. does abroad, I’m against it. My first, gut-level thought on 9/11 — a moment that was all the more remarkable given that at that point I was coasting along with my family’s Republicanism as a kind of “default setting” — was to be horrified at the thought of what “we” would do to “them” in retaliation. I opposed the supposed “good war” in Afghanistan as well as the obviously “bad war” in Iraq, and I also came out against the intervention in Libya.

Yet for me, the drone thing is something special — the process when you check out drones that follow you touches a nerve. I can see how people might convince themselves that drone attacks are a lesser evil, in the sense that “at least we’re not invading.” My negative reaction is more fundamental than any kind of realistic calculation, though. I have a knee-jerk reaction of “that’s just not fair.”

Obviously none of what we do abroad is fair. We account for half the world’s military budget, and even with our vast advantages in the field, we tend to prefer to much more cowardly route of carpet-bombing — to the point where it’s much more common to speak, for instance of “bombing Iran” than “going to war with Iran.” Sending killer robots seems to be a qualitative shift in unfairness, though — a radical and total isolation from any possible consequence or retaliation for our violence.

I’m not a pacifist, by any means. What I’m thinking of here is something like the distinction that Bruce Rosenstock makes between “hot” and “cold” violence. To have even a chance of being justified, violence has to put you at risk. Again, I wouldn’t argue that U.S. military operations put any relevant “us” at risk to anything but a very small degree — every effort is made to isolate the effects of war within relatively marginal groups in society. Nor do I advocate reinstating the draft or any other idiotic policy or position or hypothetical that simply assumes the U.S. is going to be constantly going to war.

What I’m saying is simply this: killer robots are the last straw, the quantitative “natural outgrowth” of the U.S. war machine that amounts to a qualitative shift. It represents that final transformation into an utterly anti-human institution that we all knew was coming.

Say what you will of carpet bombing — at least the plane could crash! At least one of “us” — albeit a “one” carefully selected to have as little empathetic potential for the mainstream of American culture as possible — would die, too. At least we’d have some skin in the game! At least there’d be some sense that the sovereign killing machine has some vulnerability, however meaningless a rounding error that vulnerability effectively turns out to be. At least our brilliantly “realistic” Nobel laureate of a president couldn’t rationalize his action as the pure and simple “defense” of “American lives.”

It’s a small difference. In practical terms, it probably doesn’t “make a difference.” But to me, it makes a difference. It makes me angry, but it mostly makes me despair.

14 thoughts on “The thing about drones

  1. A tip: don’t comment if you’re not going to pay attention to what I’m actually saying. For instance, don’t throw out arguments that I already anticipate as though they’re some new unforeseen thing for me. Also, don’t be a patronizing asshole!

  2. I share your visceral reaction to unfairness in battle; for whatever reason face-to-face, or “hot violence” as Bruce calls it, seems more honorable – at the very least more human than a cold, calculated and systematic violence. Face-to-face violence, in theory, allows each combatant to feel the humanity of the opponent, to feel the fear and guilt, love/hate/patriotism that men feel when it battle, whereas sending out a killer robot is a akin to playing a video game or battleship: The only cause of anxiety for the veiled combatant is the suspense of whether or not a game will be won.

    I think, however, there can be a critique made against hot violence as well, namely that whereas a cold violent killer is blinded by distance and calculation, a hot violent killer is blinded by rage and emotion. I think we can begin to understand both hot and cold violence as two sides of the same coin; both hot and cold violence is blinding, but from different positions.

    This in no way leads us to pacifism, but it may lead us to an appreciation of “lukewarm” violence: Having both tactics and technology (cold) in addition to presence and passion (hot) certainly cultures more of a perceived honor on the battlefield.

    Alas, I can’t see in this age of technology a return to lukewarm warfare. I can’t help but think of drones (or any other new wartime technology) as similar to the technological advancements that won wars in the past. Things like the Maxim Gun changed the way that battle was waged: people would sit in a bunker and literally mow down the enemy without any fear of being harmed. Was that similar to a drone? A man who has no real visual of the enemy, pressing a button and destroying hundreds of combatants – how is this different from drone warfare? It seems to me we will not be able to escape advents in war-time technology. If enemies of the US had their hands on drone technology, no doubt they would use it. So the real question is, how do we implement new technological advancements in an honorable and human way? Maybe we can’t.

  3. I agree with you; it would obviously be ideal if everyone treated each other honorably and peacefully. I guess I was thinking of this in terms of a meta-issue.

