Clinical detachment - Franklin C Spinney - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taking the Cape is a time-honoured term of art used in the Pentagon for luring your opponent into going for your solution, especially when it is not in his or her best interest. On Thursday, April 22, Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced President Obama approved the initiation of drone strikes in Libya. The vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General James Cartwright claimed the drones were ‘uniquely suited’ for attacks in urban areas because they can fly lower and get better visibility of targets, presumably, than pilots’ eyeballs in airplanes. Gates went on to claim drone strikes in Libya would be done for ‘humanitarian reasons’.

In other words, someone has sold Obama on Pakistanising the Libyan War, i.e. pursuing a military strategy of relying on drone attacks to destroy an adversary hiding in the environmental background. What is astonishing is that Obama took the cape, despite the fact that only 12 days earlier, a report in the Los Angeles Times by David Cloud illustrated once again the absurdity of Cartwright’s and Gates’ claims.

Cloud’s report is worthy of very careful study, because it is loaded with all sorts of unexplored ramifications – none of them good. Using actual transcripts of conversations among drone operators, David Cloud revealed the sinister psychological effects that so-called precision bombing and techno war has on its American participants. Their sterile dialogue shows vividly how the idea of precision techno warfare fought from a safe distance desensitises our ‘warriors’ to the bloody physical effects of their actions on the people they are maiming, and killing and the property they are destroying. There is no bravery or soldierly honour or spirit of self sacrifice among the bravado of the drone operators safely ensconced in Creech AFB, Nevada; they are simply cogs in a dysfunctional dehumanising machine.

Extreme psychological one-sidedness on our side is nothing new in our military operations, however. Indeed, the theory of the adversary being merely a physical set of targets that can be defeated simply by identifying and physically destroying these nodes is a doctrine that has been evolving and becoming more extreme since the development of daylight precision ‘strategic’ bombardment doctrine by the US Army Corps in the 1930s.

At the centre of the theory of techno war is the comforting idea that precision bombardment would enable us to attack precision ‘military targets’ deep in hostile territory while avoiding destruction of civilian lives and property. The drone coupled with precision guided weapons merely evolves this original mentality to a new level of recklessness, because its gripping effect on the our psychology further disconnects the killer, sitting in his air conditioned operations centre thousands of miles away from the killed, from the consequences of the killers actions.

This clinical detachment creates the illusion that war is cleaner and easier to fight from our perspective – civilian deaths become morally acceptable because they are merely accidents of good intentions. The clinical term ‘collateral damage’ says it all.

Every time the techno strategy fails to deliver on its promises, as it did with strategic bombing in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Iraq War, Kosovo, the Second Iraq War, Afghanistan, and now in Libya, the solution is not a serious ‘lessons-learned’ examination of why it did not deliver its promises of quick clean victories, but instead, the solution is always the same: to recommend spending even more money for more expensive and complex versions of the same old idea, i.e., more and better sensors, more and better guidance systems, and more and better command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence systems.

The writer is a former military analyst for the Pentagon.


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