7 August 2013

The Drone Philosopher

This article appears in Issue 17: The Evil Issue, available now. Subscribe to n+1.

From the thumbnail headshot accompanying his essay in the Times, “the drone philosopher,” as I’ve begun to think of him, appears to be in his late twenties, or a boyish 30. In an oddly confessional-style first paragraph, he recalls what it was like to watch the second Iraq War from his college dorm television. He has clean-shaven Ken-doll looks and a prominent squarish jaw, recalling the former Republican vice-presidential candidate and representative from Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, Paul Ryan. I doubt the drone philosopher would be flattered by the comparison. The tone of his article makes him out to be a thoughtful liberal, more interested in weighing complexities than in easy solutions, simultaneously attracted by and wary of power, not unlike the commander in chief he hopes will one day read his papers.

I can make out a bit of wide-striped collegiate tie, a white collar, and the padded shoulders of a suit jacket in the photograph. I know I’m being unfair, but I don’t trust his looks. Since Republicans have become so successful at branding themselves the party of white men, I now suspect that any white guy in a suit may harbor right-wing nationalist tendencies, much as the CIA’s rules governing drone strikes have determined that groups of “military age” men in certain regions of Pakistan and Yemen may be profiled as terrorists. Even more unkindly, I catch myself thinking the drone philosopher’s portrait looks like it was taken for the high school debate club he surely belonged to. Maybe that was where — for competitions in dim auditoria from state to regional to national level, prepping in a series of carbon-copy cheap motels, four to a room — he first learned to be rewarded for making audacious arguments. It was like a job or a sport. Maybe there was one particularly formative debate, “Resolved: The United States was right to use the atomic bomb against Japanese civilians.” He would have parsed this proposition into a value, such as “Right Action” or “Justice,” made up of a checklist of criteria: saving American lives, the primary but not sole duty of the deciders; weighing potential lives lost or saved on both sides when contrasted with the alternative policy of full-scale invasion of Japan. 

The young drone philosopher would have memorized statistics about bomb payloads, nuclear and conventional; about casualty rates from assaults on Okinawa and Guadalcanal; and then, in the end, realized he couldn’t go through with it and asked to be benched for that debate. Or perhaps, instead, he imagined himself in the position of President Truman, feeling the whole grandeur and terror of a State that so badly needed to give reasons for its actions. Overawed and impressed, knowing he could never decide himself, he turned inward from the path of policy toward philosophy, but with a secret reservation that he might one day be called upon to help his country think in its hours of need.

Glancing at the brief bio beneath the article, I learn that he has made a pretty successful career out of this early check to his ambition. An assistant professor at a branch of a New England state university, he’s coauthored a forthcoming book with the unimaginative title Drone Warfare. It’s not easy to get a position in a philosophy department these days. The comment sections of philosophy blogs are filled with the wailings and teeth-gnashings of PhDs, who observe that the prevailing ratio of job-seekers to jobs is such that the very act of applying starts to appear contrary to reason. Winning a place even at a minor outpost of an increasingly impoverished public university system would be seen by his graduate school friends and enemies as a major coup. To get an article in the New York Times at such an early stage of his career is another. And, having come this far, the drone philosopher must be adept at steering a course through contemporary academia, especially when his principal subject, the ethics of warfare, falls outside the analytic philosophy model that still rules most American philosophy departments, apart from a handful of historically Catholic universities with Jesuit traditions. The A-list philosophers he cites or name-checks in his article — Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Arendt — are often regarded as remnants of an outmoded “continental” style — less a systematic way of coming up with true statements about the world than a series of quasi-religious extrapolations and exhortations on the good life. In other words, some important contemporary philosophers with the potential to affect the drone philosopher’s professional prospects would say that what he’s doing isn’t philosophy at all. Others, less interested in disciplinary purity — administrators and those always asking, half-rhetorically, “What are the humanities good for?” — will be intrigued by the almost therapeutic vocational definition he gives in his article: “The job of philosophy,” he writes, “is not to create existential crises but to handle or work through existential responsibility.” The philosopher is here to serve! For the philosopher, unless he’s Diogenes the barrel-dwelling Cynic, must also buy his bread in the agora, or obtain it from a patron, or from the state . . . 

