Johns Hopkins University
I stumbled upon a little book a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, its shape and color that attracted me to it. I was in a used book store and it was a tiny, hardback, Everyman edition from the late 1940's, no more than half an inch thick. The title was small and faded and too hard to read against its navy blue binding so I picked it up and examined it more closely. It was Hiroshima by John Hersey. It sounded familiar. I think I may have read it as part of a class on the Cold War I took as an undergraduate but I cannot be sure. It was, if only as an object, interesting enough to buy and take home.
I had no recollection of what it was. I assumed it was an account of the first atom bomb. It was. But the first few pages were something different. The book begins with an account of the morning proceeding the bomb. I study and teach about war so I have read the papers and documents surrounding the Manhattan Project. I know the details of the blast, the kilotonage, the side bets between the scientists regarding the risk of igniting the earth's atmosphere. I didn't know that for weeks every conventional B-29 attack on Japan had flown by Hiroshima on the way to its target elsewhere. That night after night the inhabitants of Hiroshima had listened to air raid sirens wondering if the B-29 was just passing through or if this time it was their turn to be fire bombed. According to the author, the anxiety was unbearable. Hiroshima was as of yet untouched and people assumed with each siren their time must have come or worse yet that the Americans were saving something special for them.
Of course we were. The bomb was dropped, 140,000 people were killed, and the world changed forever. Although what struck me about these few introductory pages was that the dropping of the bomb was not in no way the first act of violence, it was for some a perverse sense of finality. As many people disagree about the reason the bomb was dropped as whether it needed to be dropped, but for the next few paragraphs that is not what concerns me. It is the interminable panic, the slow, seemingly endless terror, a sick feeling in the gut, that at any moment the sky could fall and there is nothing you, as a singular person could do about it, that makes me sad for our world. To paraphrase Norman Mailer, nothing you do, nothing that you are, will change the fact that in an instant you can be reduced to little more than a few teeth or other grizzly remain to be cataloged or counted in some post-mortem ledger.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the atom bomb per se. Airpower, cruise missiles, the "Prompt Global Strike" initiative, can all accomplish this task without a nuclear warhead. What keeps me up at night is not the magnitude of the weapons but the event without warning that strikes like a lightening bolt. More to the point it is the inequality and the regularity of the inequality with which these weapons strike such that only a few populations in the world truly live with the daily dread that they or their loved ones could be next.
I don't believe for one second that this is the tragic inevitability of war. Nor do I believe that this is just some flaw in the mortal condition. Death from above is different than someone kicking in your door or invading your city. There is no countermeasure, no response, no resistance, no possibility for combat. If the bomb arrives there is only what I imagine is a few seconds of shock, sadness and then maybe even relief that you do not have to bear another day of waiting to be visited by the bomb.
This is all a long of way of saying that, for me, the debate over continuing the war in Afghanistan elides a question much more troubling that is not even being asked on the major news networks, much less openly by the Obama administration: Will we continue to send drones to shoot 'Hellfire' missiles into villages between Afghanistan and Pakistan and beyond? Will more or less troops even have any bearing on the decision to increasingly automate the war? So far there seems to have only been a steady increase in drone attacks since the so called Afghanistan surge. Is it possible that future troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq will lead to an increasing reliance on this prosthetic means of warfare?
For all of the changes in strategy, diplomatic posture, and real commitments to a better world in both word and deed by the Obama administration, the first drone attack took place January 23rd 2009, just a few days after Obama was inaugurated. I remember because I had just returned from the Obama Campaign's Staff Party when I read the news update on my computer. Even then in the haze of one of the best nights of my life the news made me sad. So much had changed and yet this continued unabated, seemingly without pause. Since then the attacks have become more regular. In fact the Obama administration has already authorized and ordered more Predator attacks than the Bush administration did the previous year.
I have no idea what a drone sounds like. I imagine it to be like a remote control airplane. Something high-pitched, like an airplane but shriller. What I do know is that every child in the territory of Waziristan must talk about it constantly. In an area of the world in which indoor plumbing and consistent electricity would be 'the future' the boogeyman is not a vampire or some disfigured monster as it was for me growing up in the Texas suburbs. It is a polished, faceless, white UFO armed to kill and operated by remote or automated control.
I am sure, in fact I know, that the statistical success of these weapons is unimpeachable. If the question is do they work than the answer is yes. If by work you mean they, in the words of the Revolution in Military Affairs, 'hit to kill'. I can't argue with the numbers.
However I can't help wondering what the world will be like in ten or twenty years, not just in Waziristan, but in every country we deploy these weapons, if the United States of America becomes synonymous with this faceless, bringer of death. It will not be those maimed or killed that all Americans will have to answer to but the millions that couldn't sleep, that woke up drenched in sweat, or simply wanted to die because they could not stand the waiting. What must it be like to start every day wondering if you are next. If the plane you hear in the distance, the buzz you thought you heard, the unholy dread of a sudden stillness, the oppressive weight of silence, is the arrival of precision American engineering.
War is hell. This is slow sadistic torture. Every flash in the sky, the low hum of an engine, the constant sense of unease, all of it is a waiting game that would make me wish for hell's certainty and finality. This cannot be the best we can do.