Remotely Piloted War: How Drone War Became The American Way of Life

Tom Engelhardt reports on the historical conditions that gave birth to the Predator Empire: first the disarming of an engaged citizenry after the creation of an all-volunteer force in 1973; second the corporatization of warfare under 9/11 (but beginning with Reagan); and now the drone wars. At each step, the public becomes more ‘remote’ from the acts of imperialism their tax dollars fund.

When the first American drone assassins burst onto the global stage early in the last decade, they caught most of us by surprise, especially because they seemed to come out of nowhere or from some wild sci-fi novel.  Ever since, they’ve been touted in the media as the shiniest presents under the American Christmas tree of war, the perfect weapons to solve our problems when it comes to evildoers lurking in the global badlands.

In 1971…The U.S. military in Vietnam and at bases in the U.S. and around world was essentially at the edge of rebellion.  Disaffection with an increasingly unpopular war on the Asian mainland, rejected by ever more Americans and emphatically protested at home, had infected the military, which was, after all, made up significantly of draftees.

In this fashion, an American citizen’s army, a draft military, had reached its limits and was voting with its feet against an imperial war.

So on the very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, officially signaling the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (though not quite its actual end), President Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft.  It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, as it had been practiced since World War II, had lost its hold on young minds.

Today, few enough even remember that moment and far fewer have considered its import.  Yet, historically speaking, that 1973 severing of war from the populace might be said to have ended an almost two-century-old democratic experiment in fusing the mobilized citizen and the mobilized state in wartime.  It had begun with the levée en masse during the French Revolution, which sent roused citizens to the front to save the republic and spread their democratic fervor abroad.  Behind them stood a mobilized population ready to sacrifice anything for the republic (and all too soon, of course, the empire).

In the wake of Vietnam, the wars ceased and, for a few years, war even fled American popular culture.  When it returned, the dogfights would be in outer space.  (Think Star Wars.)  In the meantime, a kind of stunned silence, a feeling of defeat, descended on the American polity — but not for long.  In the 1980s, the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, American-style war was carefully rebuilt, this time to new specifications.

War would now be fought not for or by the citizen, but quite literally for and by Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, KBR, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and Blackwater (later Xe, even later Academi).  Meanwhile, that citizen was to shudder at the thought of our terrorist enemies and then go on with normal life as if nothing whatsoever were happening.  (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed,” was George W. Bush’s suggested response to the 9/11 attacks two weeks after they happened, with the “war on terror” already going on the books.)

Meanwhile, in those war zones, the Big Corporation would take over the humblest of soldierly roles — the peeling of potatoes, the cooking of meals, the building of bases and outposts, the delivery of mail — and it would take up the gun (and the bomb) as well.  Soon enough, even the dying would be outsourced to corporate hirees.  Occupied Iraq and Afghanistan would be flooded with tens of thousands of private contractors and hired guns, while military men trained in elite special operations units would find their big paydays by joining mercenary corporations doing similar work, often in the same war zones.

It was a remarkable racket.  War and profit had long been connected in complicated ways, but seldom quite so straightforwardly.  Now, win or lose on the battlefield, there would always be winners among the growing class of warrior corporations.

No one seemed to notice, but a 1% version of American war was coming to fruition, unchecked by a draft Army, a skeptical Congress, or a democratic citizenry.  In fact, Americans, generally preoccupied with lives in which our wars played next to no part, paid little attention.

Remotely Piloted War

Although early drone technology was already being used over North Vietnam, it’s in another sense entirely that drones have been heading into America’s future since 1973.  There was an eerie logic to it: first came professional war, then privatized war, then mercenary and outsourced war — all of which made war ever more remote from most Americans.  Finally, both literally and figuratively, came remote war itself.

In this sense, think of us as moving from the citizen’s army to a roboticized, and finally robot, military — to a military that is a foreign legion in the most basic sense.  In other words, we are moving toward an ever greater outsourcing of war to things that cannot protest, cannot vote with their feet (or wings), and for whom there is no “home front” or even a home at all.  In a sense, we are, as we have been since 1973, heading for a form of war without anyone, citizen or otherwise, in the picture — except those on the ground, enemy and civilian alike, who will die as usual.

In a sense, the modern imperial age began hundreds of years ago with corporate war, when Dutch, British and other East India companies set sail, armed to the teeth, to subdue the world at a profit.  Perhaps corporate war will also prove the end point for that age, the perfect formula for the last global empire on its way down.

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