Robert Mueller And The Cruise Missile: Ready To Be Fired

All–especially my fellow American citizens–praise the cruise missile. This marvelous weapon, “a guided missile used against terrestrial targets…remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at approximately constant speed.” It is “designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision.” It can be launched off-shore from a ship, or from aircraft, obviating the need for the infamous ‘boots on the ground.’ The cruise missile allows foreign policy to be conducted from afar; no messy ‘contact’ with the ‘enemy’ is required. Launchings from ships typically take place at night, making for pleasing visuals tailor-made for display on the nightly news. There is something of the robot in the cruise missile; think of it as a self-driving car that likes to blow up other things. It is the modern saber; those who rattle it know its pleasing features all too well.  Patriotism and war-mongering might be last refuge of the scoundrel, but it is hard to resist the temptation to make war in the way that the cruise missile permits. US presidents are not the only ones seduced by cruise missiles; military planners the world over, going back perhaps to Adolf Hitler, whose fantasies most definitely included the legends V-1 and V-2, have long dreamed about winning wars by merely showering their enemies with enough cruise missiles to make other kinds of military intervention unnecessary.

Most crucially, a cruise missile only costs a paltry couple of million dollars, thus making it the ideal weapon for any US president looking to bolster sagging approval ratings, unite the country around a surge of patriotism and xenophobia directed at unnamed external enemies, or, if needed, divert attention from an ongoing special investigation that is starting to look inquiringly in the direction of hush payments made to a pornographic movie actress during an election season.

The coincidence of an FBI raid on Donald Trump’s lawyer’s office and a chemical attack in Syria offers the best chance for the President to have his turn at firing a few of these cruise missiles again. An American destroyer–one with approximately five dozen Tomahawk missiles on board–has moved into position off the coast of Syria, and the president himself, in acknowledgement of the Very Serious Situation in Syria, has postponed his official trip to Latin AmericaThe Trump administration fired cruise missiles at Syria last April; a year has gone by, and the president’s fingers must be twitching by now. A considerable privilege of the president’s office is the chance to play with expensive, high-precision weaponry, and for a man with the sensibility of an eleven-year old, firing cruise missiles only once a year must seem like slim pickings for such an exalted office.

The firings of these cruise missiles might, for good measure, be accompanied by the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News, that feeder of talking points, and indeed, entire scripts, to the Republican Party, has been beating the ‘fire Mueller’ drum for a while now. The Republican Party is well aware their base has been fed this line and is well prepared for the Mother of All Firings. So, I think, should be the American nation.

Thinking Of Autonomous Weapons In ‘Systems’ Terms

A persistent confusion in thinking about weapons and their regulation is to insist on viewing weapons in isolation, and not as part of larger, socio-political-economic-legal-ethical systems. This confusion in the domain of gun control for instance, inspires the counter-slogan ‘guns don’t kill people; people kill people.’ Despite its glibness–and its misuse by the NRA–the slogan encapsulates a vital truth: it is singularly unilluminating to consider a weapon in isolation. Indeed, the object we term a weapon is only within the context a large system that makes it one. A piece of metal is a knife because it is used as one, pressed into service as one by a decision-making agent of some kind, to cut objects, vegetable or animal.

Which brings us to autonomous weapons, a domain where the ethical and regulatory debate is quite clearly demarcated. The case for autonomous weapons is exceedingly familiar: they are more humane because of their greater precision; they can be used to reduce the ‘cost’ of war, both human and material; no more carpet-bombing, just precision strikes, delivered by autonomous weapons–which moreover, reduce the strain of killing on humans. (That is, these weapons are kinder to those who kill and those who are killed.) The case against them is similarly familiar: the delegation of lethal decision making to a machine incapable of fine-grained ethical deliberation is an invitation to moral atrocity, to a situation in which lurking catastrophes are triggered by a moral calculus that makes decisions which are only superficially technically correct. The immaturity of such systems and the algorithms they instantiate makes them especially risky to deploy and use.

