The United States has had two great war poets. Surprisingly, both wrote about a conflict now distant, the American Civil War of 1861-65, when the nation's northern and southern states opposed one another in a series of bloody battles.
Walt Whitman, better known as a lyrical poet of self-celebration, wrote poems that were based on his first-hand knowledge of battlefields and wartime hospitals: he served as a nurse for four years. His is a poetry of compassion, reminding readers of just how poignant is the suffering and loss which war occasions. At the onset of the war Whitman had been strongly in favor of the conflict, believing that preserving the American union was worth dying and killing for. But by the later years of the war, Whitman could only see pain, not triumph; the bravery and suffering of men loomed larger than politics or nationalism.
Herman Melville, better known as a novelist of the sea, wrote poems without such first-hand knowledge of the casualties. His ironic stance, though lacking the direct involvement of Whitman, has a strange power. Viewing war from a thoughtful distance, Melville also felt its pain. But he saw, as Whitman did not, that the war between the North and South could be seen as a symbolic turning point in human history. Not because of the issues involved, although issues of slavery and industrialization certainly were and are of great import. What Melville understood was that war was becoming increasingly mechanized; that just as machines in the previous century had begun to take over many human functions primarily in producing textiles and in locomotion so in 1864 machines were changing the way in which men collided with one another on the battlefield.
Melville's attention was drawn the first naval battle between what were called "ironclads," ships whose outer structure was sheathed in iron. The Northern ship, the Monitor, squat and steam-powered, fought to a standoff with a Southern steam-powered frigate, the Merrimack.
One of his finest poems chronicles that battle, recognizing in the process how the glorious trappings of war have been replaced by machinery, "Plain mechanic power/Plied gently in War now placed--/Where War belongs/Among the trades and artisans." No one in his day saw as clearly as he that "mechanic power" and technicians were in the process of replacing the men, the bravery, and the direct confrontation which had always characterized military conflict.
Melville composed a stanza so visionary that it bears citation, entire. The battle was a new kind of warfare, Melville maintained, in which mechanism "crank, pivot and screw" replaced not just men but "passion," while careful "calculations" of a technological sort of the heat necessary to generate ample steam replaced heroism.
Yet this was battle, and intense
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm 'mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank
Pivot and screw,
And calculations of caloric
Small wonder that the poem comes to the grim conclusion that "War yet shall be, but warriors/Are now but operatives" with its consequence that "War's made/Less grand than Peace."
Poetry written a century and a half ago is not the usual means by which editorial commentary proceeds, and an apology would be necessary save that there may be no better way to address a major dimension to the war in Afghanistan. What Melville foretold has come to pass. War has been mechanized, and "warriors are now but operatives." From an altitude of over sixteen kilometers American airplanes drop "smart bombs" guided by computers and lasers toward their distant targets on earth. Simultaneously, totally mechanical and unmanned drone planes locate the enemy, track him, and can fire missiles at his position.
The mechanization of warfare is not a phenomenon of this decade. In the later nineteenth century, in the years following the military engagement of steam-powered ironclads that Melville noted, the development of the machine gun enabled small forces of men to control and defeat forces larger by a magnitude of fifty or a hundred. The British maintained their empire in part by means of the machine gun, which enabled small garrisons of British soldiers to withstand attacks and insurrection by massive numbers of colonial insurgents.
The First World War saw the development of aircraft as mechanisms of war. The aerial fighters of that war became the bombers raining destruction in the Second World War. In the First World War, too, industrial processes created weapons never before seen: gas warfare and barbed wire defenses turned military campaigns into wars of position, in which armies dug themselves into the earth and fought over a few hundred yards of ground for months at a time.
We know all too well that technological "developments" made nuclear weapons not just possible but accessible in the Second World War and after. Nightly, American television reveals biological warfare as yet another technological means of destruction in our twenty-first century.
None of these developments has quite prepared us for what is taking place in Afghanistan. The American forces there have fought a large-scale war throughout an entire country without suffering a single casualty. The war has been so mechanized, so automated, so distanced, that one nation can bring down destruction on another using proxy troops, to be sure, to mop up things on the ground without experiencing in any fashion the consequences of warfare.
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Somehow, this remarkable event has escaped commentary.
There are many who object to the American intervention, fearing the destructiveness of war and the possibility the conflict will escalate. There are many who repudiate a passive or quietist response, fearing the cost of not standing up to terrorism and fascism. There are many of both points of view who worry about the fate of the Afghan people, first victimized by the totalitarian Taliban and more recently by aerial bombardment.
