Running through much common misunderstanding of drones, autonomous weapons ,and modern warfare is a romantic fetish of the “natural” and a demonization of the machine and those who use it. Dan Trombly and I have talked about it from the perspective of drones, cyberwarfare, and other technological subjects.
But for Memorial Day weekend I won’t just touch on how such romantic ideology distorts crucial military/security topics. I also want to talk about how the quest for the authentic (and anti-technological) also denies the very humanity of those who fight wars—or prevent them—with the aid of high technology and technoscientific rationality. The fetish of the “natural” and the romantic loathing of machines, science, and bureaucracy implicit in these critiques must be dismantled. Only then can we extend our appreciation to both those who both died (and continue) to die for us inside machines of war and those who took on the immense psychological burden of being a “Wizard of Armageddon.”
The best place to start is with one of the most prominent sources of the modern hatred of the “machine”–Hannah Arendt and the so-called “Banality of Evil.” Everyone is familiar with Arendt’s idea of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as glorified accountant, a bureaucrat of death.
A new movie on Arendt is out in theaters. It chronicles her journey to cover the trial of Eichmann, an adventure that would cultiminate in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt contributed much to the way the nature of violence is conceptualized. But much of what was wrong and profoundly damaging to our understanding. As the linked article notes, Arendt completely misread Eichmann. Far from being Satan’s VP keeping a steady hand on Excel-charting, payroll, and accounts payable, Eichmann believed firmly in the genocidal Nazi ideology.
This “banal” man uttered the phrases “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals” and “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire ….I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.” These were not the statements of a Dilbert-esque boss sleepwalking through horror. Eichmann saw no inherent conflict between rational-scientific means of genocide and a romantic, quasi-occult ideology. Arendt could neither detect nor understand Eichmann’s complex alliance of blood-and-soil pseudoreligion and bureaucratic-technical implementation.
To call Eichmannn in Jerusalem a misreading perhaps is, as Ron Rosenbaum argues, to greatly underscore its malicious distortions in an ironically Arendtian manner. He dubs the phrase “banality of evil” a “sophisticated form of denial” that comes very close to a “(pseudo-) intellectual version of Holocaust denial.” But this book did not deny the crime, rather it “[denied] the full criminality of the perpetrators.” The psychological complexity of an Eichmann and the way Nazi ideology shaped the very gears of the bureaucratic machine he ran was totally foreign to Arendt.
So why have I started with Memorial Day and sidestepped into an arcane discussion of Holocaust historiography? Arendt tapped into a wave of humanistic sentiment that prefigured her journalism, and she popularized the fantasy of the ice-cold bureaucratic murderer. As wrong as she was, she crafted a compelling narrative of a sociotechnical system that diminished the humanity of the men who operated it and killed millions. Arendt became an inspiration to the postwar revolt against Cold War center-liberal politics and technical rationality, as the article noted:
The postwar generation of young Germans took Arendt’s book as inspiration to rebel against their parents, who may not have personally killed Jews during the war but knew what was going on and did nothing. In America, protesters invoked the “banality of evil” to rail against the outwardly decent family men who dropped bombs on North Vietnam or sat in nuclear-missile silos, ready to push the button — seeing them as the cold war’s version of Arendt’s “desk murderers.”
Articles like Carol Cohn‘s “Sex and Death in the Rational World of the Defense Intellectual” bemoaned a world in which “technostrategic” elites “calmly discuss nuclear war… without any sense of horror, urgency, or moral outrage.” Paul N. Edward’s The Closed World conjured up a hermetic world of hyper-rational, inhuman Spocks sitting on top of a stack of supercomputers. Robots from 2001‘s HAL to the hunter-killer drones that chase Tom Cruise in Oblivion are cold and inherently threatening to humans. The use of Asimov’s fictional rules of robotics (and particularly the citing of a rule that forbids a robot from harming a human even to protect humans) in anti-robot polemics is a testament in and of itself to Western culture’s fear of the machine. 1
Arendt tapped into a historical mythology that had already begun with World War I: the idea that industrial machines made war inhuman and the bureaucratic structures that controlled men stripped them of their humanity. As with any popular myth, it cannot be categorically dismissed. But World War I’s history (as well as the diaries of the men who fought it) is at variance with the cynicism embedded within anti-war poems like “Dulce et Decorum est.” Machines did not make for World War I’s slaughter—the fact that commanders needed bloody practice to use them properly did. New technologies like indirect fire, wireless communications, tanks, and aircraft eventually helped break the deadlock.
