Ken Serbin, PhD, writes about "Violence at a Distance"

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Violence at a Distance

By Kenneth Serbin, PhD

As the investigation of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing continues and debate revives about blowback from U.S. actions overseas, it’s striking how vast portions of the citizenry in this internally democratic superpower remain disengaged from foreign affairs.

This attitude results in good part from immense technological progress and a tendency of many Americans to live in social isolation.

In 1970, in his best-seller The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point (published in Brazil in 1977 as A busca da solidão), sociologist Phillip Slater pinpointed these trends and their relationship to war.

Slater pointedly described how American bomber pilots in Vietnam practiced “violence at a distance.”

“B52 bombers, flying from Guam over 2,500 miles away, or from Thailand, dropping bombs from 40,000 feet so that they could not be seen or heard from below, could wipe out an entire valley,” Slater wrote.

“Flying in a plane far above an impersonally defined target and pressing some buttons to turn fifty square miles into a sea of flame, is less traumatic to the average middle-class American than inflicting a superficial bayonet wound on a single soldier. The flier is protected from intimate contact with the victims of his mutilations. He cannot see the women and children being horribly burned to death – they have no meaning to him.”

What did have meaning for Americans was the fact that, during the war, hundreds of thousands of draftees served in Vietnam.

Despite military superiority, the U.S. lost the war on both the battlefront – against a fiercely nationalistic enemy – and on the home front – where popular sentiment turned against a war that had no clear focus and took more than 58,000 lives.

The U.S. armed forces did deep soul-searching and produced one of the least commented but most impressive turnarounds in the history of modern institutions, leading the country to recover its might and prestige.

U.S. leaders also devised a way to radically reduce the role of politics in war decision-making by replacing the draft with all-volunteer armed forces. Thus, America ingeniously created a new method of “violence at a distance,” with professional fighters shouldering the burden of war.

As one Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts put it before eventually committing suicide, Americans shop at the mall while the soldiers fight the wars.

In the Boston incident, alienation, and even outright ignorance, once again became starkly apparent.

Lacking serious analysis, the live, continuous TV broadcasts of the hunt for the suspects took on the tone of the dramatic, fictional crime programs that are a staple of the networks.

To correct the mistaken gossip on social media about the origins of the attackers, identified by the authorities as Chechen immigrants, the Czech ambassador to the U.S. issued a press release: “The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities – the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”

The tragedy seemed to only become clear when horrified Americans learned of the way the attacks killed and maimed people. In one TV broadcast, a woman recounted her terrible decision to have doctors amputate a badly injured foot.

Very little connection was made between events overseas and the bombings. The national defense system continues to shield people from the atrocities of war with the latest innovation in “violence at a distance:” drones.

President Barack Obama has personally determined drone strikes, which have killed thousands of people in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. The dead include alleged terrorists (including one American citizen) but also innocent families. It’s eerily reminiscent of Johnson’s selection of Vietnam targets.

Like the Vietnam bombers, the drone operators bureaucratically execute kill orders without notion of the pain and destruction leveled.

Unless they have dug deeply into the news, most Americans have remained unaware of this new kind of shadow warfare, which is quietly growing into a key sector of the economy.

However, the killing of an American and an increasing publicity about the existence of these stealth weapons has led to protest against the drones as a threat to civil liberties.

In March, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky denounced the unconstitutionality of drone strikes against U.S. citizens and demanded an investigation into their use. In late April, small groups of protesters also spoke out.

Meanwhile, with the goal of stimulating civic responsibility in youths, some leaders have called for a return to the military draft and/or the establishment of an obligatory national social service program.

With the ongoing quest to perfect “violence at a distance,” the draft may become a necessary means of reducing the harmful social distances among people in America – and between Americans and the victims of U.S. actions overseas. (Kenneth Serbin é diretor do Departament de História da Universidade de San Diego.)


- Published in Portuguese in 'O Estado de S. Paulo' on May 12, 2013.

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