Neat, Painless, Perpetual War

by , February 03, 2010

"It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it!"
- Gen. Robert E. Lee

In the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon," Capt. James T. Kirk and crew beam down to planet Eminiar VII against the wishes of its government to find what appears to be a peaceful, highly advanced civilization. In reality, however, the planet has been at war with a nearby planet for over 500 years, suffering the loss of up to 3 million inhabitants annually. They have managed to continue functioning as a society by conducting their war entirely by computer. The computer on one planet fires virtual salvos at the other planet, whose computer in turn selects individuals who have been deemed casualties of the war. Those individuals are then ordered to report to disintegration chambers, whereupon they are vaporized. The citizens of both planets seem to accept this as their patriotic duty, for they do indeed report to the disintegration chambers when so ordered. In this way the bloodlust of both planets’ governments is satisfied while their civilizations are spared the destruction caused by bombs and bullets and are therefore able to maintain the veneer of civil society.

Kirk and crew – even the highly logical Mr. Spock – immediately recognize the situation’s moral repugnance. Senselessly and bloodlessly killing people on the orders of a machine, making possible a war lasting half a millennium, is no way for a supposedly civilized people to act. Says Kirk to Anan 7, the leader of the Eminiar council:

"Death, destruction, disease, horror: that’s what war is all about, Anan. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. But you’ve made it neat and painless – so neat and painless you’ve had no reason to stop it, and you’ve had it for 500 years. Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew [declared dead by the war computer and slated for annihilation] and my ship, I’m going to end it for you – one way or another."

Kirk’s way of ending the war is to destroy the war computers, thus forcing the two planets either to begin fighting a real war or to sue for peace. Wisely, they choose the latter.

This episode, first telecast in 1967, during a very real war in Vietnam, likely seemed farfetched at the time. While we haven’t yet arrived at the stage of conducting wars completely by computer, at least from an American perspective we are far closer to it today than we were back when William Shatner was thin and Leonard Nimoy didn’t have arthritis.

I well recall the sense of pride I felt back during the first Gulf War in 1991 as I sat in front of my TV set, watching bombs fall from U.S. fighter jets onto buildings in Baghdad, not from cameras positioned at a distance from the bombing but from those right inside the planes! The visiting team was clobbering the home team on the home team’s own turf! As a conservative Republican at the time, deaths of Iraqis didn’t concern me in the least – they deserved it for not ousting Saddam Hussein, after all – and besides, I never saw any bodies, so I could simply pretend they didn’t exist. Hardly any Americans – the only ones who really counted, anyway – were killed, and I never saw those bodies either. Anyone who bothered to point out the death and destruction being wrought upon Iraq was, as far as I was concerned, an anti-American leftist who could be safely ignored. Apparently a large majority of Americans shared my opinion: President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings shot to a record high of 89 percent.

Not for nothing is that war sometimes called the "computer war." Computers guided many of the missiles and bombs rained down upon innocent Iraqis. Meanwhile, for those of us keeping score at home, the technology employed by the military and the broadcast media allowed us to watch the Big Game live from the comfort of our couches, cheering on our team while not having our mental images of glorious victory stained with the blood of its victims.

Today we are even more detached from the horrors of war than we were in 1991. Fighter jets can be dispatched from military installations inside the U.S. to bomb distant countries. Unmanned drones kill people, regardless of their guilt or innocence, in Afghanistan and Pakistan while those controlling them enjoy the balmy climate of Florida, in danger of little more than sunburn. Few photographs of bombed-out neighborhoods or war-ravaged bodies appear in mainstream media outlets. President George W. Bush prohibits pictures of the flag-draped coffins of dead U.S. servicemen, and then, when President Barack Obama lifts the ban, the media can’t be bothered even to take the pictures because they’re so enamored of Obama and desperately trying to spin the ongoing wars in his favor.

At the same time, the culture at large encourages this uninterested approach. Movies and TV shows continually up the ante on how much violence can safely be depicted. Video games in which virtual humans are murdered in the goriest ways possible enthrall our youth. Having become so desensitized to violence when it’s employed against the "right" people as defined by our culture and political system – after all, deaths in movies and video games aren’t real, so what harm is there? – we find it easy to accept the long-distance homicide of blips on a monitor, especially when we don’t even have to see those blips, let alone consider that they are living, breathing humans with the same right to life that our soldiers are allegedly defending on our behalf. Why do you think the U.S. military uses violent video games as a recruitment tool?

The U.S. has been at war with Iraq to one degree or another for nearly two decades now. We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for over eight years. We’ve conducted military incursions into Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and many other countries in the past 30 years. We have had troops engaged in a standoff in Korea since I Love Lucy was the number-one program on television. Have you noticed any of this? Has it genuinely affected the way you go about your daily life?

If you’re like most Americans, your answer is no. Unless you’ve known someone in the military who was deployed to one of these conflicts (particularly if that person was wounded or killed), you’ve most likely gone on about your business with little awareness of the horrors being visited by and upon American soldiers and sailors. Occasionally, if something really spectacular – or horrible, depending on your point of view – hits the news wires, you may be reminded that there’s a war going on, but you will quickly be returned to your regularly scheduled ignorance. Like the people of the two warring planets on Star Trek, as long as your way of life is not impinged upon by the war, you are perfectly happy to let it continue for decades, if not centuries.

In fact, the only thing that may prevent the U.S. from being at war until the year 2525 is economic reality. Even if we could put our own version of Kirk’s plan into action, forcing our servicemen to engage the enemy in person, our government chooses to fight such tenth-rate powers that the harm they could inflict on our soldiers and our own territory is so minuscule as to have little effect on Americans’ attitudes toward war. On the other hand, a collapse of our economy, which is quite foreseeable even now, will force an end to our seemingly eternal war with Eurasia, Eastasia, and every other enemy our government has dreamed up for us. The cost of empire has brought down every other great power. What makes us think it will not be our undoing?

Read more by Michael Tennant