Monday, February 11, 2013

In drones we trust

In response to a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the drone war, a good few comments blamed American arrogance for the willingness to kill people half a world away by remote control. While anyone who has spent as much time in the United States has encountered American optimism and its darker side, a kind of shallow, pep-rally self congratulation, I think the drone program arises from the darer side of a different American attribute. Americans have the ability to face difficult facts, if not head on then at least in the choices they make. The dark side to that comes out in a pessimism and uncertainty that contrasts with the official sunny American self image. After seventy years of insisting on the superiority of their system over state socialism, the collapse of the Soviet Union still took the American establishment by surprise. Today, the obverse of that pessimism shows not in imagining an invincible enemy, but in an appreciation of the fragility of American democracy.

On September 7, 1941, the Luftwaffe visited upon London an attack very similar to 9/11 in its casualty count and material damage. They kept up that level of violence for 57 straight nights. In proportion to the British population of the time, over the eight and a half months of the "blitz", or sustained bombing of Britain, the Luftwaffe inflicted over a hundred times the 9/11 casualties. British confidence in the war effort stayed high. Winston Churchill stayed popular.

American commentators have made their doubts that American democracy could sustain such an attack pretty clear. A contributor to Jim Henley's web log Unqualified Offerings put it thus: "if the American people react the way that I fear they will, then we will be truly screwed." The use of drones looks more like an improvised response to a deep insecurity. American drone policy looks more like the outcome of a group of people groping for the best way out of a bad situation than calculated evil. Given uncertainty about the robustness of American democracy in the face of a determined terror attack, I would expect American politicians and commentators to accede, in a somewhat queasy fashion, to the Obama administration's drone program; pretty much what they seem to have done.

Americans share this combination of brassy self-congratulation and inner uncertainty with most other nations, or at least with most other nations that aspire to the status of great power. And today, the Americans have considerable reason for uncertainty: the rapid development of technology has changed human conflict. Toward the end of the cold war, policy makers on all sides used irregular forces and armed groups to do what government troops had once done. In this century, politicians and others use robot weapons to do what human fighters used to. We live in a world of melting rules and boundaries written on the water. American leaders, and the American people, and in fact all of us, should feel troubled and uncertain.

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