Autonomous weapons do not exist in isolation, of course; they are more correctly considered autonomous weapons systems–as one part of an economic, military, legal, political, and moral calculus; their use as weapons is not merely function of their machinic code; it is a function, rather, of a much more complex ‘code’ made up of bits of legal regulations, political imperatives, and physical and economic constraints. It is these that act together, in concert, or in opposition, to ‘fire’ the weapon in question. As such, some of the ‘ethical’ arguments in favor of autonomous weapoons systems look a little trite: yes, autonomous weapons system carry the potential to enable more targeted and precise killing, but the imperatives to do so still need to be human directed; their force is channeled and directed and perhaps weakened or strengthened–by all sorts of system level and corporate constraints like political ones. The questions such systems prompt are, as they should be, quite different from those that might be directed at an ‘isolated weapon’: Who owns them? Who ‘controls’ them? What are safeguards on their inappropriate use? Which system’s political and economic and moral imperatives are written into its operational procedures? The world’s deadliest bomber can be grounded by a political command, its engines left idling by politics; it can also be sent half-way around the world by a similar directive.

An illustrative example may be found in the history of computing itself: the wide-scale deployment of personal computing devices in office settings, their integration into larger ‘enterprise’ systems, was a long and drawn out process, one suffering many birthing pains. This was because the computers that were placed in offices, were not, despite appearances, isolated computing devices; they were part of computing systems. They were owned by the employer, not the employee, so they were not really ‘personal’; their usage–hours, security access etc–was regulated by company rules; the data on their drives belonged to the employer. (For instance, to print a document, you accessed a networked printer administered by an Information Systems Group; or, the computers are not accessible on weekends or after hours.) Under these circumstances, it was a category mistake to regard these machines as isolated personal computing devices; rather, they were part of a much larger commercial system; their human users were one component of it. Claims about their capacities, their desirability, their efficiencies were only coherently made within the framework of this system.

Similar considerations apply to autonomous weapons; talk of their roles in warfare, their abilities, and the like, are only meaningfully expressed within a discursive framework that references the architecture of the system the weapon in question functions as a part of.

 

The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

In 1947, even as India attained independence from colonial subjugation, war broke out in Kashmir as guerrillas backed by Pakistan sought to bring it into the Pakistani fold. That war ended in stalemate after intervention by the UN. Since then, the fledgling nation of India has gone to war four more times: first, in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s darkest hour, against China, a war that ended in a humiliating loss of territory and self-esteem, which left Nehru a broken man, and ultimately finished him off; then, in 1965, India and Pakistan fought their way to another inconclusive stalemate over Kashmir; in 1971, India fought a just war to bring freedom to the erstwhile East Pakistan, producing the new nation of Bangladesh in the process (war broke out on the western and eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly as the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later); finally, in 1999, India forced its old nemesis, Pakistan, back from the brink of nuclear war by pushing them off the occupied heights of Kargil. War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. India, and its understanding of itself, has changed over the years; Bollywood has tried to keep track of these changes through its movies, in its own inimitable style. In a book project that I am working on, and for which I have just signed a contract with HarperCollins (India), I will examine how well it has succeeded in this task.  (I have begun making notes for this book and anticipate a completion date of May 31st 2018; the book will come to a compact sixty thousand words.)

In my book, I will take a close look at the depiction of war and Indian military history in Bollywood movies. I will do this by examining some selected ‘classics’ of the Bollywood war movie genre; by closely ‘reading’ these movies, I will inquire into what they say about the Indian cinematic imagination with regards to—among other things—patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, and how they act to reinforce supposed ‘Indian values’ in the process. Because Bollywood both reflects and constructs India and Indians’ self-image, this examination will reveal too the Indian popular imagination in these domains; how can Indians come to understand themselves and their nation through the Bollywood representation of war?

Surprisingly enough, despite India having waged these four wars in the space of merely fifty-one years, the Bollywood war movie genre is a relatively unpopulated one, and moreover, few of its movie have been commercial or critical successes. The Bollywood war movie is not necessarily an exemplary example of the Bollywood production; some of these movies did not rise to the level of cinematic or popular classics though their songs often did. This puzzling anomaly is matched correspondingly by the poor state of military history scholarship in India. My book aims to address this imbalance in two ways. First, by examining the Bollywood war movie itself as a movie critic might, it will show how these movies succeed or fail as movies qua movies and as war movies in particular. (Not all Bollywood war movies feature war as a central aspect, as opposed to offering a backdrop for the central character’s heroics, sometimes captured in typical Bollywood formulas of the romantic musical. This is in stark contrast to the specialized Hollywood war movie, of which there are many stellar examples in its history.) Second, by paying attention to the place of these wars in Indian popular culture, I will contribute to a broader history of these wars and their role in the construction of the idea of India. Nations are sustained by dreams and concrete achievement alike.

