Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Keith Vaz droning on

Barack Obama's increasing reliance on the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan is raising eyebrows, though it's fair to say that the concern has been relatively muted until recently. Some of this is because there is a cross-party consensus in the US on taking out the bad guys before they become a threat. State-sponsored assassination is, of course, illegal under international law, but clever lawyers (of which Obama is one) are able to sidestep this procedural challenge quite easily.

The political investment in "surgical strike" technology is nothing new. The same claims of effectiveness (we land a knockout blow) and efficiency (without the need for ground troops) have been made since the RAF bombed Iraq in the 1920s (a model that led directly to the Blitz and Dresden, which were somewhat less surgical). Remote killing through precision-bombing and smart missiles has been a growing feature of conflicts since WW2, as boots on the ground have proven ineffective and inefficient in asymmetric conflicts such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. The "clean kill" promise of this technology has sometimes been important in building the justification for conflict, and as the centrepiece of the psychological campaign (e.g. "shock and awe" in Iraq). There are grounds to believe that the apparent low-risk attractions of this strategy are making armed intervention more likely, such as in Libya.

The military-industrial complex has been happy to move from costly contractors in Baghdad to even more costly drones operated out of Nevada, with the market for this technology expected to double over the decade. The claims that drones minimise collateral damage should be treated with scepticism. Not only is it true that all wars are largely a series of murderous accidents, but "intelligence-led" kill-lists are vulnerable to local spotters fingering innocent targets in return for a fat finder's fee. We've added a free market twist to the bureaucratic nightmare of totalitarianism: your name is on the list so you must be guilty.

What we're seeing under Obama may be the evolution of drones from a purely military option to a foreign-policy tool for disciplining recalcitrant countries with whom the US isn't even formally in conflict. Should Pakistan reopen the supply routes to Afghanistan, you can expect drone strikes in Waziristan to drop off.

It seems odd that at such a time Keith Vaz, the Grand Poobah of the Home Affairs Select Committee, is calling for restrictions on "aggressive first-person shooter video games". This follows Anders Breivik's admission that he used Call of Duty as a form of training, which strikes me simply as more evidence that he is a fantasist. Vaz seems less worried about Breivik's obsession with World of Warcraft, perhaps calculating that banning Orcs might be going too far. The case against COD has been reinforced by claims that Mohammed Merah, the self-styled jihadi of Toulouse, was also a heavy user, presumably when he wasn't reading the Koran or watching The Simpsons. Vaz's intervention is typical of the self-publicising nonsense that recently led him to invite Russell Brand to share his wisdom on drugs with the Committee.

The link between Keith Vaz and Barack Obama (not a phrase often employed) concerns desensitisation. Shoot-em-ups do not cause mild-mannered people to turn into murderers, but the method of killing at a remove, mediated by a screen and a joystick, may well make killing easier in real life. Soldiers have to be trained to kill through repetitive drill and the depersonalisation of the enemy because the natural instinct of all of us (bar the small minority of functioning psychopaths) is to shoot in the air or soften the blow. Even the most pacific among us can happily kill countless opponents in COD because we know it isn't real. The question is, how real does it feel for a drone operator?

The ultimate desensitisation occurs when your action is so far removed from its consequences that your intellectual and emotional engagement is limited solely to the dynamics of the action itself. This is one of the fundamental criticisms of the market and the "fiction" of money. Derivatives and futures are extreme examples of this, where the trade is divorced from the notional commodity. I was reminded of this watching Trading Places again recently, where the coup to corner the frozen orange juice market depends on insider information from actual producers. It was barely credible in the 1980s and is amusingly quaint now, like Jamie Lee-Curtis's happy hooker.

There is a strange convergence here. Financial dealers have deserted the whites-of-their-eyes trading floors to sit in front of screens on which stylised indicators plot the movements of abstract entities such as shares and derivatives. Meanwhile the desktop warriors in suburban Virginia work through their to-do lists, zapping the fuzzily rendered vehicles and buildings that constitute the manifestations of the known threat. There'll shortly be an app for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment