Drone Morality

In the fall of 2006 a local anti-war activist spoke to the students in my social inequality class. He criticized U.S. military intervention in the affairs of other countries and the profit-driven “global war on terror.” He was a compelling speaker in part because of his twenty years in the military, including stints in Special Forces as an Army Ranger. No one could dismiss him as a naive pacifist. At the end of his talk, a young woman asked, “If you feel the way you do, why did you join the army?” He said that it had taken him decades to arrive at his views. “Remember,” he said, “in 1970 I was a typical 18-year-old American boy.”

My guest speaker was a typical American boy in the sense that he saw military service as a rite of passage into manhood and a way to live out his macho fantasies. He was also a typical American boy in that he knew almost nothing about people in other countries, about history or geopolitics, or about U.S. imperialism. His ignorance and his desire for manhood status led him into the arms of a vast apparatus of violence from which it took twenty years to extricate himself. The same trap captures many young men today.

Turning adolescent fantasies and the desire for manhood status into collectively wrought horrors would not be possible, however, without the mass inculcation of drone morality, by which I mean a morality that reveres power and control, equates the good with rule-following and obedience to authority, and refuses to extend empathy to those defined as Others.

Military socialization is the paradigm case of instilling drone morality. Every army requires that young men be made willing to follow rules laid down by elites, to embrace the mission of controlling other human beings, and to treat those others as less than fully human. None of this would be possible if drone morality did not displace ordinary moral intuition.

Of course the foundations for drone morality are laid much earlier. Children are taught to obey at home, in school, and at church. In their first jobs, teens learn the importance of following rules and doing what the boss says. By the time many young men reach recruitment age, the habit of suspending critical thought when faced with orders handed down by authorities is well ingrained.

Overt socialization to obey and conform is easy to see. Nobody misunderstands what boot camp is about. But drone morality can also be taught in ways that pass without notice. Consider, for example, the damaging moral lessons encoded in President Barack Obama’s December 14, 2011, speech to soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, following the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

Obama’s immediate audience consisted mainly of soldiers, but the text of the speech was published in the New York Times, so it was also addressed to the nation. The speech touted the Iraq war as a resounding success, an effort of which all could be proud. It would be fair to say, on the contrary, that the nearly nine-year occupation of Iraq by US forces, far from being a success, was a disaster.

The results of this three-trillion-dollar effort included 4500 U.S. soldiers dead and another 32,000 seriously wounded;150,000 to 400,000 Iraqis killed; and another 2.3 million Iraqis turned into refugees. When the U.S. pulled out in December of 2011, 50% of Iraqis were living in slum conditions (up from 17% in 2000), 4.5 million children were orphaned, and 600,000 of schwalbebookthose orphans were living in the streets. The U.S.-backed government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki reeked with corruption and was creating an authoritarian police state, complete with the use of violence and torture to quash protest and the press. By January 2012, sectarian violence was resurging and threatening to tear the country apart. Today, militant jihadi groups in Iraq are stronger than they were a decade ago. If this constitutes success, the mind boggles to consider what failure would look like.

National leaders often try to describe defeat as victory. This is not a failing of personal honesty but a matter of necessity for maintaining the support of the populace and the military. Lies are thus to be expected. But lies can be packaged differently, and this packaging matters because of the moral outlook it affirms and privileges.

President Obama’s speech praised the returned soldiers for their demonstration of martial virtues: sacrifice, bravery, resolve, strength, endurance, willingness to bear the pain of loss, and loyalty to each other. Although both women and men are acknowledged in the speech, the qualities that Obama cites are those conventionally associated with male soldiers. Obedience was not explicitly mentioned, though its importance was affirmed in coded language.

Both President Obama and his wife Michelle, who introduced him, praised the soldiers for “answering the country’s call.” It was, in fact, Michelle Obama who most clearly underscored the importance of obedience when she said, “Whenever the country calls, you all are the ones who answer, no matter the circumstance, no matter the danger, no matter the sacrifice.”