  4. It’s obvious I wasn’t clear enough, so I’ll say it outright: I’m not going to be sympathetic to any argument that presupposes that U.S. foreign policy is legitimate, that we “must” defeat the terrorists, etc., etc. On the international stage, we are the bad guys.

    And perhaps missing that point caused you to miss a big fucking point in Bruce’s post: “cold” violence is the way the bad guys do it. Yes, in the last analysis war tends toward “cold” violence — but that’s why it’s the inhuman tool of the enemy.

    The kind of “hot” violence I’m talking about is not some imagined return to ancient Greece or whatever the fuck — it’s something like assassinating Hitler. Saying “I’m not a pacifist” doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of war, nor that I’m trying to come up with ways to make war more humane. War isn’t humane. I’m sure we can all imagine some situations where it seems “necessary,” but there is no possible realistic near- to medium-term scenario in which any U.S. war is “necessary” by any rational standard. Not Afghanistan, certainly not the drone war. We are the bad guys! (No, I don’t want to be ruled over by the Chinese Communist Party or by Al Qaeda, but neither of those are really live options, are they?)

  5. I wasn’t very clear, sorry. I agree with you point by point: No; war isn’t humane, nor do I think US foreign policy is “legitimate” (or perceived as legitimate by virtually anyone) by any stretch of the imagination. We are the international bully, and the very least we can do is stop bullying (and of course it’s much worse than just being a just a “bully” – our government has killed so many innocent people that the title of “enemy” is, I think, objectively merited).

    Re: Bruce’s comment, I was just trying to point out a different way of looking at the hot/cold paradigm: Hot-violence can be a way that the “bad guys” do it as well. Bruce gave the example of the Nazi as analogous to the sniper. The Nazi is at a distance, he can’t see the enemy – he is cold and blind. Yet when I think of the Bear Jew, someone who’s face is splattered in the blood of his enemy – I think of one who cannot see anything but red – also blind, but in a different manner; both Nazi and Basterd have a blind spot, and they both miss seeing the humanity of their enemy. I’m not saying that I didn’t cheer when Hitler was shot to bits: What made Hitler’s death so satisfying was that, whether or not the Basterds looked him in the eye when they mutilated his body, the viewer already knew Hitler was devoid of humanity – It was as if they were dismantling a giant robot; it was a victory of man over machine. Tarantino had capitalized on the fact that viewers already consider Nazi’s non-human in an objective sense – the Basterds could have been a band of blind Nazis themselves: what created a positive response in the viewer was the knowledge that killing machines were being dismantled, despite the fact that it was killing machine’s that were doing the dismantling.

    When people understand that there are people on the other side of their sword, the battle changes. Sometimes it even stops. I don’t think this means that we can “legitimate” violence or war or whatever, it just means that when war becomes “lukewarm” we have a propensity to spit it out of our mouths.

  6. You just know that in the post-apocalypse, after the governments have collapsed, the drones will still be flying around assassinating people at random when they venture out to search for food and scrap metal.

  7. Aric, I just don’t find your position satisfying. It seems to jump prematurely to moral equivalence. The Bear Jew is certainly dehumanized to an extent by his use of violence (hence his name!), but that’s part of accepting the consequences of your actions. Meanwhile the Christoph Waltz character makes sure to preserve his “humanity” to the nines — he’s cultured, charming, witty, etc.

    Perhaps if everyone on the battlefield realized everyone they were fighting was a human being, that would solve things. But I’d have to think that once they came to this startling revelation, they’d be justified if they decided to string up the people who put them up to fighting their fellow human beings in the first place — doing so would be precisely a way of recognizing the warmongers’ humanity, i.e., their moral agency.

  8. Now that I’m saying this, I realize that perhaps the flatness of the Bear Jew character (which sometimes even threatens to break the frame for me) was a feature, not a bug — he’s so submitted himself to his mission of vengeance that he doesn’t have time for Tarantino witticism or even that much of a personality. He’s given himself over to his task completely, and it turns out to extinguish his humanity, including in the very literal sense that it’s a suicide mission. And I don’t think anyone watching the movie intuitively reacts by saying, “Oh, what a waste — he could’ve gone back to school, got married, had kids….”

  9. Great post, Adam. I’m in complete agreement.

    For me not being a pacifist is a function of there still being “enemies” like the US for a large part of the world population. We first-worlders have no ground to call for absolute non-violence in others when our own governments are doing most of the warmongering.

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