Targeted by Technology

We get along in life, I believe, by routinely ignoring the rather constant dangers that surround us.  Oh, we’ve taken care of the larger faunal predators, but we’ve replaced them with ourselves.  Our success as a species leads us to places we might not be comfortable being.  I was recently exposed to the documentary National Bird.  It’s about drones.  Not the friendly ones from Amazon that we hear will soon be delivering books to our doorstep, but the military grade kind.  I first became aware of how pervasive the military use of drones is while reading Wired for War (on which I posted here some years back).  The difference between that academic knowledge and watching the documentary is the human element.  Drones are assassination machines with high explosives and they are subject to no regulation.

Many of us feel, occasionally, some level of discomfort with how much information “they” have on us.  We don’t even know who “they” are or what they want.  Using the internet, we give them our information.  Caving to our desire for instant communication, we carry around smart phones that know where we are constantly.  Martin Luther once said you couldn’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making a nest in your hair.  It’s becoming harder to shoo them away.  The nest is well established.  Our houses are easily found on Google maps, and drones can keep constant watch, like weaponized guardian angels.  Only they’re not our guardians.  As National Bird makes clear, drones kill civilians.  Women and children.  The conversations of the operators reveal how much they’ve bought into the jingoism of the “war on terror.”  The film also deals with the human cost of those who operate drones.

Technology stands to make life better, for some.  Watching people who have very little, who live in what would be considered poverty in this part of the world, being bombed by people remotely, is disturbing.  The operators, trained as if they’re playing a game, kill and then have to deal with it.  The use of tech to try to sanitize brutality was dealt with decades ago on a particularly famous episode of Star Trek appropriately called “A Taste of Armageddon.”  Rather than try to resolve conflict we, like those of Eminiar 7, readily accept it if it’s kept at a distance.  Only drones aren’t science fiction.  We’ve been using them for over a decade now, and we prefer not to think about it.  This isn’t an option, unfortunately, for those who’ve been targeted by technology.  The predators are still out there after all.

Old Lies

WilfredOwenMuch of my exposure to literature has come through my daughter. I didn’t really grow up in a literary family. We had a prominent television and not much money for books, so I was headed for a typical American predilection for TV as some form of intelligence. When I began reading, it was what I could discover on my own and the required reading of English classes. Needless to say, I missed a lot. My daughter recently had to analyze a poem of Wilfred Owen. Although my wife had a book of Owen’s poetry, I never really had reason to read it. Like Joyce Kilmer, Wilfred Owen was a poet that was killed in World War One, only one in a long list of poets and dreamers that have been slaughtered in pointless conflicts. The poem that she studied was “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The poem describes a gas attack during which one soldier is unable to get his mask on in time and the gruesome death that follows.

The poem led to a family discussion about the cruelty of chemical weapons, and larger still, the pointlessness of war. Throughout history wars have been waged by the rich and powerful for reasons that may ultimately benefit some of their subjects but which, if not for the pride and prejudice of the powerful, would perhaps have been resolved without recourse to more efficient ways of killing. I always remember the Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” where the Enterprise encounters a planet at war waged by computers and those who are calculated as victims report willingly to death chambers. This, they claim, is a more humane way to fight. In a Kirkesque maneuver, the man who gets me cut-rate flights and hotel rooms destroys the machine telling the people of Eminiar VII that if they have to face the grim cruelties of war they will find a way to stop fighting. Futuristic thinking indeed.

Today we have robots that can fly and attack, killing our enemies without putting us at risk. These are the grandchildren of mustard gas and a myriad of creative and horrid ways that people have devised for killing others. Wilfred Owen was killed just days before the war ended. His poem exposes the lie of Horace’s line, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—sweet and decorous it is to die for one’s country. If I hear Owen clearly, it is the “dulce et decorum” to which he objects. Until we find humane ways to solve our differences, even in the Kirk Model, there will be wars. Death fought over effortless solutions of those in power will never be sweet or decorous. Although poets often die young, their lives remain as symbols pointing the direction ahead for the rest of us mortals left to reflect on their words.