When Harry Truman made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, he traded the humanitarian concerns attendant to the deaths of over hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians for the surety of an end to the Pacific War. Already one of the most brutal wars ever fought, more than 110,000 Americans had perished, with up to 46,000 more possible in the planned invasion. A quick end would be a mercy to everyone, seemingly even the Japanese, a totally alien enemy as defiant as they were careless with their own lives. After years of frustrating engagement with an intractable nation, by pushing a few buttons, that end was delivered.
As the United States ended World War II, vanquishing a proud culture, it brought about the beginning of the era of American military exceptionalism. Though it took a direct attack on American ships to bring us into the war, we exited with an unconditional victory and successful occupation thousands of miles away from our shores.
Suddenly, the prospect of proxy wars became possible. With the exception of the Cuban missile crisis, the United States went 56 years without facing a threat serious enough to disturb our post-war economic primacy, yet still we exerted our military muscle in Asia and the Mideast. The September 11attacks drew us not into a new war, but deeper into a region that had an American presence for 15years prior.
And here we find ourselves today.
In the foreign policy debate on Monday night, someone is likely going to bring up American UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) attacks. Our unmanned drones have killed around 3,000 people since 2004. In the process, they’ve become integral to the American war effort (according to publicized accounts) and hugely controversial here at home.
But don’t expect the two candidates to differ much on the issue. The fact is that drone warfare reflects a policy shared by President Obama, Bush, Romney, and indeed, the country at large. Though some may carp about Obama reneging on campaign promises or the military-industrial complex, drones ultimately serve to reinforce the ethos of effortless global military supremacy without which Americans feel downright threatened.
I’m no military expert. I cannot comment on these strikes’ efficacy or morality. It’s not preposterous to take the administration more or less at its word. That word, summarized by Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, is that drones “are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat — to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and save American lives,” though it’s hard to see what threat some 700 impoverished civilians have posed to history’s most powerful nation. Even assuming that lethal pursuit is ordered on good intelligence and cause, the drones have undoubtedly raised ethical questions far too profound for our media to handle.
The key to understanding the American justification of drone strikes is recognizing that this country never really goes to war.
With a robust population and defense spending more than that of the next 17 nations combined, the United States has been able to build a military so large that it has fully detached from civilian life. Warfare, a national struggle as recently as World War II, has evolved since then. It has become something faraway and complicated, something those of us with the good sense to not join the armed forces can avoid thinking about.
There is a Freudian root to the discomfort Americans feel toward anonymous soldiers remotely blasting away foreign populations: guilt for having the same relationship with our military. Over 11% of all American citizens fought in World War II. Today, the four branches comprise closer to half a percent. War bonds have gone the way of Rosie the Riveter’s manufacturing plant. Rationing is now a buzzword in the debate over government-sponsored health care. We feel none of the reality of war.
There is a sense, then, that killing the occasional innocent shepherd at an Afghan checkpoint is more permissible if at least our boys stand the same chance of rolling over an IED. It’s hard not to sluice this sentiment from the knee-jerk reaction that there is something wrong with mowing people down like Halo characters. This is, of course, absurd. Most voices raising over drones claim to be conscientious about all fatalities, coalition and Taliban alike.
But what is a drone other than an extension of the vast technological advantage our forces always had over the people in these Iron Age wildernesses? Certainly such drone objectors wouldn’t go so far as to say that they want a totally even playing field between the U.S. military and the putative “enemy”?
I contend that, disturbed though we might be by the consequence-free killing of foreigners, if this technology were online and not being used, at the expense of our soldiers’ safety, there would be a louder outcry from the public. A similar reaction might have ensued if Truman had ignored atomic technology and opted to invade Japan, regardless of the carnage the bombs caused.
The American military’s dominance is no accident. It is wound into the fabric of our culture. Whether you consider the military industrial complex a driver or symptom of our nation’s wars, and whether you see Obama and Bush as cold killers, it is the fault of none of these that the American military is using unmanned aircraft to kill people. It is our own collective obsession with global preponderance that sells us on the option.
So if someone asks about drones tonight, recognize the candidates’ responses as appeals to the cultural conviction that something in the world is horribly wrong if the United States is unable to exert its militaristic will anywhere on it.
Regarding our two atomic bombs, the origin of America’s fixation with her effortless military supremacy, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later said, “If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” But we won. And until we lose, we won’t be accused of anything.