Which reminds me I should be getting back to work, not reading irrelevant articles, hunched over my computer, my left leg falling asleep because of this uncomfortable chair I need to replace. Or maybe I should stand? Or really is there a comfortable position at all? Even the idea of comfort suddenly makes me uncomfortable. I should get back on track, which means reviewing a memoir of traumatic family life, the sort of thing my own two-sentence bio, when it appears at the bottom of an article, makes me sound qualified to write about.

I admit that families interest me, so much so that I’m now speculating about the drone philosopher’s background. Let me give him a name, first, since “drone philosopher” is getting a bit old, and he does have a real name, right there in the byline. It’s an unusual last name, seemingly Dutch in origin. Is the family from South Africa, or, as seems weirdly likely to me now, did his grandparents arrive here as well-off refugees from Indonesia when the archipelago gained independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1949? Perhaps, having come from a family that already had a memory of a secular nationalist movement within a majority Muslim state, the drone philosopher (OK, one more time) was more prepared than other Americans to be concerned about Western power relations with the Islamic world. Also, the commander in chief he hopes will read his papers famously spent part of his youth in Indonesia. But the connection is too perfect, therefore false. A more likely genealogy has him paternally descended from some mid-19th-century Dutch immigrants to the farmlands of the Midwest, since Peter Veld, as he will now be called, doesn’t seem notably interested in the lives of people targeted by drones or in questions of sovereignty that arise when the United States carries out remote-controlled attacks from the airspace of a country with which it’s not officially at war, often killing citizens of that country. “Drones are to be applauded for keeping soldiers out of harm’s way, physically,” he writes. Not “our soldiers,” just “soldiers.” The meaning for him may be the same.

There is, however, at other moments in the article, a detectable ambivalence to Peter Veld’s statements that I’m finding kind of charming. Just when I want to really dislike him, I can’t quite, which must be why I’m still thinking about him. He confesses, in print, that he often feels he can’t be doing philosophy and writing his book about the ethics of drones at the same time. It’s an existential crisis of his own, but he’s a little coy about why and what’s exactly at stake for him. Some of his colleagues, he reports, want him to write a set of protocols for when it’s OK to use remote-controlled predator and reaper drones to launch Hellfire missiles to blow up other human beings. I wonder about the identity of these colleagues. Are these really fellow philosophers? Or are they part of an unnamed task force, a national defense initiative with which Peter, or his department, has made an alliance. Funding, after all, is scarce in these tough times for the humanities. Peter has probably often heard it said that interdisciplinarity and creative partnerships demonstrate leadership and forward thinking. And of course he knows that the military still has more money than all other branches of the public sector combined. Despite these urgings from his mysterious colleagues, Peter assures us that what he really wants to do is “write a nonjudgmental book about the moral hazard of military technologies.” In other words, what happens now that US military personnel have even more opportunities to kill people, maybe the right people, maybe the wrong people, without ever having to face those people? What happens when they can no longer even tell themselves that they fired first because they felt they were facing an immediate threat to their own lives?

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It turns out, by the end of the article, that such a book does comport with Peter’s idea of philosophy, and resolves his existential crisis into the bargain. His article, the book in miniature, is an instance of what Peter defines as philosophy’s task, “a handling or working-through of existential responsibility.” Philosophizing for the military turns out not to be the impossibly squeezed situation Peter feared. According to Peter, it turns out that philosophizing for the military is a bit like being in the military. He argues that philosophy can happen only in a state of leisure, which he defines somewhat narrowly as freedom from fear of immediate danger and death. Since the most physically dangerous part of a drone operator’s job is probably his commute to the base where he spends his day in front of the computer, as Peter and I spend our days, he now has the gift of leisure to reflect on his actions. From this observation follows the most radical claim in Peter’s essay, that “as technology makes warfare more leisurely it has, for the first time, the chance to be genuinely and complexly philosophical.” Insulated from their deaths on the field of battle, soldiers may now think. Nevertheless, it remains their “existential purpose” as soldiers to kill people. This, thinks Peter, causes emotional and intellectual difficulties for them, and for him. Yet these difficulties are but a prelude to philosophy. Peter glimpses a future in which our American warriors, physically remote from the theater of engagement, will be able, to a degree unusual in the history of warfare, to deliberate on the propriety of killing, and will become philosophers in their own right, debating the reasons behind their actions, just as Peter might have once simulated a debate on the propriety of torturing a suspect or dropping a bomb.

