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May 27, 2013 11:58 AM The Chimera of Antiseptic War

By Ed Kilgore

Whatever you think of the policy on use of drones set out—or to be more accurate, pointed towards—by the president in his National Defense University speech last week, he did at least place the subject in the proper historical context:

As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions - about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.

But that’s as close as he came to an acknowledgement that drone warfare is just the latest example of the search for antiseptic forms of destruction for which Americans are especially prone, to our credit and to our peril.

The idea that our superior technology can find ways to destroy enemies with minimal U.S. combatant casualties goes back a long way. In some cases, it involved a conscious or semi-conscious tradeoff of the lives of enemy civilians for those of our own troops, as in the dubious strategic bombing campaigns of World War II (punctuated, of course, by Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Perhaps as an implicit reaction to the horrors of that war, the potential of technology to minimize “collateral damage” began to creep into justifications for waging war “scientifically,” as with the “surgical air strikes” and “strategic hamlets” of Vietnam, in which extraordinary forms of destruction were rhetorically sanitized. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, with its “smart bombs” and minimal U.S. combat deaths, Americans were lulled into thinking we had found a way to impose our will on an unruly world by brainpower, turning war into a video game.

It’s always been to a large extent a self-serving illusion, of course, as has been evidenced in no small part by the plight of our veterans, who have experienced “antiseptic” warfare as the horrific reality it remains, but whose testimony is lost in the bland and undifferentiated celebration of military heroism by civilians who don’t really want to know “what it was like.”

At WaPo a few days ago, Sebastian Junger reminded us of the moral hazard of delegating war to “the troops:”

Perhaps war is so obscene that even the people who supported it don’t want to hear the details or acknowledge their role. Soldiers face myriad challenges when they return home, but one of the most destructive is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that it — and not just the soldiers — went to war. The country approved, financed and justified war — and sent the soldiers to fight it. This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation. If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.

Ah, but now technology seems to have provided a way to all but completely banish “war guilt”—even if it’s only guilt about the deaths, injuries and traumas suffered by our troops—Americans quite naturally wish to avoid. “Surgical” unmanned weapons launched from the safety of stateside consoles can indeed reduce U.S. combat deaths and “collateral damage.” But as Obama alluded to in his call for Americans to “discipline our thinking and our actions,” and avoid a permanent war footing relying on “antiseptic” means, there is a great risk we’ll again be lulled into forgetting war’s nature, and the threat it poses not just to lives and property, and to the international moral standing of our country, but to every form of restraint placed on the use of government power.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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