Assume Forever-War: Thoughts After Viewing Wounds of Waziristan

There is some contention that in particular cases of cancer, removing tumors, often the only treatment that can extend life by reducing the burden of carrying the disease (thus reducing its effects), actually speeds metastatic action. Especially if the surgery fails to be thorough. It is as if you open a seething sack of baby spiders.

I was asked recently to be a discussant in a symposium on drone warfare for a session that featured a short documentary film on drone strikes in Waziristan, which is located in the FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal Areas, between Pakistan and Afghanistan. A place where all governments claim there is no law and that all aggressive violent action against the region is allowable. As far as I can tell, primarily the British and the U.S. have indiscriminately bombed this region, in conjunction with the Pakistani government and any number of other militarized forces. I am still very unsure why this is the case. I didn’t think to ask it, but it seems analogous to the U.S. bombing Indian Reservations and/or appointing a federal agent to wield full power over these areas and that agent is pure evil. I still don’t have a clue as to what even the political game is.

The documentary, Wounds of Waziristan, really only confounds understanding–which is to say, perhaps, that there is no sense to make of it. Apparently the “liberal elites” in Pakistan are very “pro-drone” just the way our elites are (no matter, liberal or conservative–drones are good business here)–Steven Pinker, a wonderful techno-war apologist proclaims them a great advance in warfare. Drones, it seems, represent the “better angels” of our nature.

Anyway, watch the film, it’s good and it’s on Youtube.

For my role as discussant I had prepared remarks that I didn’t use at all. I just said I didn’t understand this. I don’t.

Here’s what I prepared.

“Everything is permitted. If the calculation is right.” This is George Kateb on the error, when considering rights and human dignity, of Utilitarianism…we in America call this pragmatism, rightly or wrongly using the term. It used to be do what works. Now it’s do whatever vile thing you want and say it works and its (ultimately) good (time will exonerate perpetrators).

Thank you, Majed and Hamid, for the opportunity to participate in this symposium. My name is Doug Storm and I am the host of a public affairs program on Bloomington’s Community Radio station, WFHB, called Interchange. Majed and Hamid have appeared on this program as have a few others among you who are participants in the symposium, and I hope that many more of you will be.

I suppose there is a logic in asking someone occupying a position that we might call journalistic to appear here and as a discussant for this presentation of Madiha Tahir’s Wounds of Waziristan. But I want to stress two things: I volunteer and am not persuaded by organizational hierarchy nor economic need; and I don’t know that “journalism” as a profession or as a practice means anything that we think we want it to mean. We ask, rather we claim, that the press is a necessary institution in a democracy. Unfortunately we are inundated with interested parties within the professional, remunerative, field of journalism, and this makes “journalists” into proponents, agents of media conglomerates with easily discernible ties to the administrators of the state. These are careerist cheerleaders and democracy is not a concern.

A journalist, to my mind, can only be skeptical and cannot be promotional. Can only be critical. Can only stand against everything. We know that people claim to stand FOR something, or offer allegiance TO something and in so doing define what they are against

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. We imagine we create balance by allowing those interested in allegiances to defend and attack. But this is to make our current media landscape a kind of proxy war in itself.

This necessitates other forms of exposure. Because what else is journalism if not exposure. Which is to say the press was meant to expose the secrets of power. But we seeded (and ceded) early the notion that the exposure would come from those out of power, seeking power; which is to say, exposure doesn’t serve any noble idea. Exposure is a weapon, to be sure. But in the service of what?

But I’m not sure where we even stand on that score as political parties seem more a distraction than ever and the technocratic militarized regimes seem no longer attached to any recognizable form of representative government.

Can the documentary film in all its forms, lengths, budgets, be in the service of, well, what? I am hoping the answer is a universal assertion of equal dignity.

From the drone to the robot to the software app, I see nothing but degradation in the future that conceives these as unstoppable elements. I cannot even allow the assertion that these mechanicals can be benign and useful for particular individuals or groups of individuals. The slope is ultimately too steep.