To give praise for compliance whenever, no matter the circumstance, is to implicitly affirm the importance of doing what one is told and not thinking for oneself.  President Obama also offered praise for “your patriotism, your commitment to fulfill your mission” — which is to say, for the willingness to equate patriotism with following orders and for doing a job as instructed, no matter how corrupt the mission might have been. And lest the notion pass without challenge, it should be said that “the country” did not call any U.S. soldiers to invade and occupy Iraq. The call came from a cabal of war criminals in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Several parts of the speech are worth quoting at length, because they illustrate how drone morality is crafted in ways even more subtle than the implicit valorizing of obedience. After assuring members of his audience that the country would provide them with continuing benefits as further rewards for their service, President Obama told the following story.

But there is something else that we owe you. As Americans, we have a responsibility to learn from your service. I’m thinking of an example — Lieutenant Alvin Shell, who was based here at Fort Bragg. A few years ago, on a supply route outside Baghdad, he and his team were engulfed by flames from an RPG attack. Covered with gasoline, he ran into the fire to help his fellow soldiers, and then led them two miles back to Camp Victory where he finally collapsed, covered with burns. When they told him he was a hero, Alvin disagreed. “I’m not a hero,” he said. “A hero is a sandwich.” (Laughter.) “I’m a paratrooper.”

Audience: Hooah!

Obama: We could do well to learn from Alvin. This country needs to learn from you. Folks in Washington need to learn from you.

Audience: Hooah!

To be clear, the bravery and humility of Lieutenant Shell are not in question. In the immediate context of the attack, his actions were indeed heroic. But what exactly is the lesson that “folks in Washington” need to learn from this episode?

The lesson does not seem to be that it is wrong to invade other people’s countries under false pretenses and put U.S. soldiers in harm’s way, nor that war should be undertaken only as a last resort. After the affirming “Hooah!” Obama draws out the lesson:

Policymakers and historians will continue to analyze the strategic lessons of Iraq — that’s important to do.  Our commanders will incorporate the hard-won lessons into future military campaigns — that’s important to do.  But the most important lesson that we can take from you is not about military strategy — it’s a lesson about our national character. For all of the challenges that our nation faces, you remind us that there is nothing we Americans can’t do when we stick together.

The lesson, it seems, is that we can continue to get away with this kind of thing — invading and occupying other countries, and perhaps doing so more effectively — if we stick together and embrace the can-do spirit of Americanism.

There is of course another lesson about national character that can be inferred from the behavior of the U.S. vis-à-vis Iraq. A neutral observer might suppose that Americans are a people who feel entitled to exert control over the affairs of other people; who are willing to kill and injure a great many people as they try to exert control; who feel no remorse for the damage they cause to those whom they are trying to control; who cannot honestly assess the consequences of their actions; and who chronically fail to learn from their mistakes.

In the case of U.S. military intervention, learning from mistakes is hard because those who make the mistakes do not bear the costs. It is thus important that others be induced to bear those costs. Obama’s speech performs precisely this function. After telling the troops that they — the “9/11 Generation,” as he identifies them — have earned their place in history, he goes on to say:

Because of you — because you have sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny. That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.

This passage breathtakingly inverts reality. It portrays the brutal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation as a selfless humanitarian project reflecting nothing more than a love for democracy and a desire to help strangers in need. It is this sort of portrayal that leads people around the world to see Americans as dangerously delusional.

In fact, what U.S. soldiers participated in was not a mission to protect America or free the Iraqi people; it was a mob hit that killed thousands of innocent bystanders and ignited local turf wars. It is fair to say, however, that the invasion inadvertently created an opening for the Iraqi people to “forge their own destiny” — mainly by organizing themselves to drive the U.S. out.

What is made explicit in the passage of Obama’s speech that invokes “old empires” is American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States, unlike all other nations and empires throughout time, does what it does not out of a desire for resources or control, but because of transcendent values and a commitment to do what’s right. This theme of exceptionalism is underscored a few sentences later when Obama says this:

So here’s what I want you to know, and here’s what I want all our men and women in uniform to know: Because of you, we are ending these wars [Iraq and Afghanistan] in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure. Because of you. That success was never guaranteed. And let us never forget the source of American leadership: our commitment to the values that are written into our founding documents, and a unique willingness among nations to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity. This is who we are. That’s what we do as Americans, together.

