When we possess such weaponry, it turns out, there's nothing unnerving or disturbing, apocalyptic or dystopian about it. Today, in the American homeland, not a single smoking drone is in sight.
Now it's the United States whose UAVs are ever more powerfully weaponized. It's the U.S. which is developing a 22-ton tail-less drone 20 times larger than a Predator that can fly at Mach 7 and (theoretically) land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. It's the Pentagon which is planning to increase the funding of drone development by 700% over the next decade.
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."
Such mechanized, long-distance warfare, he also suggests, will breach what respect remains for the laws of war. "Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield," he wrote, "and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing."
Similarly, the ACLU has filed a freedom of information lawsuit against the U.S. government, demanding that it "disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to conduct targeted killings overseas, as well as the ground rules regarding when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and the number of civilian casualties they have caused."
But pay no mind to all this. The arguments may be legally compelling, but not in Washington, which has mounted a half-hearted claim of legitimate "self-defense," but senses that it's already well past the point where legalities matter. The die is cast, the money committed. The momentum for drone war and yet more drone war is overwhelming.
It's a done deal. Drone war is, and will be, us.
A Pilotless Military
If there are zeitgeist moments for products, movie stars, and even politicians, then such moments can exist for weaponry as well. The robotic drone is the Lady Gaga of this Pentagon moment.
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.
The drones -- their use expanding exponentially, with ever newer generations on the drawing boards, and the planes even heading for "the homeland" -- could certainly be considered a demon spawn of modern warfare, or (as is generally the case in the U.S.) a remarkable example of American technological ingenuity, a problem-solver of the first order at a time when few American problems seem capable of solution. Thanks to our technological prowess, it's claimed that we can now kill them, wherever they may be lurking, at absolutely no cost to ourselves, other than the odd malfunctioning drone. Not that even all CIA operatives involved in the drone wars agree with that one. Some of them understand perfectly well that there's a price to be paid.
As it happens, the enthusiasm for drones is as much a fever dream as the one President Bush and his associates offered back in 2002, but it's also distinctly us. In fact, drone warfare fits the America of 2010 tighter than a glove. With its consoles, chat rooms, and "single shooter" death machines, it certainly fits the skills of a generation raised on the computer, Facebook, and video games. That our valorous warriors, their day of battle done, can increasingly leave war behind and head home to the barbecue (or, given American life, the foreclosure) also fits an American mood of the moment.
The Air Force "detachments" that "manage" the drone war from places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada are "detached" from war in a way that even an artillery unit significantly behind the battle lines or an American pilot in an F-16 over Afghanistan (who could, at least, experience engine failure) isn't. If the drone presents the most extreme version thus far of the detachment of human beings from the battlefield (on only one side, of course) and so launches a basic redefinition of what war is all about, it also catches something important about the American way of war.
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.
As a start, with no draft and so no citizen's army, war and the toll it takes is now the professional business of a tiny percentage of Americans (and their families). It occurs thousands of miles away and, in the Bush years, also became a heavily privatized, for-profit activity. As Pratap Chatterjee reported recently, "[E]very US soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by at least one civilian working for a private company. All told, about 239,451 contractors work for the Pentagon in battle zones around the world." And a majority of those contractors aren't even U.S. citizens.
If drones have entered our world as media celebrities, they have done so largely without debate among that detached populace. In a sense, our wars abroad could be thought of as the equivalent of so many drones. We send our troops off and then go home for dinner and put them out of mind. The question is: Have we redefined our detachment as a new version of citizenly valor (and covered it over by a constant drumbeat of "support for our troops")?