Friday, July 18, 2008

Bloodless War -- No Longer an Oxymoron

Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse’s last novel (completed in 1943) is a critique of a rarified intellectual, technologically constrained fictional province of Central Europe whose favored inhabitants seem to do little that is “productive” in the normal sense of that word.

Adults, whether chosen in later life or recognized in childhood as potential members the elite order, have but two duties, First, to aid in the education of the youths among them, probing constantly for weakness of intellect, undeveloped character (as defined by the masters), and unreserved devotion to the quest that is the focus of their existence and the Second duty: to strive to become Magister Ludi, “Master of the Game,” the “Glass Bead Game” (the literal translation of the German title of the book).

The problem with this life, as the protagonist Joseph Knecht, the current Magister Ludi, comes to realize, is that the lives of the privileged order are utterly cut off from all concrete reality. Even the “glass beads” that formed the “scoring” methodology of the original game, were no longer used. Everything in the game, like everything in the game that is life, was in and of the mind – and as such was lifeless, loveless, and ultimately sterile. It was the reason why the masters were constantly having to go into the surrounding provinces to find “new blood.”

I was reminded of all the above last week as I read about the U.S. Air Force officers who live near Los Angeles with their families, get up each morning and commute – like so many others in that part of California – to work driving their own autos.

But unlike their fellow commuters, these officers go into air conditioned trailers and “fly” unmanned but highly lethal drones across the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq some 7,500 miles away. Using real time images of the terrain below the drones, they search for terrorists planting bombs in the roads or insurgents attacking U.S., Iraqi or Afghan forces, or troops of other coalition countries. When they confirm a target, the homing guidance drops the munitions on target. The process is repeated until the munitions are expended or the drone is finally forced back into “safe areas” where it can be refueled and rearmed.

Eventually, their “shift” over, the officers near Los Angeles get back in their autos, drive home, and do what thousands of others do in that part of California.

It’s a sterile, emotionless war—if it can even be considered “war.” For sure, on that part of the world where the munitions fall, it is quite real, quite concrete, and quite lifeless.

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