Something momentous happened during the second presidential debate. It wasn’t Donald Trump threatening to imprison his political enemies, as startling as that was. It wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s rehashing the plot to the movie Lincoln.
None of the debate rhetoric mattered as much as the two ballistic cruise missiles that were fired at the destroyer USS Mason from the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen, which happened on the same night. The two missiles fell short of their target. Predictably, the U.S. responded, attacking coastal radar sites.
Pull back farther from the scene, as a drone’s camera might, and you can see the shape of the Yemeni war, the Saudi soldiers with equipment bought from the United States, weapons used to commit war crimes. American reaction, enemy blowback. Ping, pong. It’s difficult to say what vital American interest is protected by empowering Saudi Arabia to attack one of the poorest countries on Earth.
An attack on a U.S. ship, far away, continuing the endless cycle of retaliation, as the American public followed the electoral horserace is the perfect metaphor for the current reality of U.S. engagement with the world. There has been a revolution in warfare that allows us to engage in military hijinks on demand — U.S. military force appearing anywhere and everywhere like a well-armed flash mob — with no discussion of what this means between citizens, or from their president.
Inundated with election chatter, you might not realize there are major defense issues looming just beyond the headlines: Our nascent “lily pad strategy” has dotted the globe with tiny strategic bases to facilitate constant, low-level war anywhere in the world. There is no public accounting of how many of these bases currently exist. Our role as the world’s number one arms dealer is never brought up. Drone warfare and our inevitable use of autonomous weapons has been pushed to the periphery of the campaign.
All these are symptoms of a dramatic shift from twentieth-century ways of conducting war. Since 2001 the Pentagon has used the Authorization for Use of Military Force (or AUMF), a resolution signed by Congress granting the president legal power to prosecute the global war on terror indefinitely and anywhere with only perfunctory oversight. The result has been America waging perpetual war. Originally meant to apply only to fighting against Al Qaeda, the AUMF has effectively ended the divide between war- and peacetime simply by cutting Congress out of the process of declaring war.
There no longer needs to be a declaration. It’s assumed that we’re always at war somewhere in the world. As the war in the Greater Middle East creeps closer to being two decades old, the American people have become comfortable with the perpetual war being waged on their behalf.
During my own two deployments as an infantryman to Iraq, one thing I noticed repeatedly was how much the military itself seemed like a world parallel to the civilian one, misunderstood and praised by rote. My last deployment was in 2008. Since then the animating logic of our interventions hasn’t changed. Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan and more every day are coming into Iraq. We’re bombing Libya. Have ground troops in Syria. Our drone wars continue. And the people I know who are still serving are still deploying.
This is a world away from the experience of, say, my grandfather, who fought in the Second World War. For him, there was an attack, which prompted a declaration of war, and then a historic peace accord was signed. Back on the home front, my grandma rationed sugar and tended a victory garden. The experience of war has changed for soldiers as well as civilians.
President George W. Bush telling people to go shopping after 9-11 set the tone for the level of engagement the Pentagon expected from people during this new kind of war. Americans are meant to be more anxious than vigilant, more unquestioning than loyal. The rise of remote warfare and the proliferation of drones has strengthened the detachment.
In Drone Theory, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou asks, “What would the consequences of becoming the subjects of a drone-state be for that state’s own population?” It’s safe to say that at least one consequence of performing symbolic gestures of patriotism — e.g., “Armed Forces Day” at professional sports events — in lieu of actual sacrifice is a deep apathy toward constant low-level military action abroad. Now a tiny contingent of drone pilots and military personnel are forced to bear the brunt of the continuous combat. To be a subject in a drone-state means to be detached from the violence committed in your name.
Technology makes limitless war possible, but that doesn’t mean war is inevitable. Our over-reliance on algorithms to find “bad guys” is the result of legal, political, and military choices. In fact, the political and legal justification for unmitigated combat hinges almost solely on the wording in the AUMF. “Lily pad” bases and signature strikes are the end result of a consensus reached in Washington. These decisions only feel inevitable because they don’t involve the public, which has surrendered the moral choices involved in war to Congress. Congress in turn has surrendered them to the AUMF.
We are all complicit in this moral failing, which has allowed our political leaders, of all parties, to continue the automatic unfurling of perpetual war. President Obama has expanded domestic surveillance and conducted ten times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush. Donald Trump gestures at rethinking American defense obligations and strategy, but can always be counted on to eventually take a contradictory (and likely repugnant) position. Hillary Clinton advocates for everything that liberal-hawk interventionists and neocons agree on, including an automatic distrust of Iran and an enthusiastic support for American military intervention.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on a worldwide colonial-style dragnet that hasn’t rendered any reward. We’ve gotten so used to that expenditure of morals and material that November 8 might come and go with hardly anyone having asked if the war should continue. And so, by default, it will.
Don’t miss the rest of the Voice’s 2016 election coverage on Trump’s America:
Lynching’s Long Shadow: Texas, Trump, and the GOP