The Next Collateral Casualty: Military Heroism

Pretty dull looking, huh? But inside those buildings, American drone pilots kill people half way around the world.
As some of you may recall, shortly after 9/11, we got this incisive, if kind of witless, analysis from that politically incorrect guy, Bill Maher:

"We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

I only call these comments witless, because clearly Maher had not considered the cost to his reputation of speaking the truth to his base—a bunch of vengeful American savages (and those were the liberals in the crowd at the time). Unlike the usual right-wing-nut myth about Maher's fate, he was not immediately fired by ABC for being a traitor. After all, that might look like censorship. Maher's program continued for a while, and then ABC canceled it, and sent Maher packing into cableland.

But, what of the truth of Maher's words? Is it cowardly for a military pilot to sit in a room, thousands of miles away from the intended target, while he presses a few buttons and assassinates a human being (sometimes even the intended target) with a remotely-operated drone weapon?

It is a good question to consider in light of the article the New York Times is running in their Sunday Magazine. Entitled The Drone Zone, it provides a heavily managed (by the US military) insight into the US drone program—i.e. the surveillance and combat aircraft "flown" remotely by American pilots half way around the world from where the robot aircraft are operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Just today, the Times reported another fifteen people were killed in Pakistan by an American drone. As is usually the case, the US military, through its drone media, reported that the dead were "suspected of being Taliban militants." In the new way of war, the Bush way of war which Obama has cravenly copied, "suspects" are assassinated, instead of confirmed to be bad guys (again, as alleged by the US military). Even American citizens, merely accused of wrong-doing, can be assassinated by the US government.

In the article, we are told something that sounds perfectly believable and even sensible (in the twisted sense way of the military), which is that American drone pilots "train" in the use of the drones by tracking American civilian automobiles on highways near the drone base. The only thing missing in the training experience is the actual explosion—which perhaps is simulated—the article does not say.

Eventually, discussing the hazards and confusions of phoning in one's combat flying, the article writer asks a simple question: "Can a pilot who flies planes remotely ever be as heroic as the aces who flew behind enemy lines."

Of course, this assumes that the "aces" were heroic either. In my view, and I pointed this out in a comment at the Times, but if you are going to valorize state-sanctioned killing, whether it's war or assassinations by drone, it doesn't matter how distant the killer is from the target. The act of killing another human being, no matter what the alleged justification, is always insane—a complete extinction of two souls: that of the victim and the killer.

You might think drone operators would have it easier. But the article claims otherwise, that drone pilots feel "schizophrenic" sometimes, because they jump from one killing zone to another on their screens—i.e., going in a few hours from tracking a target in Afghanistan to one in Iraq—which gives the pilots a strange feeling that what they are doing is kind of robotic and unreal.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that the next step is to take human beings out of the loop altogether. Of course, there will be the usual whining about how we need human decision-making at the critical point in that loop, but robots will do what they are ordered to do, anywhere and any time, and won't feel one bit of dissociation or schizophrenia.

When the human hero is eliminated once and for all, a lot of handwringing nonsense will be heard from people who love to worship idols, and who will be outraged that a whole class of them is being retired as obsolete. But the truth is that, in every sphere of human activity, robots are coming to replace us. It is just a matter of time.

I especially do not mourn the passing of the human military hero. It was always a dishonest and murderous meme, which encouraged more stupid slaughter. Perhaps, as with nuclear weapons, which erase whole human populations in an instant, with no time nor any moral need to tarnish the deed with notions of heroism, the robot killers will be so scary that people will kill less than they used to. Perhaps so, or perhaps, as anyone who gives these questions much thought, will likely think of, maybe we're headed for a date with a terminator.