To me, a nation committed to continue with drone warfare (as surveillance and as murder) is a nation without regard for human dignity and without regard for rights even for its own citizens. We have an army, we deploy them. A drone is only an extension of the idea that makes that army possible. Back to George Kateb, in his introduction to a collection of his essays on Individualism and Democratic Culture called The Inner Ocean, he reminds us that the theory of equal individual rights (both personal and political) “did not crystallize until the 17th century…[getting] its start in England among the radical Protestants…[and though now a near universal] it had a temporally identifiable beginning, and a recent one at that; and that those who formulated it and tried to promote it in their own country were a small, marginal, and unsuccessful band of dissenters. To mention these considerations is to deny that the theory has always existed or that it had to exist. Its origins are obscure and perfectly contingent….Must the theory and practice of individual rights therefore last forever? Clearly not.”

“In warfare against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare aerial bombardment is not necessarily limited in its methods or objectives by rules agreed upon in international law.” –Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Hugh Trenchard, March 1, 1924.

Drones are not unique, and perhaps they are only the expected and planned culmination of decades-old plans to rule the world via these “lillypad” bases we’ve constructed all over the planet. We’ve had “unmanned” technologies for a long time after all.


And Steven Pinker–(aped by Ethan Hawke star of Good Kill),asked, Does robot warfare by predator drones fit a pattern of progress? answers “It’s a great advance. I can’t say I’m a fan exactly, but compared to carpet bombing, it’s a fraction of the deaths, a great advance.”

I love how it seems best to justify drones as opposed to bombing raids and the use of napalm as if that is our steady-state reality. We START with the assumption that if we weren’t using drones we’d just be killing more people as a matter of course. As if the capacity to use drones weren’t the first reason that we do use them. I have to assume, for sanity’s sake, that we would NOT be indiscriminately be flying F-16s all over the world dropping bombs willy-nilly. But the drone apologists seem to take this as a give. If you’re a WAR MONGERING country such as the U.S. isn’t it a nod to MORALITY that we make our constant killing “cleaner”? Seriously.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…

Does this, did it, ever have meaning? Poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren in 1957:

America was based on a big promise—a great big one: the Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in the house, that’s quite a problem—particularly when you’ve got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America—you see, that saddle’s going to jump now and then and it pricks.

But what is the burr to prick the conscience of the nation deploying drones? And in this we run parallel with all considerations of “larger” justice…larger environmentalism, larger worries about climate change, about state surveillance, the collusion between states and corporations…

This put me in mind of an exchange over the academic rage for ecocentrism.

“Of course it would be great if most people adopted an attitude of reverence, humility, responsibility, and care toward the natural world. But I don’t share his confidence in a mass conversion to that ecocentric outlook as the most practicable way out of today’s impinging ecological impasse. Most people in our world are unlikely to see things that way while they are deprived of adequate food, water, housing, and health care. Environmental problems cannot be separated from our dominant political problems.” Leo Marx, Reply to Lawrence Buell

We can’t care about much beyond our noses.

In other words, drones are currently a “dominant political problem” in the FATA…in Yemen, in Nigeria (there are Chinese drones deployed there). Drones are toys here, hobbies, jokes on sitcoms…not monsters spitting fiery death at us. Soon, soon. In fact, this seems an aside, but it is brilliant marketing to make the language encompass killing machines and toys even as the toys, too, can be deployed to kill. One Drone Fits All.

Is this movie a burr under our saddle? Though it is powerful, the truth is, as a made thing we might encounter, it lives alongside YouTube videos that we can now call “drone porn.” It must compete with what calls to our basest selves. And it must compete with the claim that these weapons, which do not kill precisely and which are deployed in lands where there is no War–only violence perpetrated by this country as much or more than any other parties, are dancing above us, watching over us…are our better angels.

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