In this week’s London Review of Books, by a happy juxtaposition, there is a review, by Thomas Powers, of two books on Joseph Heller, and a review, by Andrew Cockburn, of Obama’s drone wars.
That America spent 2.59 trillion dollars on the military over the last five years, and that the Obama administration, which has long signaled its desire to get tough and cut America’s entitlements (medicare, social security, etc.), proposes that we spend 2.725 trillion dollars on the military over the next five years, exactly defines the place of liberalism in American politics – as a zero. The zero is a crucial number. Perhaps the most crucial number. The zero promises that anything can be quantified, including nothing at all. Similarly, that post-Vietnam liberalism has exerted exactly zero degree of power over American foreign and domestic policy, yet hold the system together by providing a convenient domestic enemy, whose peacemongering and welfare-for-all attitudes can be triumphed over again and again by progressive pundits and policymakers who live “in the real world.” The liberals are the dummies in the elaborate American “kill chain” – a felicitous phrase uttered by the hero of Cockburn’s piece, one former Lieutenant General, David Deptula (who, in a glorious swoosh of the revolving door, is now the chief executive of MAV 6, a “provider of enhanced situational understanding of battlefields”.) MAV 6, we are told, is proud to have recently landed a contract with the Pentagon (for a paltry initial 211 million dollars) to develop “Blue Devil Block 2”, a 350 foot long unmanned aircraft – because if liberty stands for anything, it stands for offshoring the kill chain to unmanned and highly expensive drones. Those drones, in turn, have proven themselves to be very successful machines – although not on the battlefield. In the warzone, the drones are crap, and all the stats show they actually worsen hostility situations, raise the rate of guerilla attacks, and in general create counter-productive havoc. No, the zone in which these drones have proven, without doubt, to be the world’s best weapon is in D.C., where selling drone projects to the Federal piggy bank has raised housing prices (as well as the price of a decent private school) for thousands of employees of the war system, who profit from every scheme swallowed by the Obama Pentagon. This is a kill chain to die for!… As so many human products do in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and other exotic places.
Cockburn’s journalistic trick of tying the Bush-Obama klepto-krieg to the irresistible rise of David Deptula is, perhaps, a bit unfair, but it is good fun. Deptula is always in the background, it seems, when money is shifting to one defense industry vehicle or another, automatizing the hell out of the battlefield. And this, for those who know their Catch – 22, throws us back on one of the prophetic figures in that book: Milo Minderbinder. Milo is the man in Yossarian’s unit who sees the war as what it is – a market interspersed by firefights – and relentlessly privatizes the unit’s supplies, trading them in an increasingly bizarre bizarre for other commodities. The bombing in Catch-22 – irrational and relentless – is the binary partner to Milo’s all too rational quest for profit. The two sides converge in what Tom Powers calls Catch-22’s central scene – the death of Snowden. Snowden, who is the flattest of flat characters – we just know that he is young, perhaps a teenager, and that he is a tailgunner – is hit by flak when Yossarian’s plane is on a bombing mission. Yossarian proceeds back through the fuselage to patch him up. He finds that Snowden has a large wound on his thigh, the size of a football. Snowden is conscious and keeps telling Yossarian he is cold. So Yossarian opens the first aid kit: “The twelve syrettes of morphine had been stolen from the case and replaced by a cleanly lettered note that said: ‘What’s good for M. and M. enterprises is good for the country. Milo Minderbinder.”
As it turns out, Snowden wouldn’t have been helped anyway. In a scene that is probably being correlated in Afghanistan even as I type this, deep in the comfort of the war on terror cocoon, Yossarian finds that repairing the leg wound hasn’t helped: “Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak jacket. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yosarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.”
And the beat goes on. Kill chains – every link is lovingly handcrafted by the men you can trust! Be a realistic, and remember - dronification is a small price to pay for the liberty we all enjoy so much.