Falling Into Execute Mode – Mass Violence And Moral Responsibility

Man Plus

It’s Cartoon Time on ITN’s Evening News. From a computer-generated street in Baghdad, a radiating signal from US ‘special forces’ attracts a cartoon Rockwell B-1B ‘Lancer’ bomber circling “on-call”, like a doctor, overhead. Viewers could have been told simply that a bomber dropped four large bombs on the target, but ITN was kind enough to supply a few extra details:

“The B-1 drops four 2,000-pound, satellite-guided, JDAM ‘bunker busting’ bombs.” (ITN, April 8, 2003)

It’s a sentence to enjoy – as with all fetishism, arousal is achieved through obsession with suggestive detail.

We see the bombs arc down towards a computer-generated restaurant in the Mansour district of Baghdad. A couple of animated explosions flash on the building, which vanishes. There were no little cartoon people walking in the street, none sitting in the restaurant before the blast, and there are no cartoon dismembered limbs now. The Guardian quoted the version of reality of the pilot who dropped the real bombs:

“I didn’t know who was there. I really didn’t care. We’ve got 10 minutes to get the bombs on target. We’ve got 10 minutes to do it. We’ve got to make a lot of things happen to make that happen. So you just fall totally into execute mode and kill the target.” (Julian Borger and Stuart Millar, ‘2pm: Saddam is spotted. 2.48pm: pilots get their orders. 3pm: 60ft crater at target’, the Guardian, April 9, 2003)

“Special forces”, B-1 ‘Lancers’, JDAM bombs, “on-call” aircraft, “execute mode”, “kill the target”: this is jargon fetishising the manipulation of massive power over people and things. Phrasal verbs are used to the same effect: ‘take out’, ‘take down’, ‘go after’, ‘blow away’ all suggest immediate, decisive, all-powerful action.

We have been made receptive to this worship of power by a hundred thousand Hollywood sermons. According to a study by the Glasgow Media Group, children can recall large sections of dialogue from the crime film Pulp Fiction: “Many youngsters regard it as cool to blow people away”, Greg Philo reports. (The Observer, October 26, 1997) Young people regard the two hit men in the film, Vincent and Jules, as the “coolest” characters. A viewer explains why:

“Vincent was cool because he’s not scared. He can go around shooting people without being worried.”

After all, if power is possession of massive force, then ultimate power is the deployment of massive force with minimal effort and minimal emotion. This is what ‘cool’ means in our society: massive impact, no bother: “So you just fall totally into execute mode and kill the target.”

During the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the leading New York Times intellectual, Thomas Friedman, wrote:

“Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” (Friedman, The New York Times, April 23, 1999)

You want us to smash your country – no problem. You want us to obliterate your country – that’s no problem either. The thrill of this, for Friedman, lies in discussing the devastation of a nation as if he were a salesman offering a range of services – for some, indifference magnifies the sense of power to near-superhuman levels.

The people Friedman was writing about, were, every one of them, born in pain and tended with devoted love by mothers and fathers over many years. Every blackened, fly-ridden corpse by the side of the road in every country bombed back to 1950, or 1389, was the apple of someone’s eye, someone’s heart’s desire.

Ultimately, the world is forever torn between two versions of power: the ability to manipulate and destroy, and the ability to care for others. The 11th century poet Ksemendra wrote:

“Disturbed times produce some who, though buffeted by wild waves, move through the deep waters to embrace all who suffer. Even when undergoing fierce suffering themselves, they still extend kindness to others. Bearing vessel after vessel of water to relieve those dying of thirst, they are able to satisfy the unbearable cravings of beings.”

These people, not soldiers, are the real hope of humanity, and they really do exist. They are people like Robert Fisk of the Independent, and people like Dr Khaldoun al-Baeri, the director and chief surgeon of Adnan Khairallah Martyr Hospital in Baghdad. Dr Baeri, Fisk writes, is “a gently-spoken man who has slept an hour a day for six days and who is trying to save the lives of more than a hundred souls a day with one generator and half his operating theatres out of use – you cannot carry patients in your arms to the 16th floor when they are coughing blood”.

As Fisk is leaving, Dr Baeri tells him that he does not know where his family is.

“‘Our house was hit and my neighbours sent a message to tell me they sent them away somewhere. I do not know where. I have two little girls, they are twins, and I told them they must be brave because their father had to work night and day at the hospital and they mustn’t cry because I have to work for humanity. And now I have no idea where they are.’ Then Dr Baeri choked on his words and began to cry and could not say goodbye.” (Fisk, ‘Final proof that war is about the failure of the human spirit,’ www.zmag.org, April 11)

Anyone able to take an honest look inside themselves – at their ingrained selfishness and tragi-comic sense of self-importance – must surely recognise that it is this ability to reach out to the suffering of the world that constitutes +real+ power. What, after all, could be a more difficult, a more vital, and a more awesome achievement in a self-obsessed creature sculpted by the rough hand of “nature, red in tooth and claw”?