But the sheer scale of the slaughter and the “shock of the new,” as Christopher Coker argues, prompted an cultural effort by humanists to elevate the fragile human over the machine. This was after all, a time of great cultural upheaval and a sense that Western civilization was on the skids. Such a Rage Against the Machines necessarily fetishizes human authenticity and denies the benfits of technology. It implicitly posits that passions and culture is what produces humanity, and the “technostrategic” elite’s lack of “horror, urgency, or moral outrage” has robbed them of their very essence.
The embedded hypothesis of such philosophy is that greater humanity–embodied in risk, emotion, and “old-fashioned” soldiery–reduces atrocity. But in what universe does does a 19-year old rifleman who took to war directly from high school prom, who has just seen his friend lose his limbs a week before in a IED attack, somehow become an a priori better choice than a Air Force officer sitting in a Creech Air Force Base trailer? The great error in the prizing of passions and culture over the machine lies in the idea that passion points inherently in the “right” direction. In other words, Carol Cohn identifies “moral urgency” with her own left-feminist political positions.
There were plenty of men who could have had their fingers on the red button who had a different “moral urgency” than Carol Cohn. The romantic John F. Kennedy and his cadre of intellectuals were willing to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to fight Communism in Southeast Asia. 50,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese paid the “price” and bore the “burden.” Barry Goldwater thought that “extremism in the defense of liberty” was no vice and accordingly suggested using tactical nuclear weapons to break the Indochinese deadlock. And this is without bringing up the frenzy of killing by machete in many post-90s conflicts and the European religious wars they resemble.
The business of war is serious. it requires compassion, certainly. But it also requires a deductive mindset that is willing to “think the unthinkable” in order to prevent far greater horrors. Emotion in war is highly complex and binning the world of violence into either those with “moral urgency” and Spocks is analytically useless. Finally, outsiders often mistake coping mechanisms for inhumanity. Anyone familiar with the medical and emergency services community’s black humor would instantly relate to the casual banter of the Army pilots recorded in the “Collateral Murder” WikiLeaks video. In the eyes of those who have never conversed with veterans, read war literature, or experienced highly stressful life and death situations, such banter was proof of their inhumanity.
Cohn is not unique. Humanist intellectuals commonly project their own morals and definitions of humanity as if they are unimpeachable truths. Teju Cole expresses disbelief that President Obama could read the same books he does and yet still make drone kill lists. But aesthetic taste does not translate into shared policy preference. Hence Cole’s cognitive dissonance that a center-liberal American president like Obama could read Whitman and not agree with a left-leaning Nigerian novelist that drones are “ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral.”
Cole could drag his cursor over to the blog of conservative film critic Sonny Bunch, who may share many aesthetic opinions with his liberal counterparts but nonetheless writes for the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon. Why? Well, it might just be that Bunch could have some strong beliefs about politics and policy that diverge from that of a Teju Cole! Perhaps a President that spoke on the campaign trail about going after militants in Pakistan might also have similarly divergent preferences?
Placing the human and the machine in opposition also renders us unable to understand of some of the most significant political, cultural, and social trends of the 20th century. The same hippies who denounced the Pentagon’s “closed world” went on to found the personal computing revolution. Without the power of modern communications, the extension of humanitarian empathy to Rwandans and Bosnians would have been substantially more difficult. And it sadly leads us to ignore those who fought and suffered in high-tech machines just as much as the infantry.
The image of the “Greatest Generation” in part is a creation of Steven Spielberg’s bloody opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. But the biggest mass-culture representation of the aviator is Top Gun’s cocky, vainglorious Tom Cruise. The men pushing ashore into the teeth of the German guns at Normandy are more clearly identified as the pulse of the nation. But US Navy Lt. “Maverick” is on the highway to the dangerzone, jumping off the track and shoving into overdrive. The titular US Army Pvt. Ryan is serenaded by the majestic strings of John Williams. In contrast, “Maverick” lives in a glorified MTV music video, his muse a scraggly pop star in a white lounge suit. Ryan is the cultural embodiment of the American soldier, whereas Maverick is just a military Ricky Bobby.
“Earn this,” a dying Ryan gasps at the film’s close, daring the audience to live up to his sacrifice. “You can ride my tail anytime!” Maverick’s oiled-up, volleyball-playing comrade exclaims after they return from a combat mission. No wonder Quentin Tarantino was able to so hilariously parody Top Gun‘s campy undertones.
