Thursday, May 02, 2013

Robert Jay Lifton on drone wars

Greg Mitchell interviews pyschiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (born 1926) on drone war and the human effects and risks of the drone technology, Robert Jay Lifton: How, and Why, the Media Have Failed on Drone War The Nation 05/02/2013.

Lifton himself has a two-part column on the topic at the Huffington Post, "10 Reflections on Drones" (Part 1 04/11/2013 and Part 2 04/12/2013).

In the interview, he focuses on how the drone technology is the latest in a line of technological wonders meant to save American lives in war, or at least justified that way:

The media have had difficulty covering this subject and that's partly because it is a revolutionary technology of killing and the media have trouble confronting what it is. There is now a certain amount of discussion of the political and legal side of drones. That's important but not itself fully sufficient. One has to look at why drones are so much depended on and so much an expression of executive power in our use of them. And one does have to raise legal questions about using them against American citizens but also others—especially when the purposes are not tied to war but to assassination.

Yes, some of the more thoughtful media have raised these questions but almost no one has raised the fundamental questions about drones—questions of the mind and technology. And I’m struck by the basic illusion of fighting a war without undergoing casualties. That's at the heart of things. What that means is you don't have to undergo the pain of losing young men and women or the related requirement of insisting that they "did not die in vain." That’s the central image of any war fighting. No one asks whether a drone died in vain when it explodes.
A central problem with this is that once you convince yourself that war can now be quick, easily and relatively painful for Our Side, it starts looking like a far more attractive option than it should.

In his article, Lifton says:

The claim of humane killing is reminiscent of the historical sequence of executions in carrying out the death penalty: from hanging and firing squads, to the guillotine, to electrocution, to the gas chamber, to the lethal injection. Each was introduced as more "humane" than the previous ones; yet with each there have been instances of highly painful and grotesque forms of dying. The dream of ever more humane killing goes hand in hand with advocacy of the death penalty. Psychologically, the more "humane" the method of execution is considered to be, the less it seems like actual killing. But the irreducible truth of killing is that it converts a person into a corpse. Ostensibly humane methods are meant to ease the individual and collective conscience of those who carry out or support the killing. The claim of humanity can thus lead to more killing.
Such compounding of atrocity is often the case with rescue technologies. Consider the development of airpower as a form of more flexible weaponry meant to replace the "senseless slaughter" of trench warfare. In the case of drones, their visual capabilities could seem to overcome the blind vulnerability of soldiers involved in counterinsurgency warfare. New technologies do change war-making but bring to it their own complications, their own forms of atrocity.
What happens when a weapon embraced as a panacea turns out to be a source of grave error? One psychological tendency could be that of embracing the technology ever more strongly in order to deny its fallibility. There could also be an opposite reaction of slowing down the use of the technology. In American society now both things seem to be going on at the same time. There is a report of the military cutting back its allocation for drones because of worries about some of these issues. But there are other reports about increasing military dependence on them, including sea-going and land drones, with an overall projection of making our army, navy and air force increasingly robotic. Whatever the national confusion and uncertainty, drones are likely to become increasingly prominent in the United States and elsewhere, for purposes of war-making and killing.


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