Don’t blame me if this sounds ludicrous. I’m not making this part up. I too want to critique Peter, to debate him. His concept of leisure, for instance, is already a somewhat vexed rendering of the already vexed Greek word scholé used by Aristotle. Some would argue that the leisure philosophy requires isn’t fear of physical death but rather a fearless awareness that we will die, late or soon. The impulse to think then becomes a kind of positive freedom, a dare: “Dare to Know!” as Kant — whom Peter approvingly mentions once — puts it. But I’m not in a situation where I can debate him, I’m a . . . what
 . . . private citizen? I’m seated, uncomfortably, again, in front of a computer in a dimly lit rented room, where I’m supposed to be writing things suited to my professional capacity. I suppose I could create a blog (is Philosofollies taken?) or log in to the comments section to register my opinion, thoughtful or ill-considered, it doesn’t matter. I have no standing really. I could be a dog. I have, in Peter’s and the New York Times’s and maybe Aristotle’s sense of the word, leisure, but does that leisure make me philosophical if nobody recognizes that I’m thinking? I borrow time from myself, leisure from labor, to write this — I don’t know what to call it — unsolicited contribution to a field in which I can claim no expertise. 

No, I can’t really challenge or logic chop Peter — A) Philosophers have leisure, B) Soldiers have leisure, C) Soldiers are, ergo, now philosophers; spot the fallacy. Sneering seems beside the point. I too once played at war across the toy-strewn floor of my bedroom and eagerly read books with titles like Tactical Genius in Battle. And I can sympathize with something almost wistfully youthful in Peter’s tone, his wish to make all wars into “just wars” and philosophically valid ones, not just at the level of cause but at the level of effect, too. Another age might have called it “noble” to hope that philosophy is coming to Horsham Air Guard Base, for instance, fewer than twenty miles from my uncomfortable chair and recently selected as a drone-operating site in a maneuver hailed by Major General Wesley Craig — a real person — as “a major military and economic victory for Pennsylvania.” And I, too, can almost imagine a dialogue, an ongoing symposium latently emerging among the drone operating personnel, the way blossoms from a tree planted in a sheltered courtyard, with sun coming only from the west, bloom late, only as afternoon light lengthens.

I can almost see it happening at the Red Bull machine, under greenish fluorescents, where drone pilot Edison Meyers meets drone sensor operator Chip Stevens, himself lately emerged from the bathroom where he’d just repaired to relieve the erection caused by looking at photos of the Israeli model Bar Refaeli in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the only porn that won’t get you in trouble with your superiors; everyone knows the computers are too closely monitored. 

Pilot Meyers turns to Operator Stevens and says, evenly, without long pauses, “You know Chip, I’ve been thinking about those latest targets of interest we’re monitoring, that convoy of vehicles going in and out of the compound, all that unloading. What if they’re just wedding preparations? We’ve seen a tent go up, a few kids and a couple of veils who might be women or might be Tariqs in disguise. I sure can’t tell the difference. But when the order comes in, you know, I’m not sure I’m OK with you pushing the button. I mean according to the philosophy of jus in bello” — juice in bellow he says it — “even if we were right there, on the ground, we couldn’t just shoot up a bunch of women and kids because we thought some of them were Tariqs planning an attack that’s going to take place several hundred miles away. Right? Even if we got positive ID, and they were definitely bad dudes, I still feel there’s something wrong about blowing up someone from right here. There’s no honor in it.”

And Operator Stevens, ascending Diotima’s ladder from the lower rung of desire for the sun-kissed body of the swimsuit model to the kallocratic worldview of beautiful actions based on knowledge of the eternal and beautiful forms of the starry heavens above us, replies, “But, Ed, the enemy is also without honor. If they didn’t dress up like women, then we wouldn’t have to worry about killing women. And how many children have they killed? How many civilians? They’ve brought us to this point. To those who don’t recognize the laws of war, of civilization, how can we be civilized in our dealings with them?”

And Meyers, cracking open the Red Bull can, answers, “You’re right and you’re wrong, if you don’t mind my saying. If we’re the civilized ones here, then we got to act civilized all the time. Elseways it doesn’t matter what we think about ourselves. I believe it was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said that those who fight monsters must take care not to become monsters; he also said that when you look into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. Now, I know I’d feel a lot better about the look in that abyss’s eye if I could get some decent footage of those Tars making bombs or something dangerous before I put the engine of our retribution on their asses.”

