May 7, 2008


The Air Force Above All: We rarely stop to think of the asymmetrical advantages enjoyed by the military—the overwhelming advantage in firepower, mobility, and technology. This has created what can only be called an empathy gap. (William J. Astore, May 6, 2008, Mother Jones)

Our capability to deliver damage and death across the globe—at virtually no immediate risk to ourselves—gives extra meaning to the words "above all." But with great power comes great responsibility, a tagline I learned as a teen from Spider-Man comic strips, but which is no less true for that. The problem is that our "global reach" often exceeds the grasp of our collective wisdom to employ "global power" responsibly.

Listen to the Air Force's own pitch for its "global reach" and "global power," and you know that today's service is indeed an imperial instrument focused on "power projection" and "dominance" (with nary a thought of how others may respond to being dominated). Worse yet, our "capabilities" have so detached us from delivering death that it's become remarkably close to a video-game-like exercise.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched a recruiting film that predicted the coming age of remote-control warfare. And where would the Air Force find its new "pilots," the narrator asked rhetorically? The film promptly cut to a 1980s video arcade, where young teens were blasting away with abandon in games like "Missile Command."

I remember the audience laughing, and it tickled my funny bone as well, but I'm not so amused anymore. For what was prophesied a generation ago has come true. Using unmanned drones, armed with missiles and "piloted" by joystick-wielding warriors, often thousands of miles away from the targets being attacked, the Air Force need not risk any aircrew in "battle." Our military speaks blithely, even with excitement, of "killing 'Bubba' from the skies"; but, in actuality, what that means is: from air bases tucked safely far behind the lines, whether in Qatar on the Arabian peninsula or outside of Las Vegas. (In this case, what happens in Vegas definitely does not stay in Vegas.)

I'm not suggesting that our Global Hawk, Predator, and Reaper (What a name!) pilots are anything less than dedicated to their assigned missions, including minimizing "collateral damage." Rather, the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles itself serves to detach them from their targets. Tracking the enemy, often with infrared sensors that show people as featureless blobs of heat-light, how can they not become human versions of the ruthless alien hunter that blasted its way through Arnold Schwarzenegger's unit in a movie coincidentally named Predator?

As our weapons technology weakens ground-level empathy and understanding, it simultaneously emboldens the Air Force to seek (deceptively) "clean" kills. It's well known, for example, that, in the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, the Bush administration tried to "decapitate" Saddam Hussein and his inner circle with precision weapons. (In fact, only Iraqi civilians were killed in these coordinated attacks aimed at the Iraqi leadership as the war began.)

Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda provide even fewer and more elusive "high-value" targets than do organized governments. Yet, when the U.S. succeeds with "decapitation" strikes against such networks, new heads often emerge, hydra-like, especially when "collateral damage" includes dead civilians—and live avengers.

The Air Force's vision of total domination used to stop at the stratosphere. Yet, according to its grandiose website, it now extends "to the shining stars and beyond." I hesitate to ask what lies beyond. God? Certainly, there's something unbounded, almost god-like, in the Air Force's space fantasy.

When it turns to space, the Air Force readily admits its desire to dominate all potential foes. As Peter B. Teets, a former Air Force undersecretary and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, declared back in 2002: "If we do not exploit space to the fullest advantage across every conceivable mode of war fighting, then someone else will—and we allow this at our own peril."

...but at the point where you think it's a bad thing to dominate the enemy you need medication.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 7, 2008 8:45 AM

One who is concerned over "how others may respond to being dominated" certainly does not understandthe meaning of domination

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 7, 2008 10:26 AM

It's very simple: "with great power comes great responsibility..." And he doesn't want the responsibility, so he tries to get rid of the power.

Isn't that the plot of Spiderman 2?

Posted by: Brandon at May 7, 2008 10:52 AM

The fact that they are seeking to reduce collateral damage emphasizes that they are not detatched from the targeting.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 7, 2008 11:17 AM

> The fact that they are seeking to reduce collateral damage emphasizes that they are not detatched from the targeting.

And one of the advantages of overkill is that you can pull your punches like this, and still achieve kill.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at May 7, 2008 2:19 PM

"today's service is indeed an imperial instrument"

You can pretty much stop reading at this point. He's demonstrated that he has no idea of what "imperial" means, other than just another stick to bash the US with.

