This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Remotely Piloted War
How Drone War Became The American Way of Life
By Tom Engelhardt
In the American mind, if Apple made weapons, they would undoubtedly be drones, those remotely piloted planes getting such great press here. They have generally been greeted as if they were the sleekest of iPhones armed with missiles.
When the first American drone assassins burst onto the global stage early in the last decade, they caught most of us by surprise, especially because they seemed to come out of nowhere or from some wild sci-fi novel. Ever since, they've been touted in the media as the shiniest presents under the American Christmas tree of war, the perfect weapons to solve our problems when it comes to evildoers lurking in the global badlands.
Here's the thing, though: put drones in a more familiar context, skip the awestruck commentary, and they should have been eerily familiar. If, for instance, they were car factories, they would seem so much less exotic to us.
Think about it: What does a drone do? Like a modern car factory, it replaces a pilot, a skilled job that takes significant training, with robotics and a degraded version of the same job outsourced elsewhere. In this case, the "offshore" location that job headed for wasn't China or Mexico, but a military base in the U.S., where a guy with a joystick, trained in a hurry and sitting at a computer monitor, is "piloting" that plane. And given our experience with the hemorrhaging of good jobs from the U.S., who will be surprised to discover that, in 2011, the U.S. Air Force was already training more drone "pilots" than actual fighter and bomber pilots combined?
That's one way drones are something other than the futuristic sci-fi wonders we imagine them to be. But there's another way that drones have been heading for the American "homeland" for four decades, and it has next to nothing to do with technology, advanced or otherwise.
In a sense, drone war might be thought of as the most natural form of war for the All Volunteer Military. To understand why that's so, we need to head back to a crucial decision implemented just as the Vietnam war was ending.
Disarming the Amateurs, Demobilizing the Citizenry
It's true that, in the wake of grinding wars that have also been debacles -- the Afghan version of which has entered its 11th year -- the U.S. military is in ratty shape. Its equipment needs refurbishing and its troops are worn down. The stress of endlessly repeated tours of duty in war zones, brain injuries and other wounds caused by the roadside bombs that have often replaced a visible enemy on the "battlefield," suicide rates that can't be staunched, rising sexual violence within the military, increasing crime rates around military bases, and all the other strains and pains of unending war have taken their toll.
Still, ours remains an intact, unrebellious, professional military. If you really want to see a force on its last legs, you need to leave the post-9/11 years behind and go back to the Vietnam era. In 1971, in Armed Forces Journal, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., author of a definitive history of the Marine Corps, wrote of "widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army's Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies [of Russia] in 1916 and 1917."
The U.S. military in Vietnam and at bases in the U.S. and around world was essentially at the edge of rebellion. Disaffection with an increasingly unpopular war on the Asian mainland, rejected by ever more Americans and emphatically protested at home, had infected the military, which was, after all, made up significantly of draftees.
Desertion rates were rising, as was drug use. In the field, "search and evade" (a mocking, descriptive accurate replacement for "search and destroy") operations were becoming commonplace. "Fraggings" -- attacks on unpopular officers or NCOs -- had doubled. ("Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.") And according to Col. Heinl, there were then as many as 144 antiwar "underground newspapers" published by or aimed at soldiers. At the moment when he wrote, in fact, the antiwar movement in the U.S. was being spearheaded by a rising tide of disaffected Vietnam veterans speaking out against their war and the way they had fought it.
In this fashion, an American citizen's army, a draft military, had reached its limits and was voting with its feet against an imperial war. This was democracy in action transferred to the battlefield and the military base. And it was deeply disturbing to the U.S. high command, which had, by then, lost faith in the future possibilities of a draft army. In fact, faced with ever more ill-disciplined troops, the military's top commanders had clearly concluded: never again!
So on the very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, officially signaling the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (though not quite its actual end), President Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, as it had been practiced since World War II, had lost its hold on young minds.