Why War Needs Intimacy

The danger of detached warfare

by Juan Avila Conejo; illustration by Chris Wu

We were holding each other’s bodies, feeling each other’s heavy breath, counting each other’s quickening pulse. His skin was hot and slippery to the touch, as we were both drenched in sweat. The aroma of burning flesh filled my nostrils. I could see his dilated pupils. Torn pieces of clothing lay all around us. Our fray, illuminated by the fires, began. I hugged him under his right arm and over his left shoulder and pulled with all of my strength, fighting to stay on top. I pushed down with my shoulder pressed against his jaw. He began to scream and his screams muffled the clatter of his skull beginning to break under pressure. I will never forget the horror on his face when he understood his life was about to end. Suddenly his palate gave in, his skull shattered. I cannot tell how long our macabre communion lasted, but I know that at the end I had been spared. I was alive and my enemy was dead.

From the cavemen that smashed each other’s heads in with rocks, to the modern day soldiers who smash each other’s heads with projectiles, war hasn’t changed much since its inception. New tactics, equipment and motivation for war have emerged over time, as humans continue to devise more clever ways of killing each other. The ugliness of the affair remains the same. We invade to stop a conflicting ideology, to secure a geostrategic canal, to loot banks and museums, or to destroy members of a different faith. The horse gave way to the tank, the bow to the automatic rifle, the sling to the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and the wooden ship to the aircraft carrier. All of these changes have only been incremental updates to existing methods of killing, and all of these methods require a homo sapiens behind the trigger. War, until very recently, used to be a personal matter, a human matter. Now machines have come into the equation. 

War used to come knocking at your door. A letter could arrive regretting to inform you that your son was not coming back, or that you had just won a trip to a tropical destination. War was everyone’s business and this created great social resistance to it. Enormous marches were organized throughout the Western world against the conflict in Vietnam. To undermine the anti-war movement, Nixon eliminated the draft in 1973 and established the volunteer system that still stands today. 

This change made the problem of war less personal for millions of people who were not compelled by socioeconomic circumstances to enlist. The soldiers who died then were no longer innocent boys selected by an unjust system, but men who had knowingly and willingly decided “to give life and all for their native land,” as Winston Churchill described the heroes of WWII. That is the rationale behind the elimination of the draft, but it is not true. In his book “The Triumph of a Politician,” Stephen Ambrose explains how Nixon believed that ending the draft would make “affluent youths” drop their opposition to the war, thus making society more docile. In his mind, it would transform war into a direct concern only for the most economically disadvantaged sectors of society, those that are powerless and voiceless. 

In the time of Vietnam, the media heavily covered war.  Everyone in the West could see the brutality of the conflict and the dead and dying men who took part in it. Even if the media reporting the conflict did not show all of the combat images they acquired, it was due to the squeamishness of the public, not because of institutionalized censorship. For the past two Gulf Wars, this has not been the case. Now, photojournalists working with the U.S. forces must submit all their images to state officials before they can be seen by the public, and they are censored to make the campaign look good. “Our people in the field need to tell our story,” says the unclassified Department of Defense memorandum “Public Affairs Guidance on Embedding Media.” This document also specifies how, if a journalist runs into “sensitive information,” he or she will be required to go through a security review, during which the unit commander has the power to embargo or remove that information. 

Sensitive information is a euphemism for practically everything. The product is a glamorized and Hollywood-esque picture of the conflict, more akin to the advertisement campaign of the latest “Call of Duty” than to honest, unbiased reporting. This vegetarian-friendly version of the war desensitizes people, and creates a mental image of a thing that is going on somewhere very far away, where we are fighting these bad guys because of “reasons.” People become increasingly ignorant to the conflict and all its horror, robbing the act of killing of its former intimacy. Whistleblowers and organizations like Amnesty International now provide the only glimpses of truth. Without them, cases of sexual abuse, torture and humiliation like those that occurred at the prison of Abu Ghraib, would have gone unnoticed. 

The final step in dehumanizing war is currently underway. Unmanned killing machines are already doing most of the fighting in some battlegrounds, like those in the war in Pakistan. This war has already included at least 381 missions using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UACVs), according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Despite the obvious refutation that fewer dead soldiers is a good thing, technological warfare raises many moral concerns. When your victim is a bugsplat on a screen, he or she is no longer human to you; you can achieve your military objective without feeling like you have taken a human life. A drone pilot cannot hear his victims’ dying words or smell their spilt blood. Even if the drone is destroyed, no mother will have to cry over a dead son, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If the killing is done by machines and the dying is done by evil insurgents, then no people died, right? 

What happens beyond this point is anyone’s guess. The prospect of entire land wars being fought in secret suddenly becomes real, as there would be few witnesses—a single pilot usually handles multiple unmanned crafts—and, never having been on the battlefield, those witnesses would be unreliable. Killing would be cheaper; a destroyed drone has no pension or rehabilitation costs. Expenditures notwithstanding, any nation that focuses only on the cost per enemy killed should really examine its moral reasoning. Going beyond human pilots, we can examine scenarios such as the Technological Singularity, proposed by Stanislaw Ulam, when a form of artificial intelligence that is able to replicate and improve itself exists. Then we might be dealing with an army of machines, commanded by machines, killing human beings. Algorithms would determine who gets to live and who gets to die. Who would be responsible then? 

War is cruelty. Masada, St. Bartholomew’s Day, the Spanish Conquest, Nanking, Rwanda, Vietnam, Protective Edge. Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense, lived through WWII, Vietnam and the Cold War. In 2003 he stated, simply and powerfully, that human beings must stop killing other human beings. We must not forget the horror of war. It is never a blessing. War is and should remain a horrible thing until the day comes when it can finally be overcome. If the dehumanization of war is complete, and pain and suffering are removed from one side of the conflict, then the other side has infinite power to destroy. Pain and suffering in war are what reminds us of our adversaries’ humanity and our own. Unburdened by cruelty, the act of warfare becomes like a diet soda: all of the taste, none of the guilt.