Uncle Sam wants you

This morning when I checked my Twitter tab I found this tweet by Jason Pontin, editor of MIT Technology Review magazine:

What excites the indignation of people who hate drones: the remoteness of the operator, and the asymmetry in power.

He was referring to the pilotless drone aircraft used by the U.S. administration to assassinate various perceived or presumed enemies in places like Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia. The program began in the Bush administration and has escalated dramatically in the Obama administration; the total number of assassination missions will likely be in the thousands by now.

I felt moved to respond to Mr. Pontin’s tweet:

@jason_pontin Plus some people are irked by murder and by the slaughter of bystanders.

He tweeted back:

@PaulVitols But drones kill so fewer bystanders than bombers or cruise missiles, or anything else we have.

I responded:

@jason_pontin The real problem is the lack of a war or of any judicial process. We can make killing convenient, but we can’t make it right.

And to this he replied:

@PaulVitols Ah. Well, if you want to object to the President’s war powers, that’s a 60-year expansion, and I can’t help you.

If these drone strikes are regarded as acts of war, it raises the question of what war is—and War is one of the Great Ideas, which means that its nature and definition are controversial. Arnold J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, argues that the nature of war has changed in modern times. As recently as the 18th century, war was still “the sport of kings,” conducted at the pleasure and expense of princes through the agency of professional troops who had relatively little to do with civilians. Battles were set-pieces conducted in open country. But by the end of the 18th century that was already starting to change. Under the emerging idea of nationalism war burst the bounds previously set for it and drew in everyone.

Toynbee puts his finger on the emergence of this new “totalitarian” mind-set in the fledgling United States of America, as evidenced by the treatment of the United Empire Loyalists who had sided with Britain in the struggle for independence:

Unlike the French colonists in Canada after the previous war, these partisans of the British Crown in the Thirteen Colonies had to leave their homes, bag and baggage, after the American Revolutionary War. Under the Stars and Stripes the Loyalists found life impossible, and the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and Ontario are peopled with their descendants down to this day.

I remember, growing up during the Vietnam War, when things like the massacre at My Lai came to light, hearing that “civilians” would inevitably be killed because they were indistinguishable from the enemy and were in fact mixed in with them. If you wanted to kill the enemy, you had to kill everyone. It was total war. Luckily, in the memorable words of that military training song that I heard recently while watching An Officer and a Gentleman, “napalm sticks to kids.”

The 21st century has brought a further change in the idea of war. It is no longer something conducted against states but is waged by states against private individuals. The United States is not formally at war with Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia; it takes great pains to avoid any such formal declaration, since this would entail legal consequences, nationally and internationally. “War” is now something informal and covert. Drone assassinations are made against people named in secret “kill lists” that are authorized personally by the president each week. It’s part of his routine.

Leaving aside the question of justice, which is actually central, I pose this practical question instead: How can such a “war” end? There is no definite enemy, no central authority who can, in principle, surrender and agree to terms. There is only an endless succession of rationalized murders, a game of whack-a-mole with an endless supply of moles—and their families.

Another literary source comes to mind: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I remember that Winston Smith goes to the movies and sees newsreels of people—women, children—being killed in the ceaseless wars between Oceania and its rival totalitarian states. The scenes provoke laughter in the audience, as they’re intended to. The wars themselves will never end, for, as the slogan of the Ministry of Peace has it, “War is peace.”

And that should be our own slogan, should it not? We’re at peace, yet we’re at war. They’re the same thing. Aren’t they?

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