But this is already satire! For one thing, we have to assume drone operators can cut through cushioning clouds of euphemisms, “the signature strikes,” “targets of interest,” “combatants and noncombatants,” “the disposition matrix.” My “Tariqs” too is a bit much, since it presumes Pilot Meyers knows that Tariq is the name of the Moorish general who conquered Spain, and also that US military culture dignifies its opponents with generic names from their own cultures. In Iraq, US soldiers purportedly referred to Sunni insurgents as “Hajis.” Maybe in these more enlightened times they just call them “enemy combatants,” in the language of legal advisers to the President, or simply “bad guys,” as so much rhetoric of our war on terror has, from the beginning, borrowed from an unphilosophical Wild West idiom. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is no “Know Thyself.” Peter hopes things can be otherwise, and I can’t really, to do justice to Peter’s argument, disprove one hypothetical with another. One thing I’ve started to realize, however, as my attention continually wanders away from my assignment, is that leisure, while a necessary if not sufficient condition for philosophy, is also an essential ingredient for fantasy.

Peter! I see you. Through the thin walls of my ground-floor studio, through glazed windows covered on the outside with steel lattice to keep out burglars and birds, I see you emerging onto the front lawn on a fresh spring morning in Massachusetts, as a robin pecks for worms and a squirrel scampers out of an open garbage bin. I watch you descend the steps of an eggshell-painted porch, blue-trimmed, a sturdy two-and-a-half-story wood-frame house behind you, in a city once known as the cradle of American industrial ingenuity. I hear things, too, the accompanying drone — the persistent aural kind — of a nearby handheld power drill — although this might be coming from the room next to mine. You’ve left your wife inside amid the green-striped Ikea sheets. In unbuttoned, breast milk–stained plaid flannels, she nurses the baby. A moment ago, you brought her a bowl of Great Grains cereal with soy milk and a mug of coffee, caught her gratitude in a softening of her cornflower-blue eyes and a sudden renewed attention to her appearance as she brushed away hay-colored bangs and covered an exposed, engorged breast, which gesture you took for an apology: “It won’t always be like this.” And now you are thinking, as you often do upon climbing into your leased, blue, bird-dropping bespattered Kia, of Kant of Königsberg and his daily walk around the city’s square, rain or shine, always at the same time. The phrase “Call of Duty” comes to mind and you wonder how it is that a popular computer game in which you shoot Nazis could be named in a way to resemble a Kantian first principle. As you mechanically ease the car out of the driveway, looking both ways down your one-way street, and set out toward your morning class, you think, “What is philosophy if not the ‘Call of Duty.’” It might be funny to title a chapter of your book with that phrase. 

The Times article has made you feel flushed with success. A couple of students, earnest young men from working- class Catholic families — for some reason your elective on the “Laws of War” mostly attracts young men — approach you after class to tell you they read your piece. It’s the first time you’ve heard them volunteer that they’ve read anything. You also detect a courteous distance in their manner that wasn’t there before. Maybe you exist for them now as a full person, not just someone who’s supposed to serve their needs, though it also feels like submission to your improved status. Your department chair also sends you a brief congratulatory email. A specialist in the work of the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, his work is unknown outside of several peer-reviewed journals. Then Google reveals that a professor at the Naval War College has linked to your piece on his blog. It’s true that not everyone is positive and supportive. On the way to the department office this morning, you passed the stooped, prematurely bald Israeli, hired to teach symbolic logic, and, smiling with smoke-stained teeth, he informed you that you were becoming “a very accomplished speculator.” Only now, back in your office, checking your email, do you realize this was the first time you ever heard him misuse an English word. Your inbox now even contains mail from people you don’t know, including the pedantic one I’m reading over your shoulder:

Dear Professor Veld,

In your article (“Drones, Ethics, and the Armchair Soldier,” New York Times, March 17, 2013) you allude favorably to Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander the Great as a potential model for the relationship between philosophers such as yourself and US military personnel. As a classical historian, I feel obliged to tell you that our field maintains a rather less gung-ho view of Aristotle’s mentorship (cf. inter alia Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, University of California Press, 1991). While the Stagirite was known to have taught King Philip’s son, we can’t really say, despite the imaginings of popular fiction authors such as Mary Renault, whether his influence ultimately moderated or inflated Alexander’s drive for conquest and glory. The relationship between Plato and Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, offers another cautionary tale of philosophy and state power that you might wish to consider as you revise your book.

