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Killers In The Skies: Why Drones Are Everywhere Now

The drone symbolizes a new kind of corporate-driven war that destroyed 200 years of American tradition

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Desertion rates were rising, as was drug use.  In the field, “search and evade” (a mocking, descriptive accurate replacement for “search and destroy”) operations were becoming commonplace.  “Fraggings” -- attacks on unpopular officers or NCOs -- had doubled. ("Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.")  And according to Col. Heinl, there were then as many as 144 antiwar “underground newspapers” published by or aimed at soldiers.  At the moment when he wrote, in fact, the antiwar movement in the U.S. was being spearheaded by a rising tide of disaffected Vietnam veterans speaking out against their war and the way they had fought it.

In this fashion, an American citizen’s army, a draft military, had reached its limits and was voting with its feet against an imperial war.  This was democracy in action transferred to the battlefield and the military base.  And it was deeply disturbing to the U.S. high command, which had, by then, lost faith in the future possibilities of a draft army.  In fact, faced with ever more ill-disciplined troops, the military’s top commanders had clearly concluded: never again!

So on the very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, officially signaling the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (though not quite its actual end), President Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft.  It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, as it had been practiced since World War II, had lost its hold on young minds.

There was no question that U.S. military and civilian leaders intended, at that moment, to sever war and war-making from an aroused citizenry.  In that sense, they glimpsed something of the future they meant to shape, but even they couldn’t have guessed just where American war would be heading.  Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams, for instance, actually thought he was curbing the future rashness of civilian leaders by -- as Andrew Bacevich explained in his book  The New American Militarism -- “making the active army operationally dependent on the reserves.”  In this way, no future president could commit the country to a significant war “without first taking the politically sensitive and economically costly step of calling up America’s ‘weekend warriors.’”

Abrams was wrong, of course, though he ensured that, decades hence, the reserves, too, would suffer the pain of disastrous wars once again fought on the Eurasian mainland.  Still, whatever the generals and the civilian leaders didn’t know about the effects of their acts then, the founding of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) may have been the single most important decision made by Washington in the post-Vietnam era of the foreshortened American Century.

Today, few enough remember that moment and far fewer have considered its import.  Yet, historically speaking, that 1973 severing of war from the populace might be said to have ended an almost two-century-old democratic experiment in fusing the mobilized citizen and the mobilized state in wartime.  It had begun with the levée en masse during the French Revolution, which sent roused citizens to the front to save the republic and spread their democratic fervor abroad.  Behind them stood a mobilized population ready to sacrifice anything for the republic (and all too soon, of course, the empire).

It turned out, however, that the drafted citizen had his limits and so, almost 200 years later, another aroused citizenry and its soldiers, home front and war front, were to be pacified, to be put out to pasture, while the empire’s wars were to be left to the professionals.  An era was ending, even if no one noticed.  (As a result, if you’re in the mood to indulge in irony, citizen’s war would be left to the guerrillas of the world, which in our era has largely meant to fundamentalist religious sects.)

 
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