Saturday, July 26, 2008

The blue screen of death

Via Patrick Appel for Andrew Sullivan, an article at Slate by William Saletan about the use by the U.S. military of drones that kill through a remote video game-like interface:
But the world on the screen isn't ordinary. It doesn't even feel like life.

Is the "synthetic environment" real? That depends on which end of the missile you're looking at. In the targeted car, it's as real as death. But from the console, it looks more like virtual reality. If the drone goes down, you're not in it.
The tone of the article is somewhat disconcerting, as it seems we're supposed to disapprove of this manner of waging war:
If you've seen combat in the flesh, you know what the fireball on the screen means to the people in the car. But to a teenager raised on Doom and Halo, it looks like just another score. He can't feel or smell the explosion. He isn't even there. The eeriest thing in the demo video is the total silence that accompanies the car's destruction. The only sound that follows is the pilot's triumphant verdict: "Excellent job." It's like something you'd read on the screen after getting a high score at an arcade.
I am certainly no fan of war, I didn't miss Vietnam by so many years that I do not feel relief at the accident of birth that kept me from that conflict. But, if we must fight a war (and I think we need to set the bar higher than we did, for example, in Iraq), we should fight it according to a simple objective, that it's about killing more of the other side than we lose.

As such, there is no particular nobility in mano-a-mano battle. Despite a certain romanticism that we get from old movies, one of the very real goals is to avoid "combat in the flesh." Older people get it; I knew very few of my parents' friends who had a problem with the A-bomb, as there was a real fear of the meatgrinder that would have been the invasion of Japan (to be fair, there were some qualms about the second).

So what is Saletan's point here? Perhaps we get some glimmer from the final paragraph:
Forty-one years ago, John McCain was shot down over Vietnam. He broke three limbs and spent five years in brutal imprisonment. Anyone who has been through such hell knows that drones do a great service by protecting American pilots. But kids with PlayStations live in a world where the pilot—the console operator—is the only real human being. They don't understand war's horror the way McCain does. And he isn't the military of tomorrow. They are.
OK, I think I get it now, we're supposed to fear that the ease of fighting war from an ergonomic chair 8,000 miles away will spur us into easier conflict, that a no-loss war will provide an incentive to rush to arms against anyone who looks cross-eyed at us.

Compelling though this point may be, I think Saletan picked a bad example. It seems that McCain is more willing even to Bush to commit troops in spite of his "understanding" of "war's horror." Figuring this out is one of the key components of comprehension of McCain's approach to world events, and, until someone can help me get this, I would find it quite difficult to vote for Mr. Straight Talk.

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