Yours sincerely,

R. G. Guyer

Mortmain Professor of Classical Studies

Kenyon College

You roll your office chair a few inches away from the desk, fiddling with the cockpit-style knobs on the sides, and back again. He did catch you out on Mary Renault. You remember checking out from the public library her series of historical fictions when you were in ninth grade. Something about the exalted tone of the books perhaps contributed to your impatience with what you’ve come to regard as the deliberate antiheroism of so much contemporary scholarship. If all power corrupts absolutely, then what’s the use of cultivating drone operators who can tell right from wrong, good from evil? Surely the impulse to make and conduct war from higher motives counts for something? According to a Pentagon study, a copy of which lies underneath Arendt’s The Human Condition on your desk — a study you’ve consulted almost compulsively in the last few months — at least 30 percent of drone pilots suffer from what the report’s chief author, a Colonel McKendrick, calls “an existential crisis.” You felt lucky when you read that. It illustrated the need for your work. Your task is to show contemporary Americans — you picture your students — that Aristotle understood his tutelage of Alexander as part of the necessary work of philosophy, and that Alexander believed he was being a good leader, wanted to be a good man, when he unified Greeks riven by petty political differences, indeed taught them to call themselves Greeks, and, powered by the superior technologies of his day, led them in search of new worlds to conquer. It’s not Alexander’s fault, you think, that he had the advantage of these superior technologies, which enabled him to defeat the much larger forces of the Persians, but neither was the military technology of the third century BCE the only good Alexander possessed. The same is true in our case with the drones, you believe. They have value if we use them to better ourselves and make us more self-consistent, no longer switching back and forth between an isolated, secure American world and a world of war, far away. Those are just one world.

I’m leaving you now, Peter, freeze-framed before your computer, stranded between your will to nobility and the banality of the low-ceilinged, office-park atmosphere of the state university. I’d like to think that between the lines of your article, I’ve deciphered your secret hope. You believe that the increased use of drones will lead our military personnel to the realization that the current form of the war on terror, or whatever term the present administration now uses, is absurd. Precisely because we know we can kill at any time, at a great untouchable distance, we will learn to stay our hand, or turn the whole thing into a game of paintball, so they know we know, to give our enemies the same chance to become “philosophical” as we give ourselves. The drones, flying almost invisibly overhead, perhaps only flashing a single taillight, will become the starry heavens to guide them.

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I follow that blinking taillight in my mind, still in my bunker-like room, its glazed windows papered over such that when the sun comes out it casts doubled shadows of the steel-wire lattice on the table. And with the hum and burr of someone’s distant electric handsaw in my ears, I follow on the drone’s tail, like some Arabian Nights hero borne on viewless wings, across an ocean and a continent or two, until I find that I’m looking at a bearded young man in his late twenties, about Peter’s age, tramping along a dusty road in a dun-colored landscape, on his way to evening prayers. The curvature of his nose, the arch of his eyebrows, and an upward-pointing chin, visible under a light beard, are all features resembling those once stamped on the coins of the Macedonian king admired by the drone philosopher. The young man might well have some Hellenic or Alexandrian DNA from when the young king’s once invincible phalanxes pushed into what we now call South Waziristan.

There are many things I seem to know about Faisal, including his name. Many of them are clichés. He wears, for example, a shalwar kameez, a greenish vest, and an unbleached wool pakol that covers a knit white skullcap. Also a cliché, the legendary ruggedness of his homeland, called Hell’s Bolt Hole by the British soldiers who attempted to subjugate it in the 1860s, and the no-less legendary ruggedness of the many Pashto-speaking tribes, one of which is Faisal’s. Like the Scottish Highlanders of Walter Scott’s novels, or Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans, these tribes, proudly independent, bound by codes of kinship and honor, are resolute holdouts against history, on the wrong side of this age’s dominant modes of economic and political organization. Yet this very anachronistic persistence has led them to the forefront of contemporary power struggles.

The smells of Faisal’s village rise up before me: pine trees, scrub, wet rock, tangy goat meat, diesel fuel, gun oil, cooking oil, as well as the clean, simple smell of the whitewashed plaster walls of the madrassa, the study house where Faisal goes to instruct the boys in Islamic law as he too was once instructed.

The drone’s video cameras record Faisal entering and leaving with his pupils, but often in the company of a limping man the Americans have been watching for months. They suspect him of having coordinated attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan since 2001, when Faisal was 16. 

