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Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, The Fog of (Robot) War

By       Message Tom Engelhardt     Permalink
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Last week, William Wan and Peter Finn of the Washington Post reported that at least 50 countries have now purchased or developed pilotless military drones.  Recently, the Chinese had more than two dozen models in some stage of development on display at the Zhuhai Air Show, some of which they are evidently eager to sell to other countries. 

So three cheers for a thoroughly drone-ified world.  In my lifetime, I've repeatedly seen advanced weapons systems or mind-boggling technologies of war hailed as near-utopian paths to victory and future peace (just as the atomic bomb was soon after my birth). Include in that the Vietnam-era, "electronic battlefield," President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"), the "smart bombs" and smart missiles of the first Gulf War, and in the twenty-first century,"netcentric warfare," that Rumsfeldian high-tech favorite.

You know the results of this sort of magical thinking about wonder weapons (or technologies) just as well as I do. The atomic bomb led to an almost half-century-long nuclear superpower standoff/nightmare, to nuclear proliferation, and so to the possibility that someday even terrorists might possess such weapons. The electronic battlefield was incapable of staving off defeat in Vietnam. Reagan's "impermeable" anti-missile shield in space never came even faintly close to making it into the heavens. Those "smart bombs" of the Gulf War proved remarkably dumb, while the 50 "decapitation" strikes the Bush administration launched against Saddam Hussein's regime on the first day of the 2003 invasion of Iraq took out not a single Iraqi leader, but dozens of civilians. And the history of the netcentric military in Iraq is well known. Its "success" sent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld into retirement and ignominy.

In the same way, robot drones as assassination weapons will prove to be just another weapons system rather than a panacea for American warriors. None of these much-advertised wonder technologies ever turns out to perform as promised, but that fact never stops them, as with drones today, from embedding themselves in our world. From the atomic bomb came a whole nuclear landscape that included the Strategic Air Command, weapons labs, production plants, missile silos, corporate interests, and an enormous world-destroying arsenal (as well as proliferating versions of the same, large and small, across the planet). Nor did the electronic battlefield go away. Quite the opposite -- it came home and entered our everyday world in the form of sensors, cameras, surveillance equipment, and the like, now implanted from our borders to our cities.

Rarely do wonder weapons or wonder technologies disappoint enough to disappear.  And those latest wonders, missile- and bomb-armed drones, are now multiplying like so many electronic rabbits.  And yet there is always hope.  Back in 1997, Barbara Ehrenreich went after the human attraction to violence in her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.  In it, among other brilliant insights, she traced the beginnings of our modern blood rites not to Man, the Aggressor, but to human beings, the prey (in a dangerous early world of predators).  Now, in an updated, adapted version of an afterword she did for the British edition of that book, she turns from the origins of war to its end point, suggesting in her usual provocative way that drones and other warrior robotics may, in the end, do us one strange favor: they may finally bring home to us that war is not a human possession, that it is not what we are and must be. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Ehrenreich discusses the nature of war and how to fight against it, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

War Without Humans 
Modern Blood Rites Revisited 
By Barbara Ehrenreich

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For a book about the all-too-human "passions of war," my 1997 work Blood Rites ended on a strangely inhuman note: I suggested that, whatever distinctly human qualities war calls upon -- honor, courage, solidarity, cruelty, and so forth -- it might be useful to stop thinking of war in exclusively human terms.  After all, certain species of ants wage war and computers can simulate "wars" that play themselves out on-screen without any human involvement.

More generally, then, we should define war as a self-replicating pattern of activity that may or may not require human participation. In the human case, we know it is capable of spreading geographically and evolving rapidly over time -- qualities that, as I suggested somewhat fancifully, make war a metaphorical successor to the predatory animals that shaped humans into fighters in the first place.

A decade and a half later, these musings do not seem quite so airy and abstract anymore. The trend, at the close of the twentieth century, still seemed to be one of ever more massive human involvement in war -- from armies containing tens of thousands in the sixteenth century, to hundreds of thousands in the nineteenth, and eventually millions in the twentieth century world wars.

It was the ascending scale of war that originally called forth the existence of the nation-state as an administrative unit capable of maintaining mass armies and the infrastructure -- for taxation, weapons manufacture, transport, etc. -- that they require. War has been, and we still expect it to be, the most massive collective project human beings undertake. But it has been evolving quickly in a very different direction, one in which human beings have a much smaller role to play.

One factor driving this change has been the emergence of a new kind of enemy, so-called "non-state actors," meaning popular insurgencies and loose transnational networks of fighters, none of which are likely to field large numbers of troops or maintain expensive arsenals of their own. In the face of these new enemies, typified by al-Qaeda, the mass armies of nation-states are highly ineffective, cumbersome to deploy, difficult to maneuver, and from a domestic point of view, overly dependent on a citizenry that is both willing and able to fight, or at least to have their children fight for them.

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Yet just as U.S. military cadets continue, in defiance of military reality, to sport swords on their dress uniforms, our leaders, both military and political, tend to cling to an idea of war as a vast, labor-intensive effort on the order of World War II. Only slowly, and with a reluctance bordering on the phobic, have the leaders of major states begun to grasp the fact that this approach to warfare may soon be obsolete.

Consider the most recent U.S. war with Iraq. According to then-president George W. Bush, the casus belli was the 9/11 terror attacks.  The causal link between that event and our chosen enemy, Iraq, was, however, imperceptible to all but the most dedicated inside-the-Beltway intellectuals. Nineteen men had hijacked airplanes and flown them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center -- 15 of them Saudi Arabians, none of them Iraqis -- and we went to war against... Iraq?

Military history offers no ready precedents for such wildly misaimed retaliation. The closest analogies come from anthropology, which provides plenty of cases of small-scale societies in which the death of any member, for any reason, needs to be "avenged" by an attack on a more or less randomly chosen other tribe or hamlet.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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