Over the centuries and decades, death counts in wars have grown dramatically, shifted heavily onto civilians rather than combatants, and been overtaken by injury counts as even greater numbers have been injured but medicine has allowed them to survive. Deaths are now due primarily to violence rather than to disease, formerly the biggest killer in wars. Death and injury counts have also shifted very heavily toward one side in each war, rather than being evenly divided between two parties. Those traumatized, rendered homeless, and otherwise damaged far outnumber the injured and the dead. One explanation for the diminishment in government announcments and media coverage of death counts on the other side of wars is that wars by wealthy nations against poor ones have become one-sided slaughters of men, women, children, the elderly, and infants. The idea of a “good war” or a “just war” sounds obscene when one looks honestly at independent reporting on wars.We don’t speak of humanitarian rape or philanthropic slavery or virtuous child abuse. War is in the category of things so immoral they can never be justified.“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake,” said Jeanette Rankin, the heroic congresswoman who voted against U.S. entry into both world wars.
In the film The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Age, a survivor of Nagasaki meets a survivor of Auschwitz. It is hard in watching them meeting and speaking together to remember or care which nation committed which horror. War is a crime not because of who commits it but because of what it is.On June 6, 2013, NBC News interviewed a former U.S. drone pilot named Brandon Bryant who was deeply depressed over his role in killing over 1,600 people:
Brandon Bryant says he was sitting in a chair at a Nevada Air Force base operating the camera when his team fired two missiles from their drone at three men walking down a road halfway around the world in Afghanistan. The missiles hit all three targets, and Bryant says he could see the aftermath on his computer screen—including thermal images of a growing puddle of hot blood.
‘The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he recalled. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’ As the man died his body grew cold, said Bryant, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.
‘I can see every little pixel,’ said Bryant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, ‘if I just close my eyes.’
‘People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,’ Bryant said. ‘Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.’ …
He’s still not certain whether the three men in Afghanistan were really Taliban insurgents or just men with guns in a country where many people carry guns. The men were five miles from American forces arguing with each other when the first missile hit them. …
He also remembers being convinced that he had seen a child scurry onto his screen during one mission just before a missile struck, despite assurances from others that the figure he’d seen was really a dog.
After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he ‘lost respect for life’ and began to feel like a sociopath. …
In 2011, as Bryant’s career as a drone operator neared its end, he said his commander presented him with what amounted to a scorecard. It showed that he had participated in missions that contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.
‘I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it’s not pretty. It’s not something that I want to have—this diploma.’
Now that he’s out of the Air Force and back home in Montana, Bryant said he doesn’t want to think about how many people on that list might’ve been innocent: ‘It’s too heartbreaking.’ …
When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. ‘She looked at me like I was a monster,’ he said. ‘And she never wanted to touch me again.’
When we say that war goes back 10,000 years it’s not clear that we’re talking about a single thing, as opposed to two or more different things going by the same name. Picture a family in Yemen or Pakistan living under a constant buzz produced by a drone overhead. One day their home and everyone in it is shattered by a missile. Were they at war? Where was the battlefield? Where were their weapons? Who declared the war? What was contested in the war? How would it end?
Let’s take the case of someone actually engaged in anti-U.S. terrorism. He’s struck by a missile from an unseen unmanned airplane and killed. Was he at war in a sense that a Greek or Roman warrior would recognize? How about a warrior in an early modern war? Would someone who thinks of a war as requiring a battlefield and combat between two armies recognize a drone warrior seated at his desk manipulating his computer joystick as a warrior at all?
Like dueling, war has formerly been thought of as an agreed upon contest between two rational actors. Two groups agreed, or at least their rulers agreed, to go to war. Now war is always marketed as a last resort. Wars are always fought for “peace,” while nobody ever makes peace for the sake of war. War is presented as an undesired means toward some nobler end, an unfortunate responsibility required by the irrationality of the other side. Now that other side is not fighting on a literal battlefield; rather the side equipped with satellite technology is hunting the supposed fighters.
The drive behind this transformation has not been the technology itself or military strategy, but public opposition to putting U.S. troops on a battlefield. That same repulsion toward losing “our own boys” was largely what led to the Vietnam Syndrome. Such repulsion fueled U.S. opposition to the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Americans had and still have no idea about the extent of the death and suffering borne by people on the other sides of the wars. (The government is disinclined to inform people, who have been known to respond very appropriately.) It’s true that U.S. people haven’t consistently insisted that their government present them with information on the suffering caused by U.S. wars. Many, to the extent that they do know, have been more tolerant of the pain of foreigners. But the deaths and injuries to U.S. troops have become largely intolerable. This partially accounts for the recent U.S. move toward air wars and drone wars.
The question is whether a drone war is a war at all. If it’s fought by robots against which the other side has no ability to respond, how closely does it resemble most of what we categorize in human history as war-making? Is it not perhaps the case that we have already ended war and now must end something else as well (a name for it might be: the hunting of humans, or if you prefer assassination, although that tends to suggest the killing of a public figure)? And then, wouldn’t the task of ending that other thing present us with a much less venerable institution to dismantle?
Both institutions, war and human hunting, involve the killing of foreigners. The new one involves the intentional killing of U.S. citizens as well, but the old one involved the killing of U.S. traitors or deserters. Still, if we can change our manner of killing foreigners to render it almost unrecognizable, who’s to say we can’t eliminate the practice altogether?