As post-war speeches to soldiers go, this is standard fare. The Romans, it is worth remembering, never fought a war they didn’t publicly claim to be in defense of civilization. In another respect, this passage is remarkable for its unabashed distortion of reality and callous disregard for the costs borne by the Iraqi people, whose freedom and dignity were not advanced but rather trampled by foreign invaders.

Obama’s speech constructs a malignant myth about what it means to engage in mass violence as a member of the U.S. armed forces. “Never forget,” Obama said, “that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries.” “All of you here today,” he continued, “lived through the fires of war.  You will be remembered for it.  You will be honored for it — always. You have done something profound with your lives. … You will know that you answered when your country called; you served a cause greater than yourselves; you helped forge a just and lasting peace with Iraq, and among all nations.” The legacy of their efforts, Obama told members of his audience, “will endure … in the freedom of your children and grandchildren.”

Those with knowledge of history or even of daily world news might find the line about a just and lasting peace among all nations to be risible. But a person who survived combat and saw comrades hurt and killed could hardly be blamed for embracing the idea of having fought heroically for noble goals. Among those who had suffered, or had witnessed great suffering that they had helped perpetrate, who wouldn’t want to set aside doubts and believe?

The need for national and personal self-justification made the moment of Obama’s speech ripe for seeking comfort in drone morality — constituted here by unquestioning belief in the rightness of U.S. attempts to control other peoples, the rightness of rules and orders handed down by elites, and the rightness of limiting the circle of empathy to fellow Americans, lest feelings for the Iraqi people continue to leave consciences troubled.

Speeches like Obama’s can reverberate across generations. Just as the soldiers he addressed at Fort Bragg took comfort in being described as heroes, so will the next generation seek its own accolades, its own claims to timeless heroism, in the next invasion, occupation, or whatever is defined as “war.” Members of these generations to come — more young American males, knowing little about history, other peoples, or geopolitics — will want manhood status equal to that of their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and older brothers.

The irony is that manhood in America is often equated with rugged individualism. But this is in fact the opposite of what the military offers and demands. As an institution, the military requires individuals to give up their moral autonomy, to follow rules and obey orders, to repress moral qualms — to function, in effect, as drones.  Drone morality nonetheless seduces because it engenders a feeling of power that comes through submission to a larger power: the militarized collective. Young men who are otherwise powerless can thereby imagine themselves to possess magnificent masculine selves, even while acting as the tools of more powerful males.

Obama’s speech, while aimed most immediately at uplifting and comforting those who had been compelled to sacrifice much because of their subordinate status in a larger system of political economy, aimed to make drones of us all.

We are all given to understand that, as Americans, it is right and good to exert control over people half a world away; that it is right and good to accept the rules and orders and definitions of reality handed down by supposedly legitimate authorities; and that it is right and good to commit ourselves to solidarity with fellow Americans and not let this solidarity be undermined by feelings that tell us it is wrong to kill other people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children. We should, Obama tells us, admire those who have shown commitment, through military service, to these ideas of what is right and good.

Soldiers and ex-soldiers can and do break free of drone morality. The veteran who spoke to my class had done so. And so have many thousands of others, though usually only long after they have ceased being typical 18-year-old American boys. This is a hard reassessment to make. It requires facing the possibility that one’s manhood has been built on lies, that it is no more than a satisfying fantasy exchanged for the service of helping political and economic elites exploit the vulnerable.

And what if we don’t accept the faux patriotic notions of what is right and good that are conveyed by post-war presidential speeches? Then we are, by implication, inferior moral actors, bad Americans, unmanly. It is this painful intimation of inferiority that also makes drone morality seductive. By embracing drone morality, we can feel good and strong, even if we participate from a position of weakness in the perpetration of evil.

To resist the seductions of manhood status and drone morality requires rejecting nationalist and gender ideologies, as well as any form of economy that puts the many at the mercy of the few. What we stand to gain through such resistance is reclamation of our full capacities as moral actors. To throw off the chains of dronehood is not to seek manhood but humanity.

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com. His latest book is Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination (Paradigm, 2014), from which the above essay is adapted.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.