Posted by: ray at May 7, 2008 3:21 PM

Far be it from me to be agreeing with 'Mother Jones' (Ref: clocks, stopped), but he may be dancing on the edges of something quite correct.

Essentially, what it boils down to is that PR and media is every bit as essential a battlespace as Air, Land, and Sea. And when the BBC, for example, is our enemy (as it is, News, at least), that is the same as an entire armored division, or an entire carrier, or more even, arrayed against us. Fight them, or they will play a medium to large role in our impending defeat.

And we are great at dominating Air, Sea, and Land. And we SUCK at the PR battlespace. Absoulutely pathetic. And any adversary with an IQ above 70 will focus on our weak spot, namely right there.

So Mr. Mother Jones may not care to fight this battle at all, but the point he makes is valid. Unless we sell the effort EVERY SINGLE DAY, DAY AFTER DAY AFTER DAY, successfully, and stomp our enemies, HARD, in that very same battlespace.... all those drones and whatnot, not to mention lives, will be for naught.

Posted by: Andrew X at May 7, 2008 5:35 PM

What this article is really about is the transformative effect of precision guided munitions (PGM's) on Law of War (LoW) considerations.

PGM's have made the whole world Omdurman and all that are not the United States have become the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.

The LoW test for collateral damage requires a balancing of military necessity against damage to protected persons and places. For example, where military necessity demands logistical isolation of Eastern front battlefields from reinforcements coming up through the Dresden railyards, and the available weapon systems, heavy bombers, give you a circular error probable of several thousand yards, oh well.

Fast forward to modern times. Suppose, just suppose, that our SIGINT tells us that military significant transmissions are emanating from a particular building in downtown Belgrade. In the old days, taking out the radio room in that one building might have meant killing everything in a grid square. But now, we may zero in on that single building, or, better, a single wing or even a single room in that building, so the calculation becomes much simpler.

The point or the article is that even the foregoing scenario, there will some slight collateral damage--the radio room cleaning lady, that sort of thing. Thus the article quite correctly identifies global PGM capability as politically transformative. Harken to the author's whiney, bitchy note alluding to how it just isn't "cricket" for the world government to strike a single, named enemy from half a world away, with no risk of friendly casulties and only minimal, accepable collateral damage.

Aerospace power does this, and it has changed the equation forever. The military threshhold has been moved.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 7, 2008 8:21 PM


I chuckle at the idea that some argue that we are not an "Empire."

Anyone can nitpick with definitions and point to bits and pieces of evidence, but when you are spread across the globe militarily, and simultaneously helping and botching "occupations" (Saudi, Iraq, Ethiopia)etc.) while urging citizens at home to keep engaging in their fatuous "bread and circuses" (go shopping)...

you are pretty much an Empire.

If Americans weren't so busy trying to deny their nature (Dangerous Nation), they might not be so inept at being an Empire.

Whenever I'm confronted with the 'imperialistic' argument from some, I generally make the same argument as OJ.

"Yes, we are an Empire, and a damn fine one. Get with the program."

Intellectual Honesty is the best policy.


Spot on. We let our increasingly detatched 'media elite' do our 'marketing' for us, and wonder why many across the globe react negatively.

Too many "libertarian" types think that Coke and Pepsi will do our marketing for us. The moment Coke and Pepsi see a better way to make profits, they'll sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Posted by: Bruno at May 7, 2008 8:27 PM

We're an ideological Empire. We don't administer colonies but dictate how other states can be run.

Posted by: oj at May 8, 2008 6:19 AM


In law school, we learned to call things "a distinction with out a difference."

While arguably only a debating trick, it is at least partially applicable to this situation.

Perhaps the fact that you are correct will be what prevents us from having the same fate as other empires. Perhaps not, though.

I continuosly recommend the hilarious and conservative "Idiocracy."

Posted by: Bruno at May 8, 2008 9:59 AM

Empires fall only because of the administrative costs. Read Paul Kennedy's book. We have none. We maintained the Empire rather easily with a military under 3% of GDP.

Posted by: oj at May 8, 2008 11:11 AM