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Reapers and hellfire: Drones and the slide into perpetual war

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The poison seeps slowly into the future. No one notices.

"The Obama administration," the Wall Street Journal informs us, "plans to arm Italy's fleet of Reaper drone aircraft, a move that could open the door for sales of advanced hunter-killer drone technology to other allies..."

I can't quite get beyond the name: Reaper drones?

"The Predator's manufacturer, General Atomics, later developed the larger Reaper," John Sifton wrote last February in The Nation, "a moniker implying that the United States was fate itself, cutting down enemies who were destined to die. That the drones' payloads were called Hellfire missiles, invoking the punishment of the afterlife, added to a sense of righteousness."

Early on, George Bush called his invasion of the Middle East "a crusade" and declared that "God is not neutral" in the war on terror. The rightist spin was that we had engaged "a clash of civilizations"; and Ann Coulter, articulating the unrestrained righteousness that 9/11 had unleashed in America, declared: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

As the war on terror moved from righteousness to quagmire, the inflammatory religious rhetoric was reined in, supplanted by far more politically correct propaganda: looking for weapons of mass destruction, promoting democracy and women's rights, etc. Church and state were neatly separated and the war went on.

But not only did we justify the war on terror with a multitude of lies, we never really excised the religious, or "crusading," fervor behind it. Evangelical Christianity has made huge incursions into the U.S. military in recent years, thus helping to unite apocalyptic, 12th-century, true-believer passions with the soulless neutrality of ultra-high-tech weaponry. The vengeful God lives! And he's found common cause with robot technology, or so I surmise as I read the Wall Street Journal's unquestioning business report on the administration's decision to sell Hellfire missile technology to Italy, thus advancing a new, insidious form of warfare deeper into the 21st century.

My concern is the advancement of drone technology, not what we call it. But if in our terminology we're summoning pre-rational mythological forces and equating the American military with supernatural beings -- the Grim Reaper and a vengeful, punishment-spewing God that has no moral qualms about mass murder (or torture, which is the purpose of hell) -- knowing this may be relevant to understanding what's actually going on.

In other words, is the nation, at least at a subconscious level, being driven by the worst of old-time religion?

While drones may represent the quintessence of soulless modernism, dehumanizing violence and making bureaucratic murder a technological reality -- computer operators several thousand miles from the action, in Nevada or Ohio, California or Missouri, can take out "insurgents" in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen with no more risk than gamers face as they pursue their fantasy conquest of evildoers -- drones also indulge a dark yearning to acquire godlike power, to attain omnipotence.

When we murder by drone, we may be both perpetuating an inhuman, bureaucratic control over random enemies and, at the same time, satisfying an age-old lust to play god. We're using the most advanced technology we possess to engage in behavior of shocking moral stagnancy.

What this prefigures is the future of war. Drones, wrote Richard Falk in an essay for Foreign Policy Journal, "seem destined to be central to operational planning for future military undertakings of the United States, with sharply escalating appropriations to support both the purchase of increasing numbers and varieties of drone."

And Ed Kinane, writing at Voices for Creative Nonviolence about the remarkable utility of drones, lamented: "Such distancing and such unaccountability almost guarantee mission creep. Mission creep means an easy slide into perpetual warfare. How juicy for General Atomics and the other corporate war profiteers!"

This is part of the grim, dark future the Reaper brings us -- perhaps more disturbing, Mr. Falk writes, even than nuclear weaponry, whose "catastrophic quality ... operates as an inhibitor of uncertain reliability, while with drones their comparative inexpensiveness and non-apocalyptic character makes it much easier to drift mindlessly until an unanticipated day of reckoning occurs by which time all possibilities of control will have been long lost."

He adds: "As with nuclear weaponry, climate change, and respect for the carrying capacity of the earth, we who are alive at present may be the last who have even the possibility of upholding the life prospects of future generations."

Such urgency can bring with it an unbearable pessimism. I insist on believing that the worst of human instincts are precariously balanced by the best. A passionate rejection of violence and economic injustice is spreading globally and manifesting politically, even if it remains beyond the awareness of the U.S. corporate media to grasp and report. That shouldn't be a reason for giving up.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. His email is koehlercw@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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