The Technocracy Prepares for War

MilitarismMany have blamed American militarism on George W. Bush. Whether cast as cowboy, crusader, or dupe of the Angler, the ex-president was a convenient scapegoat. By 2008, voters felt comforted that neither the technocrat Obama nor the veteran McCain would recapitulate the tragedy of Iraq. And yet here we are, five years later, with both men uniting behind another “intervention.”

With the Bush bogeyman gone, the new war drive raises deep questions about the US political system. The Syria proposal is so at odds with what the American people want, what the world appears to want, and what even many of its intended beneficiaries want, that the question arises: what does the Administration know that we don’t? What gives them confidence that the US can accomplish its “three missions” in Syria? Andrew Bacevich puts the question plainly:

If you think back to 1980, and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia — and on and on, and ask yourself, ‘What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more democratic? Are we enhancing America’s standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?’ ‘The answers are, ‘No, no, and no.’ So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome?

The other “big story” of the summer helps explain the hubris. If you had access to an intelligence apparatus as pervasive and expert as NSA/DIA/CIA/NGA et al., would you think you were missing anything? The lesson of history is that conflict is unpredictable, and can quickly spin out of control. But the dream of mass surveillance is mastery and control. Precrime, prewar, all manner of incipient evils: with enough anticipatory knowledge all can eventually be modulated away and conquered.

Humility as Credibility

The key step here is modeling that mistakes patterns in human affairs for the regularities of natural science. Supposedly “data driven,” the resulting simulations reflect the values of those behind them. William Bogard has argued that:

Technologies of simulation are forms of hypersurveillance, where the prefix hyper implies not simply an intensification of surveillance, but the effort to push surveillance technologies to their absolute limit. That limit is an imaginary line beyond which control operates, so to speak, in advance of itself, and where surveillance—a technology of exposure and recording—evolves into a technology of pre-exposure and pre-recording, a technical operation in which all control functions are reduced to modulations of preset codes. . . . .[T]he command-control-communications webs, war game hardware, and artificial intelligence systems that organize the modern, electronic space of war . . . . converge in a coherent and universal military apparatus.

When we hear about American “credibility” being at stake in the Syrian conflict, what’s really at stake is the President’s ability to create a certain future—one where a “red line” is a Rubicon leading to swift judgment and unflinching resolve. But wouldn’t a wiser man simply say: “I was wrong to set an ultimatum. Recent history proves this region is far too complex for us to influence constructively. I didn’t fully understand the situation when I promised some sort of intervention. I was wrong.” Or simply acknowledge that once the press turned the American people’s attention on the matter, it was obvious the country as a whole has no apppetite for the mission?

A sober awareness of the limits of power does not come easily to a 2-term president. Interviewed about the work of Reinhold Niebuhr in 2007, Obama had this to say:

I take away [from Niebuhr] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

In this conflict, flinging missiles strikes few as the via media between idealism and realism. Humility is essential. As Bishop Robert Lynch recently stated,

The slightest provocation from one country in a world not united in its resolve to attack the evil dictator of Syria could lead to more bloodshed, and enormous consequences. . . . I am ashamed to say that the Catholic Church in the United States sadly gave President George W. Bush largely a free pass on Iraq. It was a shame then and its consequences even now are incredible. The USCCB [US Conference of Catholic Bishops] did not even react strongly in defense of Blessed John Paul II when he sent Cardinal Pio Laghi (formerly Nuncio to the United States and thought to be a friend of the Bush Family) to personally ask President Bush not to take that action and the President “blew him off.”

Did the US bring peace to Iraq? I don’t see it. Did we bring stability to the Middle East? I don’t see it either. His father, the first President Bush, built an international coalition to free Kuwait from the invasive heel of Saddam Hussein and then, achieving his limited mission, he and the allies stopped having met their goal. Kuwait was most likely a just use of force, narrowly targeted to achieve a restoration of government to a small country without a military to speak of. The search for the Taliban met the litmus test of justice when it began and has had certain success but soon we will leave an Afghanistan more divided than before and with a less than certain future. We are not a good international police-keeping force and we lose lives, spend incredible sums of money in efforts which are hardly called successful, and sometimes end up making the alleged cure more deadly than the original disease.

We often hear that irrational religious attachments lead to the escalation of conflict, while cool technical calculation would bring peace. But let’s not forget the role of technology in cultivating the forms of surveillance and force that themselves seem to be the chief motive for war-supporters’ confident claims about “limited missions” and “surgical strikes.” In important ways, “We do not direct these, our alleged powers; if anything, they direct us and determine the conditions of our lives, developing with a momentum of their own in ways we cannot foresee and that are often obviously harmful to human life and civilization.” Like tempting illusions of quantified risk, the notion of a “controlled” or “partial” war has too often lured Americans into trillions of dollars of waste and untold human suffering. We can only pray that our leaders aren’t fooled again.

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