February 4, 2009

The Drone of History

He had already been co-opted into the soft legitimation of torture. When Cheney, and then Bush, made such public and prideful pronouncements about instigating illegal practices, their war-crimes posturing was met with niceties about looking to the future. Instead of prosecuting past violations, all attention would be on the pragmatic necessities of the current situation. In other words, there would be no turning back, as if the storm of progress made it an impossible, naive notion.

Now Obama, no doubt having to prove himself to the mechanisms of "defense" and "security," authorizes air strikes in the remote reaches of Pakistan, continuing and intensifying the Bush administration's fall offensive.

The use of robotics in war has greatly expanded in the laboratories of Iraq and Afghanistan, from the variety of surveillance and de-mining contraptions to a hope for the coming deployment of mobile machine guns. The drone, an unmanned missile machine in the air, is the prime symbol.

Aristotle, Diderot, Hume, Smith, Orson Welles in The Third Man. All spoke of, or wondered at, the moral freedom born of distance. "But for the fear of punishment," wrote Diderot, "many people would find it less hard to kill a man at a distance from which he appeared no larger than a swallow, than they would to slit a bullock's throat with their own hands."

And if the swallow-sized man is on a screen visible to someone couched in a remote location of Nevada or Colorado, or nothing more than a piece of intelligence data, invisible in a potentially crowded house, the calculus surely becomes all the more absolute; a deeply seductive temptation to do a good job.

Add to this, the creeping corrosive dissemination of the images themselves. Their circulation must also play a roll in the ways in which the discipline of war turns on the discourse of games: some sense of control and some lack of ultimate consequence.

Or worse, it becomes, as Don DeLillo suggested in various ways, a plot from which one cannot turn and within which one's participation is sanctified by history itself.

And so if the decision is not really a decision, and instead a deferred look toward some future in which morality and illegality and consequences will not matter -- retreating into the imagined past -- then the moment seems to find its inarguable and necessary form, as if "history is to blame."