An Islamic scholar or Western orientalist would note that Faisal’s teachings are influenced by a tradition of Islam referred to as Wahhabi, or Salafist. Al-Wahhab, an 18th-century theologian from the Arabian peninsula, wanted to restore what he believed to be an original purity to Islam. He declared that good Muslims should live like the first three generations of the Prophet’s followers, known as the Salafs. These teachings inspired or rationalized the House of Saud’s revolt against their Ottoman lords. But to justify an armed rebellion of Muslims against other Muslims, contrary to certain Koranic teachings, al-Wahhab invoked the authority of the late 13th- and early 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, a Syrian who rallied the Damascus Caliphate to oppose an invasion of Mongol Muslim converts on the grounds that the converts’ Islam was insufficiently sincere. Ibn Taymiyyah’s Allah was a god for a state of emergency, intolerant of interpretation and argument about the Koran and of evolving pluralistic doctrines like Sufism. Faisal knows some of this history. He is surer about the fact that the money for the village madrassa and mosque comes from Saudi Arabia. Something about his rudimentary village life appeals to the wealthy Saudis. Faisal remembers a delegation that came to open the new madrassa after an earthquake had destroyed the first one. This was before bin Laden, and the chief Saudi delegate was no austere Qaeda man. Yet Faisal recalls the pride with which the delegate rode the ragged mountain ponies and went out with the young men to hunt lynx, saying, as he inaugurated the building, that it was an honor for him to support true observers of the Law as it was practiced in the days of the Salafs. Faisal’s third older brother later complained that the man from Riyadh had brushed off their requests for a new water-treatment apparatus for the village well. “It’s as though he wants us to stay uncivilized,” said his brother, who would later leave for the big city of Peshawar, gate to the Khyber Pass. Seeking his fortune there amid buzzing mopeds and sprawling, cheap concrete slums spreading ever outward from the pollution-rotted caravanserai gates of the Mughal Emperors, he’d disappeared into a million other migrants and the family had not heard from him in three years.

For Faisal, there was never any choice like that to consider. In the village mosque and study hall he felt tranquil, easefully himself. Younger than his brothers and so perceived as less tough, he had a strong memory for suras, hadiths, and, incidentally, birdsongs, which he used to mimic to the delight of his mother and sisters. He seemed destined to be a cleric, a man of the word rather than the sword. Not that he was unacquainted with violence and death. He has fired Kalashnikovs, M16s, and shotguns at animals and inanimate targets, and witnessed an uncle’s leg, crushed in a fall from a horse, be amputated without anesthetic. A cousin returned from the war against the Soviets on two artificial limbs and blind in one eye; a childhood friend stepped on a land mine in Kashmir; and, since the United States invaded Afghanistan and his fellow Pashtun sought refuge across the border, Faisal has several times helped evacuate the village before the approach of the regular Pakistani army. He has also taken another brother’s children into his home, marrying the widow after drone fire incinerated his brother, in the white pickup truck he drove to bring ammunition and medical supplies to some fighters from the Army of the Pure who claimed kinship with their village.

Jihad is not an abstract term; Faisal thinks about it every day. It is the Muslim’s duty and there are several kinds: the jihad that every righteous man wages within himself to lead a pure life; the jihad of defense that protects home and family; and the jihad that pits the world of Islam against the world of war outside it. In recent years, since the birth of a daughter and the death of his brother, whose flesh (as he has almost succeeded in forgetting) was seared into the seat of the pickup, Faisal’s opinions on the particular jihad he and his fellow tribesmen must undertake have grown sharper. As he has told the village council, there are opportunities enough for martyrdom in their daily lives without seeking greater struggle. The war has come to them: no need to send young men to Kashmir or Afghanistan. It’s duty and danger enough to preserve their way of life against enemies and outsiders by any available means, including negotiation. They should not be ashamed to negotiate. It is not surrender. Obviously they cannot negotiate with the Americans, but perhaps they can find good Muslim allies in Pakistan’s government or army who will tell the Americans to leave them alone in exchange for their cooperation with the Islamabad-appointed governor of the province, a man they all loathe, and who has the blood of some of their kinsmen on his hands . . . 