Where’s the beef, you might ask? Don’t the flyboys have it easy? You might be tempted to quote T.H Fehrenbach the billionth time about “young men in the mud.” But be prepared to recite your “chair force” jokes in front of a Army Air Corps pilot’s Arlington burial plot. Or, better yet, wax lyrical about Fehrenbach and the “chair force” in front of a living Navy or Air Force pilot tortured in the Hanoi Hilton. As Samuel Jackson would say, I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU! 2 At one point in the Combined Bomber Offensive, you were better off slugging it out with the Japanese in the Pacific than flying over a flak and fighter-interceptor festooned “Fortress Europe.”
The cruelest irony about Top Gun is that the actual Fighter Weapons School (FWS) was founded because naval aviators were taking unacceptable losses in the Surface-to-Air Missle (SAM) and interceptor-filled skies of Vietnam. Maverick was driven so hard precisely because his comrades were being blown out of the sky due to faulty Beyond Visual Range (BVR) tactics. Just as the Army Air Corps helped enable Ryan’s Normandy invasion, the larger post-70s airpower revolution paved the way for the ground pounder to succeed at minimal cost in Desert Storm. If Rommel had cursed enemy airpower in World War II, Saddam’s generals watched in disbelief as industrial-age formations and Baghdad’s infrastructure was rolled up in a furious hail of precision-guided bombs.
Maverick is a figure with just as much humanity as Ryan. He may be sensorially rather than physically oriented into the fight. But he’s in it all the same. Maverick, like many humans, reached such great heights because he saw the machine as a potential ally, not a evil HAL or Terminator. This weekend I will be thinking of the fallen aviators from the killing fields of WW1 Europe to the lost crew of Extortion17. They deserve your thought and sympathy too.
And let’s have a moment of appreciation too for much-maligned Cold War nuclear strategists like Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, Andrew Marshall, and the Wohlsetters. Literary intellectuals like Carol Cohn scoffed at them and searched for ways to psychoanalyze and discredit them with every discredited Freudian metaphor in her playbook. But unlike Cohn, the Kahns and Brodies on both sides of the Iron Curtain held the fate of humanity in their hands. It wasn’t easy. To think the “unthinkable,” one must overcome one of the deepest psychological barriers known to strategy.
According to the field of psychology called Terror Management Theory, humans face a basic (and severe) psychological struggle in both grasping their own mortality and still managing to live productive lives. Kahn and Brodie looked into the abyss, visualizing a set of mushroom clouds that would likely not only end their own lives, but annihilate everything and everyone they cared about. So the Dr. Strangeloves, unlike movie directors who mocked them, paced the halls of power, using scientific and rational knowledge to either avert Armageddon or think about how we could pick up the pieces afterwards.
Perhaps the most obscene thing about the 1960s protestors’ charge that a Brodie or Marshall = Eichmann is their inability to grasp the basic difference between a sociotechnical system structured by a hateful, genocidal ideology and one structured by men who sought to prevent nuclear annihilation. Were nuclear strategists’ coping mechanisms and mannerisms socially inappropriate? Sure. But so are those of most doctors, medics, and homicide detectives. Were their ideas sometimes dangerously unworkable? Definitely. But they definitely did not deserve the abuse that the Kubricks of the world gave them.
This Memorial Day Weekend, let’s cast aside the anti-technological bias of artists and philosophers and extend our appreciation to the aviator in all branches of the military. Let’s cast aside stereotypes of Cold War Strangeloves and celebrate the American and Soviet strategists who refused to sugarcoat the truth and assumed the mortal burden of playing a deadly game that would decide humanity’s fate. And let’s even celebrate the drone pilots who have kept Americans on the ground safe and disrupted terrorist plots against the United States and Europe. They took on a burden too.
To do so does not imply any larger acceptance of the numerous and disturbing flaws of both the Cold War and the Global War on Terror. It does not mean placing the aviator above the infantry. It is to recognize a common humanity pulsing within the machine as it streaks over a future warzone. It also means respecting the awesome burden and contribution of very intelligent men at the helm of a Single Integrated Operational Plan.
And finally, it means ceasing the obsessive effort to dehumanize the men and women who fly drones, to stop asking moronic questions like “what do drone operators feel when they shut off the drone technology at the end of their days?”
1. The ironic thing about using the three laws of robotics is that they were modified in practice, creating ethical quandries of their own. This aspect of Asimov’s literature is glossed over by anti-robot campaigners.
2. Expletives removed, of course.