ABC News recently broadcast contradictory stories about the Balkans War. The first story highlighted a press conference where NATO personnel denied that Americans were engaged in warfare and that any Serb civilians had been killed during the thousands of round-the-clock sorties conducted by NATO forces. Reporting this “news” without a hint of skepticism, Peter Jennings then segued into a story about the brave American pilots flying these missions from their base in Aviano, Italy, showing home-based warriors breakfasting with their families in the morning, going off to war in the afternoon, and returning home in time to tuck their children in at night. How Americans can go off to war when they are not engaged in war, ABC News never explained.
The soldier’s life has radically changed since the days of Antietam, Ypres, and Okinawa. When the world powers wage war today, it’s a sanitized business, which can annihilate an enemy while dirtying neither the nails nor the consciences of the warriors, who suffer no deprivations, run few risks, and witness none of death and destruction they inflict; let the poor of the Third World bloody their hands with physical combat. For our part, we have the luxury of dropping bombs from high altitudes, launching cruise missiles from distant waters, and blasting tonnage from tanks stationed miles from their targets. And as long as cumbersome ground forces are never introduced, which only confound the situation from the military’s point of view by breeding controversies over body counts and quagmires and lights at the end of tunnels, all such actions can be justified as measures “short of war.”
That this high-tech, low-risk approach to warfare succeeds was proved in America’s Agincourt-like victories over Iraq. But its military benefit goes beyond the mere tactical: by detaching soldiers from the devastation they wreak, the military can better prevent them from associating cause with effect, from experiencing any sense of guilt or responsibility for their actions that could hinder their blind devotion to the task at hand. Moreover, by keeping its distance from the actual battlefield, the military can rely on “plausible denial” if ever questioned about “killing fields” or “collateral damage.” Like the tree that doesn’t exist because no one can sec it or hear its fall, so too with the cries of the wounded and maimed.
But in the Balkans War, America has taken New Age warfare to a novel level, beyond anything even witnessed in the Persian Gulf War. Though armed with the same high-tech weaponry now in use against Bosnian Serbs, soldiers of Desert Storm were nevertheless uprooted from their homes and families and friends; they were still susceptible to the boredom and psychological dislocations historically associated with war and which can over time erode a soldier’s confidence in his country’s war aims. The American pilots in Aviano, however, never have to sever these critical ties that bind; they go off to war in much the same fashion as a machinist would leave home for the factory. They kiss the wife good-bye, drive the kids to school, bomb people in the afternoon, and return home in time for dinner with the family. ABC’s message was clear: though busy with round-the-clock airstrikes, America’s military hasn’t forgotten the importance of “family values.” As the children of one pilot replied when asked what it was like to have daddy go daily off to war, “It’s really not bad.”
Five, 50, or even 100 years from now, the Serbs will still hate the Groats, the Muslims still despise the Christians, and the Balkans will remain the powder keg it has always been; no number of NATO bombings will alter this reality. Of greater consequence will be America’s perfection of modern warfare, for by depersonalizing war while at the same time personalizing life for the warrior, the country has mastered what empires throughout history have always sought: the most efficient and effective manner of using the empire’s forces abroad.
Ingenuity of this sort is quintessentially American. It is the logical outgrowth of our obsession with scientific management and the managerial state, and whether the pilots of Aviano realize it or not, they are mere tools in a long search for the maximum efficiency of man and machine. Call it a mission of mercy or rank gunboat diplomacy, but Taylorism is alive and flying sorties at the front.