An Elegy For Empire


Many look at the advent of unmanned drones, particularly in combat situations that in that past would have called for a human element, as progress, as a success. To quote Patton, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his,” and the use of remotely operated drones achieves this in ways Patton could have only fantasized about.

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.
~ William Tecumseh Sherman

Recently, a former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, has come forward to share his story and perspective on drones and their operators. Essentially, while he does concede of seeing things that definitely didn’t fit the criteria of war, his mission is to put a human face on those serving in the Air Force in the capacity of drone pilots and support personnel, to show that they are more than just “video game soldiers.” And while I respect his personal struggle and his attempt to humanize those manning the remote drones, I fear he is terribly wrong.

Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster. ~ William Tecumseh Sherman

Truer words have never been spoken regarding the machines of war which we imagine and construct for ourselves, from a man who waged total war as retribution for the unwarranted aggression of an enemy. War is cruel, senseless and horrific, there is no honor to be found in victory that is purchased with the blood of the innocent. And it is this very acknowledgement and understanding that should stand as the safety lock upon the armory of the American military machine and others who would use bloodshed as a solution of choice rather than last resort.

One of the most chilling aspects of the use of drones in the prosecution of war is the lack of personal cost to those guiding the drones. And while there is certainly an emotional and mental penalty paid by those who pursue the grisly objectives of war from the safety of a trailer thousands of miles from the zone of carnage, it cannot be compared to the cost that must be weighed and paid by those on the ground face to face with an enemy. Truthfully, the parallels between those who use radicals as human bombs, whether by actually strapping or carrying the explosives into the objective area or those who pilot planes into buildings and the use of soulless, lifeless machines handled and guided to rain death upon humanity is striking. Both units, if you will, have been structured so as to remove the principals from areas of immediate harm and fallout and deploy drones (whether machines or those who have become convinced that their lives are worth more as means of death than ones of life) to achieve an objective that falls outside the normal conventions of war.

By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts. ‘COST OF WAR’ PROJECT
By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts. ‘COST OF WAR’ PROJECT

War is cruel, senseless and horrific, there is no honor to be found in victory that is purchased with the blood of the innocent.


Now, to be fair, the argument can be made that these are most certainly manned machines controlled by people fully aware of what they are doing, rather than some unmanned, fracking Cylon Raider from hell. And to an extent that is true. That those behind the screens and keyboards, those manning the joysticks, do know what they are doing, to the extent that they are following orders; I’m not arguing for the culpability of those squads of U.S. servicemen. But to lay the tragedy solely upon the appalling and senseless death of innocents is to underestimate the long term ethical consequences in regards to how life is valued and the prospect of war is entertained on account of the use and availability of drones, for they have irreparably altered the way in which we wage war and pursue military objectives. Airstrikes, whether carried out by manned craft, long range missiles or drones are generally much more acceptable to the American public while they overwhelmingly remain steadfast in their opposition to the use of troops on the ground. This should be troubling to us as members of a nation that purports to value an individuals right—regardless of nationality, creed, gender or orientation—to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And it indeed does trouble me that we are far more accepting of the deaths of those who are not Americans, that we have a developed a truncated perspective of place regarding those outside our borders and immediate loyalty to our Constitution in the human race. Somewhere along the linear path of American history our liberties have come to be seen as exclusive to the American experiment and its participants. In short, and the world is witness to this ethos going back especially to the dropping of the Atomic Bombs upon innocent Japanese in the name of saving American lives, we have transcended the prevailing notion of American Exceptionalism and pursued the fanaticism of Manifest Destiny to the ultimate conclusion and our own final solution; American dominance as the world’s master nation, albeit couched in the trappings of benevolence and global stability, notwithstanding actual instances which demand our intervention, particularly those of genocide.

The contemporary strategy and belief has been that you can simply cut off the head of the proverbial snake and that those committing and planning acts of terror or unconventional war will naturally dissipate, falling into confusion. Yet the hard truth is that you cannot wage war on an idea, on an emotion, on outrage and grief, upon the human soul. And so, you cannot wage war on terrorism. You cannot halt outbursts of human torment caused by profiteering, the commoditization and exploitation of people and their land by force of arms. The only outcome that violence has against dissidents is to justify their actions and further radicalize their ideology. There is always a new leader in waiting in the pool of the victimized and oppressed. And this is the stock in trade of American foreign policy and our suppression of acts of terror and which, I believe, reveals the fundamentally flawed teleology of not only American foreign policy, but America as a nation.

The use of drones for the means of not simply gathering intelligence but also exterminating what is deemed a clear and present danger is the attempt of a morally adrift nation grasping onto anything that promises to sanitize our conscience. The question has become, how can we save American lives rather than how can we achieve peace for all. As a foundation, nationalism creates the space for dehumanization by establishing more than a symbolic, unifying, identity, but by giving life to a national myth. And that myth is simple, our rights to peace and prosperity supersede the rights of the other, that the right to life and self-determination must be earned or granted under the watchful eyes the powerful; those who have grasped freedom for themselves and are loathe to share it. By creating the other, in this case, those who are not Americans, a semi-permanent under class is created, those to whom democracy and freedom must be given or granted to. In this sense, the United States government has established a Suzerain/Vassal relationship with the nations—and their quite often, totalitarian regimes—whom we aid with monetary and military resources.

Total war, this was the solution that General Sherman took against the confederacy, a path that accepts no surrender short of extermination. It is the stratagem of an absolutist, one who is willing to sacrifice moral integrity in the name of flag and empire. And this is what Predator drones and their various counterparts represent, the threat of total war. What’s more, they are the proclamation that there is no safe harbor, no promise of justice and little human cost to the Empire, a lesson that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki learned to death, a death that came, according to Robert Gibbs, because he “should have had a more responsible father.”

The American in me has been pressed out, leaving nothing but the messy pulp of my humanity. I have neither the will nor absence of conscience to make any pretensions to nationalism or patriotism. It is time for the people of America to decide whether the rights which we claim to defend and sacrifice our children for are more than grandiose platitudes, more than just a dogmatic of Americanism. That the rights we so proudly remind ourselves that we fought a revolution for are not something that demands blood on the altar, but are the rights of all mankind indiscriminate to their race or religion bestowed not by courts or social contract, but by birth. And until we realize that our allegiance is to humanity and the justice that existence demands, the possession of American citizenship, instead of being a pearl of great price, is a millstone around our necks.