But what is the root of the seductive appeal of destructive force? And why the association with uniforms and obedience? At heart, it seems, is the dream of a level of power that can somehow obliterate our deepest uncertainties and fears. We are all specks in a vast universe – how could we not feel hopelessly transient and tiny in the face of the human condition? As the poet W.B. Yeats observed, we are all confronted by a devastating reality:

“Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?”

Many of us feel totally powerless in the face of the transience and fragility of life. But we can pretend.

Sitting in a B-1 bomber, igniting giant MOAB bombs, marching in step at Nuremberg, following the leader, doing as we’re told, joining the herd as ‘professional’ journalists in a high status media corporation – all of these lend a sense that we are something more than just ‘us’; more than just momentary sparks of life.

That’s why ‘organisation people’ are so often so self-confident. It’s why Third World people who belong to nothing more imposing than a village or a tribe seem somehow lesser beings to these people. In reality, for many Westerners, corporate executives are ‘Man Plus’: they are man plus the powerful organisation behind them; they are, somehow, simply +more+.

Part of the appeal is that ‘organisation men and women’ – the military, for example – don’t have to care. They are part of a giant organisation that thinks and decides for them. In his study of obedience, psychologist Stanley Milgram noted:

“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.” (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.26)

Submission to authority is an aspirin for the perennial human headache of moral responsibility: What should I do? What is best for others? What is best for me? Are the two in conflict? Which tendencies in myself should I promote, and which should I seek to restrain? Is it possible to become a better person? Should I even try? Is it possible to find a sense of belonging in love rather than in submission? These are difficult, painful questions. But they disappear, do they not, when we are behind the controls of a B-1 bomber, or a tank gunsight? Then, we are simply following orders; we are required merely to act.

Once the decision has been taken to dissolve the self in this greater whole, the effects are long-lasting and lethal. Asked if he would use nuclear weapons to kill terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks, Paul Tibbets, the man who piloted the Enola Gay to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, said:

“Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians.’ That’s their tough luck for being there.” (Quoted, Studs Terkel, The Guardian, ‘One hell of a big bang’, the Guardian, August 6, 2002)

Support The Troops?

The great cry that has silenced much anti-war dissent is: “Support our troops!”

Do we support the actions of people who have abdicated moral responsibility for their actions to higher authority? By definition that would mean abdicating our own moral responsibility by lending support to the potential moral outrages that have so often resulted from the abdication of moral responsibility in the past.

And to what extent are “our troops” really “ours” anyway? During general elections defence and foreign policy issues are almost completely ignored by the major political parties and the media. During the last general election, for example, reporting of these issues comprised 2% of total media coverage.

There is a reason for this – foreign policy essentially does not change regardless of whether Labour or Conservatives are in power. The establishment knows what it wants from Third World people, and foreign policy has therefore long since been declared none of the public’s business. It becomes our business when people start dying, at which point our support is demanded of us by an establishment that has decided, without our consent, who “our” troops are going to kill. To fail to offer unconditional support for their decision to do what they want with “our troops” is deemed treasonable, hateful. How convenient for the powers that be. British historian Mark Curtis writes:

“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)

This means we have essentially zero democratic choice in determining British foreign policy. We have no say whatever on when and who “our troops” fight and kill. Actually we have in effect as much control over “our troops” as we have over the troops of, say, Indonesia. Should we, then, have supported the Indonesian army’s genocidal assault on East Timor culminating in the torching of Dili following the referendum of August 30, 1999? Well, why not? We have zero control over British or Indonesian troops – our wishes are represented in the actions of neither.

Do we care about the welfare of “our troops”? Yes, passionately – we wish no harm to them, or their victims – but we cannot support people who are following the orders of a largely unaccountable political system. This, for us, is a kind of moral insanity. It is the source of many of the worst horrors in all history – people have very often just ‘done their duty’, and the public has often (but not always) fallen silent in deference to their decision. The horrors that have resulted have been beyond imagining.

Their decision is not our decision – we will not sacrifice our sense of moral responsibility in deference to their decision. Why should the thoughtful bow down to the thoughtless acting on behalf of the heartless? Who in their right mind would take orders from the likes of Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle, Bush, Blair and Cheney? Why should we support individuals who freely choose so to do?


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