Death and ‘Death’

Friday Comments-Symposium Topic:

Quote #1:

“First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.  Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that—in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act—that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.”

So, no shit, there you were, balls deep in the Senate mud of ratifying a treaty which you thought only stated that your own nation, in a bargained-for exchange, promised not to use Chemical weapons in consideration of other major threats promising to do likewise, when suddenly, Charlie popped up telling you that treaty meant you wrote a blank check to empower your President to unilaterally enforce that treaty through armed attack on a non-signatory, and without a UN security council resolution or even in coalition with your closest ally.  In other news, could you please explain to me why you’re just slightly reluctant to sign more treaties these days?

Quote #2:

I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.

But Then!:

I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash. I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him.

But then again.  And then we have that that Churchill quote.

And once upon a time the nostalgia for pre-gunpowder warfare was not unknown.  Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote:

Blessed be those happy ages that were strangers to the dreadful fury of these devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor I am satisfied is now in hell, receiving the reward of his cursed invention.

Anyway, the point is that many people do seem to care as much, or more, about the technical means by which a government terminates a life, than about whether the life should be terminated.

You are hereby tasked with providing your insightful speculations as to why this may be.

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29 Responses to Death and ‘Death’

  1. spandrell says:

    There’s less money to be made after the war if you kill people by gas instead of breaking things.

    • Handle says:

      Heh – and it would explain the ban on neutron bombs too. Doesn’t explain the drone-phobia though.

      • spandrell says:

        For drones: There’s no southern redneck kid to scapegoat for killing civilians!

        More generally there’s a sort of feeling that war should be hard, brutal and nasty. You’re supposed to put yourself in danger and suffer horribly to fight a war. Pressing a button and gassing people from a remote location is just too easy. Not very epic. Hard to make a poem or a movie about it.

        • Handle says:

          I’m picking up three psychological impressions:
          1. War should be as ‘sporting’ as possible, and it’s unsportsmanlike when you have an overwhelming advantage over your targets.
          2. War should be as ‘personal’ as possible, me versus you, face to face, mano a mano, preferably only with our own biological strength and wits.
          3. War should be as ‘entertaining’ as possible, that is, conducted in a way that fits our preferences for dramatic plot-lines and narratives.

          Are you saying then that people tend to be revolted or outraged in proportion to how distantly death is meted out in comparison to the above factors?

          • spandrell says:

            Yep, that’s a good way of putting it. ‘Sporting’ is low priority though. You do want to win.

          • Alrenous says:

            To be fair, the concerns are not completely meritless. When you have to personally put someone to the sword, it’s hard to kill them frivolously. With drone or chemical strikes, you can kill someone by sneezing at the wrong moment, and feel hardly a twinge.

            It’s still the case that armed groups tend to run or otherwise break when the start losing, yes? As in, 10% fatal casualties is a high number? Subtle changes in the psychology of warfare are likely to have profound effects on casualties.

          • Handle says:

            I tend to imagine there was quite a lot of hand-to-hand frivolous killing in the pre-gunpowder days. Even before, there was lethal action as a distance. If I am an ancient archer, perhaps protected by fortification, and shoot an arrow haphazardly into a crowd of opponents, piercing some major vein or eye or organ, or perhaps launch a catapult or cannon of some kind, that is ‘personal’ in a sense, but is it really qualitatively different from a drone-kill? I see it as analogous, not distinct. What about long-range sniping?

            For that matter, what about Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, which merely separate the reconnaissance function from the long-range lethal delivery of munitions? And which are programmed, fired, and operated by very young men working at electronic consoles. People don’t seem to get as worked up about those – you’re more likely to see protests opposed to bombing at all than bombing with a Tomahawk, as if there were something especially and intrinsically wicked about the device itself.

          • Drones (at least the current crop) are interesting not the least because they are uniquely unsuitable as a weapon of war against opponents with access to even rudimentary modern arms. Propeller-driven, slow, no armor or maneuvering capability to speak of, and vulnerable (still!) to GPS ‘meaconing.’ Just what the doctor ordered for taking out medieval throwbacks riding camels, armed with their grandfathers’ Mausers. And uppity American suburbanites on their evening walk (give them time.)

          • Handle says:

            The dream, of course, is the ring of Fnargl plus the Eye of Sauron – knowing where all your enemies lurk, what’s they doing and saying and planning, and the technological capability to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime with a mere exercise of will. The current state of the drone is, it is hoped, a primitive stage of technological evolution that gets us closer to that goal. Having witnessed a few paksassinations myself, I maintain the opinion that they’re nice tools to have.

          • Yes, a very beautiful thing to have – when you’re on the right side of the crosshairs.

          • Handle says:

            The third part of the dream is that you’re the only one with a ring.

