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« Harvard KSG on 'Unmanned and Robotic Warfare' | Main | Provocation: Wiring Terrorist Sanctuaries »

Brave New World?

I would like to flip this discussion around somewhat, and engage Singer's Wired for War on another level.  One of the things that I liked is the manner in which he weaves military technology, warfare, sci-fi, and pop culture together to tell his stories.  And it is in this manner that I wish to engage with this work.  

As I read Wired for War, I couldn't help get the lyrics of Brooklyn rapper Jeru the Damaja in my head.  One of Jeru's biggest tracks from the 90s was "Revenge of the Prophet, Part 5," about Jeru's heated battle with his arch-rival, "Tricknology."  The battle unfolds all over the streets of Brooklyn as Jeru, "The Last Prophet," is determined to prevent Trick from seducing all of us with his smooth voice and easy life.  But the Prophet is here to keep it on the real.  And seriously, it's just a killer track.

Over and over again, as I read about the role of technology, robots, and distance warfare in Wired for War, I kept coming back to both Jeru warning us against Tricknology and the words of a soldier piloting drones in Iraq from a base in Qatar, “It’s like a video game.  It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.” [p. 332].  This sentence, which is repeated a few times throughout the book, leaves me feeling kind of unsettled. 

On that same page, Singer also gives the example of two drone pilots, presumably somewhere in the continental United States.  One, Sgt. William Coleman recognises his disconnet from the battlefield, “Every now and then, you’re like, ‘Man, these guys are really taking fire!’  You just want to get out there and help them.”  His co-pilot, Specialist Jonathan Whitaker, declares that “Yeah, war is hell.” But the two, who spend their entire day flying drones in a setting that is like a real-world video game, then spend their downtime playing Medal of Honour, a violent video game. [p. 332].  Yet, Coleman and Whitaker can still make the distinction between virtual reality and actual reality. 

Not everyone can.  Video games, especially violent ones, have a tendency to desensitise us to the violence, we no longer see it, it becomes entertainment.  (Of course, video games aren’t the only aspect of our culture that do this).  And so war becomes another form of entertainment.  Indeed, Singer himself discusses “war porn” amongst soldiers and officers back in the US, watching footage shot from drones in Afghanistan and Iraq.         

War porn arises from the fact that I can Google video of drone footage from Iraq and Afghanistan right now, and watch it on my computer screen.  I can then forward it around to my friends and family, exhorting to them to watch footage of soldiers, insurgents, and IEDs being blown up real good.  It becomes like the British band James, in an eerily prescient bit, sang in the late 1990s: “Across the satellite beams/across the oceans and seas/to the lighthouse I can be/I see some soldiers with guns/And they are killing for fun/They are killing to entertain me.” (Note, amazingly, there is no video or live performance of this track anywhere on the web.  Go figure).

This is not a good thing.  On the military end, we end up with generals in Washington seduced by this porn into thinking they know what's happening on the battlefields on the other side of the world.  The general public also gets seduced into thinking that they know what's going on over on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.  It gives them the impression that all the misery, suffering, drama, and danger of World War II or Vietnam is now a thing of the past.  War is easy.  Then they begin to wonder why this war is dragging on so long, and so many soldiers are coming home in boxes.  Why are they being killed in some faraway, distant land?  And why are they dying in a war that's supposed to be easy?  We've seen this movie before.  It was called BlackHawk Down.  And then, because the Americans are reticent to get involved, so, too, is the rest of the West.  And we get to watch movies like Srebrenica, Bosnia, or Rwanda all over again. 

And then, we're all hearing Jeru's righteous stance against Tricknology in our ears.  

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Reader Comments (1)

The last two paragraphs home a key point. Look at the debacle in Somalia, most know this as "Blackhawk Down"; commanders seduced by the (porn?) idea that technology gave them real time situational awareness, did not give them the required situational understanding and made decisions from the air that should have been made on the ground.

Apr 1, 2009 at 12:41 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Terry Tucker

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