Another essential piece from Tom Engelhardt, regarding America’s ever-increasing distraction and detachment from the moral and political consequences of its own policies and actions. Here, Engelhardt goes into more depth regarding America’s continued pursuit of completely robot-ized warfare, its effects and the questions it raises about our own society. It is interesting to think how Americans would react if any other country on planet earth would give itself the right to patrol robots around the U.S., ones which could at anytime unleash a barrage of firepower, often killing scores of people, many of them guilty of nothing.
According to “new intelligence,” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had in his possession unmanned aerial vehicles advanced enough to be armed with biological and chemical weaponry. Worse yet, these were capable — so the CIA director and vice president claimed — of spraying those weapons of mass destruction over cities on the east coast of the United States. It was just the sort of evil plan you might have expected from a man regularly compared to Adolf Hitler in our media, and the news evidently made an impression in Congress.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because “I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.”
So where are you now, Senator Nelson, now that this threat of total destruction is actually being manifested? However, the specter of devastation is not coming to pass through the machinations of some mustacheod dictator, but by the regimes of corporate power, such as BP. If some terrorist group was actually able to cause the amount of total destruction the lives and well-being of as many Americans that BP’s reckless actions are causing (and going to cause), the country would be shrieking for vengeance and retribution.
Yet, when spraying mass toxins, spreading death and destruction to whole regions of the country, killing off entire ways of life, are the result of the incessant pursuit of corporate profit, and the satiation of an unsustainable way of life in our society, no one openly proposes any real ‘regime change’ and the shutting of such operations down. This is especially true when these entities are some of these same policy makers most lucrative campaign contributors. And now we have a totalitarian-style blackout of any and all information coming from the Gulf region, and our compliant media doesn’t question it. We are truly reaching some serious day of reckoning in this nation (and on this planet).
Of course, like Saddam’s supposed ability to produce “ mushroom clouds ” over American cities, the Iraqi autocrat’s advanced UAVs (along with the ships needed to position them off the U.S. coast) were a feverish fantasy of the Bush era and would soon enough be forgotten. Instead, in the years to come, it would be American pilotless drones that would repeatedly attack Iraqi urban areas with Hellfire missiles and bombs.
“We’re talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare”; or as Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command told author Peter Singer, speaking of the glories of drones: “They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.”
Admittedly, there is a modest counter-narrative to all this enthusiasm for our robotic prowess, “precision,” and “valor.” It involves legal types like Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions. He recently issued a 29-page report criticizing Washington’s “ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe.” Unless limits are put on such claims, and especially on the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan, he suggests, soon enough a plethora of states will follow in America’s footprints, attacking people in other lands “labeled as terrorists by one group or another.”
It’s a moment that could, of course, be presented as an apocalyptic nightmare in the style of the Terminator movies (with the U.S. 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.
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.
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 U.S. 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.
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