It’s like something out of The Lord of the Rings: a vast empire ruled by a king known as “B’arack”—an Orcish name if ever there was one—sends out its mechanical murderers to wreak destruction far and wide.  They strike from the air, whistling over homes huddled against the hills, dropping down on children as they sleep in their beds, dreaming of a nonexistent future.

To call such people assassins is inaccurate: A real assassin is highly trained and very exact; he just wants to take out a particular person and prefers things not to get messy.  A silencer, an expert aim, a single shot—and it’s done.  Not so with B’arack’s drones: They murder at random, scattershot death riding the winds of chance—for every “terrorist,” a half-dozen innocents are blasted to bits in their tracks.

According to a recently leaked internal government report, the number of victims in Pakistan alone stands at 746 people, 147 of whom were confirmed as civilians.  Of those civilian deaths, 94 were children.  One in five drone victims was a civilian, with more than 12 percent children.  Worldwide, the death toll is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000.

The majority of those killed had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization: They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If males of a certain age in a certain location are gathered together in some sort of activity, the geniuses who run this program characterize them as legitimate targets: Many wedding parties have been taken out in this way.  Yes, America’s War on Marriage takes on more forms than anyone ever imagined.

If a nation’s character can be discerned in the way that it makes war, then we are in much worse shape than even I imagined.  Of course, it used to be different.  The two world wars saw us send our fighting men off to face the enemy directly, squarely, in a fair man-to-man fight.  Oh, we slipped up a few times: President Eisenhower called our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary and a “crime,” which he was certainly in a position to judge.  And the destruction of Dresden was one of the greatest crimes of the century.  But those were the exception: Until the end of World War II, the United States had always fought honorably, if a little too often.  It was only with the coming of the modern era that our military tactics began taking on a distinctly Mordorish feel.

In Vietnam we leveled entire villages, slaughtered the inhabitants, and declared the area “liberated.”  We would designate a town a “free fire zone”—and then put it to the torch.  Because if we didn’t stop them in Da Nang, they’d be in Detroit before you knew it.  The irony is that Detroit today looks like a war zone, which it is—albeit not the kind of war we thought we were going to win in Vietnam.

In South and Central America we fought wars by proxy, utilizing the shock troops of various caudillos as stand-ins for American GIs, and, although we trained them in all the various torture techniques, the village-burning methodologies, “disappearing” thousands, none of it seemed to take: Today, the Sandinistas and their imitators rule from Managua to Caracas.  All those dead villagers, wrapped in blankets to hide the telltale signs of torture—and all for nothing!  Oh well, back to the drawing board . . . 

Slicing through the air like an executioner’s scimitar, our silver drones glide effortlessly over the desert, noiselessly winging through devastated lands, as silent and soulless as the Nazgul—what better symbol of U.S. foreign policy in the post-September 11 era than these mechanical monsters?  Afraid of fielding a real army of flesh and blood—because they fear their own people more than any foreigners—our rulers have found in the drone the perfect murderous companion, just as Hecate had Cerebus and all the demons of Hell.  There is no more facing the enemy squarely: Now the attack comes in the darkest hours of the morning, when Death strikes the weak and the infirm, taking them unawares.  Like a knife across the throat, a sudden lightning flash erupts—and then there is only smoke and a few ashes.  All very efficient—and beyond cowardly.

From the safety of the Golden Metropolis, we read the news of the day over morning coffee and a hearty breakfast: Three dead in a drone strike, and one of the Kardashian sisters is getting married again.  The kids, home from school for the summer, are watching television in the family room: Muppets cavort on the screen, while Ernie and Bert announce their impending marriage.  Junior can barely contain his excitement, and, with one effusive gesture, spills his grape juice all over the table.  You mop it up with a napkin, think how much it looks like blood—not reddish, as from a superficial wound, but deep, dark purplish-red, the kind that gushes out of the deepest life-threatening wound.  The juice is sticky, like real gore, and you go to the faucet to wash it off.

It’s just another day in the empire.