After a brief historical introduction to Bollywood, I will critically analyze selected movies–(Haqeeqat, 1971, Aakraman, Lalkaar, Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hum Dono, Lakshya, LOC Kargil, Deewar (2004 version), Shaurya, Tango Charlie, and Vijeta)–beginning with post-WWII classics and chronologically moving on to more contemporary offerings. Along the way, I hope to uncover–in a non-academic idiom–changing ideas of the Indian nation, its peoples, and the Indian understanding of war and its relationship to Indian politics and culture as Bollywood has seen it. This book will blend cinematic and cultural criticism with military history; the wars depicted in these movies serve as factual backdrop for their critical analysis. I will read these movies like texts, examining their form and content to explore what they teach us about Bollywood’s attitudes about war, the effects of its violence on human beings, on the role of violence in human lives, on how romantic love finds expression in times of war, how bravery, cowardice, and loyalty are depicted on the screen. I will explore questions like: What does Bollywood (India) think war is? What does it think happens on a battlefield? Why is war important to India? What does Bollywood think India is, and why does it need defending from external enemies? Who are these ‘external enemies’ and why do they threaten India? How does Bollywood understand the military’s role in India and in the Indian imagination? And so on.

 

Nixon, Kissinger, And The 1971 Genocide In Bangladesh

This evening, Jagan Pillarisetti and will be speaking at the New York Military Affairs Symposium on ‘Indian Air Force Operations in the 1971 Liberation War.’ Our talk will be based on our book Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (Harper Collins, 2013). Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

I’ve been warming up for the talk by reading Gary BassThe Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide and I’m reminded, yet again, of what total and utter shits and moral reprobates those two were. There is little I can say to lengthen the already existent and damning charge sheets against Henry Kissinger (the approval of whom by Hillary Clinton was one of the many reasons why I could not bring myself to vote for her.) Let me instead, quote the always eloquent and erudite Patrick S. O’Donnell on the subject:

Henry Kissinger, a moral monster who exemplified the dark arts of immoral and amoral Realpolitik while at the pinnacle of political power in the United States, is a living reminder of why we established (several ad hoc and hybrid, as well as one permanent) international criminal tribunals and need universal jurisdiction in the quest for international criminal justice. If you’re not well acquainted with the precise reasons why Kissinger is rightly referred to in some quarters as a “war criminal” (although one could plausibly argue he is also guilty of crimes against humanity and complicity in genocide, among other crimes), see the first and still best summary of the particulars of this searing public indictment in Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Twelve, 2012; first edition, Verso, 2001, 2002 with new preface).

Bass’ book notes that despite a series of anguished reports emanating from US diplomatic staff in Dacca–headed by Archer Blood–who bore witness to the Pakistani Army genocide in Bangladesh, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not only ignored these pleas to publicly condemn these atrocities, they refused to bring any pressure to bear on the Pakistani military administration–including but not limited to, not allowing American arms to be used in the massacres. Worse, they remained actively hostile to the Indian government, which was then dealing with an influx of ten million refugees fleeing the killings in East Pakistan. As Bass notes:

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis. This overlooked episode deserves to be a defining part of their historical reputations. But although Nixon and Kissinger have hardly been neglected by history, this major incident has largely been whitewashed out of their legacy—and not by accident. Kissinger began telling demonstrable falsehoods about the administration’s record just two weeks into the crisis, and has not stopped distorting since.

My father fought in the 1971 war as a pilot in the Indian Air Force; I’m glad he did.

Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

The Pat Tillman who is the centerpiece of Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a familiar, often admirable, archetype: the ‘warrior’ who wants to fight, to win glory, but who doubts the moral standing of the domain in which he will exercise his courage and skills, and as such, his own standing as a hero. This kind of soldier finds deeply problematic all those aspects of military life which are the subject of critique by those on the ‘outside’: the fascist discipline, the endless chickenshit (so memorably described by Paul Fussell in Wartime), the dubious justification of deadly violence, the quiescent acceptance of political atrocity. This ‘warrior’ finds, in the company he keeps, the best and worst humanity has to offer; his companions are not the bravest, the best, or anything like that; they are, instead, in the diversity they embody, perfectly ordinary. The battlefield promises sublimity, but it is also a zone for stupidity, cowardice, treachery, and the worst humanity has to offer. This ‘warrior’ sees it all; takes it all in; and continues to fight, to support his ‘brothers in arms.’ He remains conflicted; not for him the simple clarity of those who obey orders and care for little else. His inconsistency is a familiar one; we are all afflicted by it. We know we can despise something one moment, and yet still be unable to tear ourselves away from it, because of a conflicting commitment.