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I admit I’m getting carried away here. Still, I find it interesting, in a note-to-self way, that my fantasies about Faisal can be so sustaining, almost persuasive. Perhaps it’s that I know so little about the actual lives of Pashtun tribesmen of the alluringly named Northwest Frontier Provinces. When I think about a young American assistant professor of philosophy, on the other hand, I quickly begin to feel twitchy and bored. If I really got into the story, I feel I could unspool a whole tragic narrative in which Faisal, organic intellectual of Waziristan, finds himself on the wrong side of a faction in his village that wants to carry out suicide bombings in Pakistani cities. Yet, since some of his own family belongs to the faction, he can’t stop socializing with them. I can see how, one day, Faisal, the village mayor, and a group of armed young men from the village drive to the house of the leader of the would-be martyrdom brigade to encourage him to reconsider, a trip captured on camera by the hovering drone and followed by the drone operators back in Pennsylvania. Pilot Meyers and Operator Stevens interpret the rendezvous as a planning session for a terrorist attack. The small dwelling explodes in flames and Faisal, my imaginary young philosopher or theologian, becomes a charred corpse at the moment when he was acting with what Peter Veld would call “maximum existential responsibility.” Irony, eh? 

Yet something stops me. I understand well enough that my sympathies have swung to Faisal, a purer creature of my imagination than Peter, who is only a partial fictionalization of John Kaag, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, author of an opinion piece I read in the New York Times while procrastinating over a book review. Besides rigging the argument against Professor Kaag, I may be crucially off base about his origins, his intimate thoughts, his blond wife. Maybe, behind the porch door and in the bedroom, his only company is a photo of his male lover, in Marine dress uniform, before being deployed, in 2010, to Afghanistan, where he was killed by an improvised explosive device. I can fool myself that I see so much when I’m simply good at remembering various fantasies lifted from novels, newspaper articles, TV shows, films. I’m pretty sure of one thing, though: even if for every Faisal there are ten guys who’d rather blow up themselves and as many others as they can take with them, the actuarial probabilities are that American university professors are far less likely to die because of their actual or misapprehended views about the conduct of our war than Pakistani tribal clerics or Yemeni villagers. 

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The asymmetry of the conflict — our safety, their vulnerability — debases even the most well-intentioned American writing about the war on terror. When it comes to actually committing thoughts to paper and attempting to make an existentially responsible job of it, my sense is that no matter what register I choose — polemical, realist, satirical, exoticizing — it all comes out wrong in the end. With so much real suffering occurring for so many stupid reasons, my very civilian efforts to picture the war as it now enters its twelfth year become obscene by their very nature as imaginative acts.

This isn’t to suggest that my thinking about drone warfare makes me directly complicit in its atrocities, or that my imagination is somehow guilty of war profiteering, certainly not in the way of John Kaag, should his writing succeed in encouraging drone officers to feel good about themselves and their work. (Maybe our failure to entirely eradicate feelings of irrational guilt over rationalized killing should strike us as a sign of human resilience.) 

But my fantasies are fed by the same logic and apparatus that authorizes the drone strikes and maintains the torture prisons: namely, the desire to distinguish good from evil, friend from enemy, without allowing the objects of our attention to speak to us for themselves. And it is this effort at sorting — through surveillance, data-mining, extracting confessions, and “philosophy” — that provides us with a sense that, in the end, we are superior to them, who kill indiscriminately and unintelligently. Our very language of precision and protocol, our military planners’ analogies to surgery, and our government’s invocations of secret “intelligence,” all this licenses the continuation of perpetual warfare as though it were some chronic illness, manageable only by skilled doctors committed to the care of our vulnerable bodies.

I’m thinking this has all got to stop somehow. At the same time I’ve become aware that I’ve been repeating the word stop to myself, directed at the incessant drilling on the other side of my studio wall, and that it has now, mercifully, at last, broken off. The brief silence is followed by a babble of voices in Spanish that seem, for a second, like they’re right here with me, in the room. Their sound breaks my thoughts, and I try to make out words, sentences, in a language I barely understand. It occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I talked to anyone who sees the world in terms or languages very different from mine. Does my imagining of John/Peter and Faisal come out of a longing for dialogue of some kind? Does that absence of dialogue in my life mirror or imitate a greater absence on the more important stage of American foreign policy? Suppose someone like Faisal exists outside my head, which he probably does; under what conditions could he and John/Peter ever meet? Right now, that meeting could only take place in some kind of literary or philosophical imagination. For more than twelve years, the government of the United States has ruled out talking to the people we treat as enemies, as if it were impossible that we might be wrong about them. Any philosophical debate about the appropriateness of our conduct must begin with this unfortunate reality.

This article appears in Issue 17: The Evil Issue, available now. Subscribe to n+1.

Image: Photo by John Mills via Flickr.

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