But no one has yet fully grasped nor have I, who write this what it means for the future of humanity, that one nation can wage war on another, wreaking havoc and destruction, without having to suffer any destructive consequences in return.
It is neither my intention nor proclivity to proclaim the warrior ideal, which one can encounter in Homer, the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran. It is in my view clear that there are better modes of being to which we should, as humans, aspire, that there are other ways of settling our differences and conflicts. But surely the warrior ideal had, and has, as its basis a reciprocity that assures that both parties to a military conflict recognize their common humanity. A man fights another: One wins, one loses. It is the same with armies. Both men and armies gain victory by risking defeat. Each soldier knows it could be him lying on the ground, that the cost of trying to kill another is that one might, oneself, be killed.
No more. American warplanes and missiles have allowed one nation to bring grievous destruction to another at no cost, actual or potential. The intervention of machines has made it possible to evade reciprocity, to escape the symmetry that has always characterized military engagement. Perhaps this is justified because the American side suffered its casualties in advance: There is no question that the aerial attacks on the World Trade Center were highly destructive acts of aggression. But it is possible the American casualties will eventually fade into the already-happened, and that a lack of reciprocity and symmetry will characterize the war in Afghanistan.
The totally mechanized process of death is not entirely new, for what if not factories of death were the concentration camps of the Nazis? The horror of the concentration camps, based on absolute power using industrial processes to destroy the absolutely powerless, was far worse than anything the American forces have done in Afghanistan. But Auschwitz initiated a lack of symmetry and reciprocity that still haunts the world. Yesterday, factories of destruction; today, an industrialized battlefield with robots, computers, and smart bombs. The post-modern war can be fought on a computer screen with real casualties occurring far away, unseen and unfelt.
Still, it is important to remember the context in which the American military intervention is taking place. Americans are not Nazis, and however strong their imperial role in the modern world, the war in Afghanistan is not about extending empire or genocide but about retaliation for prior aggression
One of the great truths of postmodern times is that a war mired in land battles, as the U.S. fought in Vietnam and the Soviets fought in Afghanistan, is no longer tenable in advanced industrialized societies. Each of those two superpowers learned that truth at bitter cost: Both the U.S. and Soviet governments were unseated when citizens grew weary of casualty reports, heavy at heart that their nation's young men returned in body bags. In the United States the party in office ceded power to the opposition; in the Soviet Union, the entire confederation disintegrated when those in power were displaced.
The current American assault has shown it is possible to wage a war successfully by using the dual weapons of high technology and massive firepower to destroy conventional ground forces. One can win a war, the current military campaign seems to prove, by killing at a distance and using proxy troops to sweep up and take whatever casualties are to be dealt out. [That, as I write, several hundred American troops are being placed on the ground in Afghanistan is not, I believe, a rebuttal of my analysis. These troops are not there in the role of soldiers, to engage the enemy; they are a posse in a cowboy movie, present to seek out the bad guys in their caves and bring them before the bar of justice.]s
What are the ethical consequences of a war such as the United States has been waging in Afghanistan? That question is a serious one, and difficult to answer. War seems now a video game, where "victory" produces a good feeling as computer-generated destruction is revealed on a video screen. The heroism, the bravery, the risk of combat: All the things which have for so long been a part of military endeavors seem no longer a part of warfare.
More ominously, war seems to have become an activity without consequences. There might be consequences for other people, as in this instance Afghans of the Taliban or Afghan neutrals, or even Afghans of the Northern Alliance, but American need risk no consequences. Those dealing out destruction need never confront the damage done to one's enemy: The enemy is, after all, 16 kilometers away, straight down. The reality of destruction is not borne home to an aggressor. Not only does he see no victims, he has no basis for putting himself in the place of the victim. He does not risk death in battle, so how can he feel the actual, the real, risks of warfare?
What does it mean to suffer neither consequences nor possible consequences? It means, I fear, that there may be a leeching away of responsibility. War becomes just a game or an exercise, even if it begins as a struggle fought for understandable aims. Symmetry and reciprocity disappear. One can produce death as one produces spark plugs or computer chips. No one feels the pain of automobile parts of electronic circuits. What began in the United States as a reciprocal act, an insistence that the perpetrators of the assault of September 11 should be held responsible for their destructiveness, has become a war that strips the consequences from military action.
So we venture forth into the darkness of the twenty-first century, the terrorists to one side of us, mechanization and its inhuman potential on the other.