Tillman, an NFL player who signed up for the US Army after 9/11 because he wanted to ‘do something,’ to ‘fight for the right thing,’ found, almost immediately, that the military was not what he imagined it to be, that the wars he would fight were not the ones he imagined them to be. Yet, he fought on, unwilling to back out and quit even when he had the chance to do so–his contractual commitment called for a three-year stint, and he would complete it, despite his increasing disgust at the conduct of war, at military manners and ways of being. Given the conflict that seemed to be an ever-present aspect of his life in the military, his life’s end seemed grimly appropriate: Tillman was killed, in Afghanistan, by ‘friendly fire’ and his death was covered up by a military and administration keen to use his death for its propaganda value, to cover up any of its own operational, tactical, and ultimately, moral, shortcomings.

There will be more wars in our future, and many more soldiers will die fighting them. They will continue to fight alongside the ‘dregs of humanity’ and the ‘best their nation has to offer’; they will be led by clowns and geniuses alike; they will kill innocents. And  they will include, in their ranks, soldiers like Pat Tillman (and Bowe Bergdahl.) They will be caught up in the rush, but they will find time to step back and cast a quizzical glance over it all. Reading about them is useful, especially in the American context; we are a nation that fights wars all the time; we should know who fights for us, and what is on their minds. We should expect to find humans in all their complicated glory.

 

The ‘Pundits’ Are Right: Exploiting War Widows Is Presidential

It’s a hoary tradition; it’s what you do. You fight a war; you send men and women to their deaths (after they’ve sent other men and women and children to their deaths); then, at home, you make plans to fight another war, and you beat the war drums and fill up the war chests by parading the widows and the orphans out in the open for all to see. Here they are, the mourners; let us look somberly and seriously upon their grief-stricken faces, the evidence of the devastation of war all too apparent, and let us–while acknowledging their sacrifice–make plans to wage more war, kill more men and women and children, here and elsewhere, so we can find ourselves here, perhaps in a cemetery, perhaps in a legislative chamber, doing this all again, preparing to fight another war.

All those who wage war do it. It’s how you keep war going. The war dead are gone, consigned to the flames, or lowered six feet under; their families live on, as props in a grotesque stage-managed farce. The dead’s bodies are gone; but other modes of existence are still available to be called upon. As are those they leave behind.

Last night, Donald Trump invoked a poorly planned and executed raid that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy Seal and–let us not forget–several civilians, including women and children, to pay homage to the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, then attending Trump’s speech to the US Congress. Rather predictably, American punditry hailed this moment as ‘presidential,’ a sign that Donald Trump had acquired some new-found gravitas.

The pundits are right. Trump was indeed presidential at that moment. Presidents declare war; they are the Commanders-in-Chief; they sign the orders that kill. And then, to keep fighting wars, they engage in public embraces of the families of the dead, clasping their hands tightly, delivering beautifully drafted and crafted speeches, calling for ovations, and invoking the notion of being ‘blessed.’ (Donald Trump was honest enough to make sure the spotlight swung back to him by making note of how the resultant standing ovation had been the longest ever, thus once again fueling intense speculation about whether his hands are the only small part of his body.)

These acts of exploitation are part of a long-standing tradition called ‘honoring the troops.’ They are ostensibly displays of patriotism and nationalism; they are how a ‘grateful nation’ shows its appreciation of the ‘ultimate sacrifice.’ Everyone stands up; everyone claps; the pundits watching sagely nod their heads and comment on how intensely moving the moment was, how the nation ‘comes together’ at times like these, putting aside their political differences, and preparing to move on.

Greater horse shit hath no man.

There is a simple, less mawkish, less exploitative, less expensive way to honor the war dead, to recognize their ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ to ‘support our troops’: stop fighting wars. Bring home mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Get soldiers’ families off the stage, and back home.