Monday, May 30, 2011

The pointy end of the spear

[Previous Memorial Day posts here, here, here]

I watched Dr. Strangelove with my kids the other day (me for the umpteenth time, they for the first), and, since I knew it so well, could focus on some of its less obvious qualities. Like the looks, how perfectly it captured some of the era's technology and design aesthetic. And how it treated humans bound up into technological systems that escaped their creators. In particular, the crew of the bomber, little human fleshopoids that travel along with the aeronautical and nuclear technology and guide it along, towards their own destruction.

The technology seems rather quaint, coming as it does at a too-early stage of the control revolution, where you had to have actual humans close to the weaponry. Having humans in the loop means unreliable control, and unacceptable cost. Nowadays our nuclear deterrent is based largely on ICBMs, where the humans are far from the destruction. More significantly, remote-controlled drones are becoming the weapon of choice, also pushing humans back from the front.

War, up until recently, involved groups of men carrying sharp sticks running into each other. Technology like cannons and armor and fortifications made some differences, which were very important in context (even something as simple as the stirrup is supposed to have played a significant role in the spread of feudalism), but it didn't change the basic way in which humans were immersed in violence. They were of necessity, close to it.

With the coming of the industrial age the balance started to change. The technology of destruction became too powerful for humans to withstand, and too complex for humans too control. This became obvious in WWI, but not really remediable until recently. Now we can have wars without soldiers, nobody but our enemies needs to risk anything worse than carpal tunnel syndrome. We've already removed most of the visible economic costs of war from the public consciousness, the human cost is the next to go.

Well, not quite. We are still getting a solider or two killed per day in Afghanistan, for no apparent reason. We're supposed to start withdrawing them in a few months, also for no apparent reason. Perhaps in the next war we'll have eliminated the need for memorials.


David Chapman said...

A few days ago I watched Restrepo with my girlfriend, both of us for the first time. About the current Afghan war, from a grunt's eye view. Turns out it's a war were you can still often be within spear distance of the person who kills you. And, remarkably pointless. Um, so to speak. Recommend.

scw said...

Surely with the death of Osama bin Laden, any aim the Afghan war had has now been achieved. At this juncture it appears that for the past five years (at least) the United States has been the gull in a protracted fraud by the Pakistani government. Osama wasn't in a cave in Afghanistan or the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. Pakistan had been sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad since 2005, in the mean time bleeding Uncle Sam of hundreds of billions of dollars in military aid. American taxpayers can't get the money back, but at least our elected leaders ought to muster the testicular fortitude to kick the Pakis off the gravy train instanter, and maybe give India a few of our spare nuclear weapons just to drive the point home.

The U.S. is and always has been bad at the empire business. Our politicians do not understand what a punitive expedition is, nor how to direct the military to carry one out. That's what the Afghans deserved after 9/11/2001, but instead they got "nation building," which was risible in such a miserable country, and an entirely counterproductive U.S. effort to suppress the culture of opium poppies, which succeeded only in losing Afghan "hearts and minds" while doing absolutely nothing to reduce narcotics abuse in the United States.

The technical sophistication of modern weaponry is wasted when the political leadership controlling its use is so rankly incompetent, and the intelligence on which they rely is so faulty.