  2. VXXC says:

    War should of course be based on one’s personal tastes, developed in the Hard School of Television.
    The same of course should apply to Law Enforcement. I want detectives to be Ms. Cleo. Television provides exactly that, or even Detective Jedi Masters.

    The ideal war of course would bring it mano y mano to your google glasses or google pyschic interface, in which your avatar fights it out like a gentleman man to man. Or as is possible in many video games now not a gentleman at all, but indeed [Dantes Inferno] well…prior to dispatching a female demon he r…..

    I suppose a truly authentic interface could bring you actual fear – quite titillating I’m told – as well as a moderate sting of pain. Not too much of course, actual emotional trauma could engender lawsuits. And disability claims. Post-Traumatic, Pre-Traumatic, Simulated-Traumatic, Dreamed-Traumatic…

    These are important questions, to be decided by our expert class of policy-makers. Which is why were so blessed in America.

  3. Nick Land says:

    Anything that gives rich clever people an advantage over poor stupid people is UNFAIR! War should be fought barefoot with pointed sticks.

  4. VXXC says:

    We have lawyers. Trust me the barefoot foe with sticks is far advantaged…

  5. Ah, ‘bug spray for people.’

    The riddle is no riddle at all, if you’re read Mr. O’s “You and the Atomic Bomb” (

    Cheap and devastating organophosphate is ‘evil’ while flying robotic technowankery is A-OK, simply because: superpowers hate competition. Can’t have uppity Turd Worlders wielding an effective pill against the ‘humanitarian’ ambitions of their betters.

    OP is an especially interesting topic because there is no genuinely-effective countermeasure (aside from full-body isolation suits.) The antidote autoinjector issued to NATO soldiers merely keeps a man from croaking immediately, and does nothing against the long-term CNS sequelae of OP exposure – Officially Nonexistent, but quite real – and readily apparent even in rabbits and pigs.

    This subject is near and dear to me because I was once involved in an (unclassified, as most of the modern literature on the topic surprisingly is) effort to develop an actual antidote. (I’m no chemist; I was a mere modeler. Never got so much as within a mile of the actual porcine gasenwagen. Never touched anything more dangerous than a derelict office chair.)

    To make a long story short: there were two schools of thought – ‘reactivators,’ mainly variations on the theme of the old classic pralidoxime, and ‘bioscavengers’ – substances which an OP will bind to in preference to acetylcholinesterase. The latter direction did lead to a ‘prophylactic’ of sorts – butyrylcholinesterase distilled from human blood. One of the usual ‘favourite son’ DOD contractors is cranking it out as we speak, at $20K/dose. I suspect this proved enough to supply VIPs and ‘lizard men’ of all stripes, and so our group’s funding withered away. Perhaps the research continues somewhere else, under lock and key, by carefully-vetted Aryans (in our lab of two dozen or so in its glory days, there were maybe ever two natural-born Americans.)

    • Handle says:

      The stuff’s easy to make, and the information is everywhere, and yet, so far, the genie has mostly stayed in the bottle – unused en masse by Osama & Co. even though it would be easy for them to get it into a giant crowd in most Western cities.

      There’s some cosmic-level blessing to mankind in the fact that basic scientific competence and sanguineous fanaticism seem to be mostly incompatible.

      • Mr. Asahara and his merry men got the job done, but neglected to think about dispersal mechanisms (OP at room temperature is no gas at all, but a liquid much like motor oil.)

        I strongly suspect that self-styled rebels of all stripes regularly cook OP and other goodies – and helpfully do themselves in. Gerhard Schrader’s original pilot plant sported a heroic casualty rate, despite some of its lavish funding (by personal decree of the Fuhrer) actually having been spent on first-class safety gear. A toxin with LD-50 in the milligram range will do that. Modern OP warheads are ‘binaries’, in the sense of the final step of the synthesis taking place when two glass bottles shatter on impact.

        Forget poisons, consider ordinary explosives. No high-tech wizardry there, either. Yes, a chemistry textbook will teach a would-be miscreant enough to be dangerous – to himself and his comrades-at-arms. This is a well-known fact.

        At some point, there might appear intelligent, patient, and resourceful people among the ‘untermenschen’ we so generously treat to ‘airborne democracy.’ All bets are off then.

      • nydwracu says:

        Between this and Snowden, I almost want to dig out that old, terribly-written and hopelessly meandering Platonic dialogue I wrote a year or so ago, the conclusion of which is that the main reason things haven’t blown up entirely is that The System(TM) finds a place for all competent people.

        • Handle says:

          It found me one! And I’m genuinely grateful.

          Then again, we just cut the Joint Staff by 20% because of the sequester, and there were plenty of potentially very dangerous, but also very loyal and patriotic, folks there that the system has decided to unplace.

        • This is an appealing hypothesis, because it offers a perverse sort of hope. But it is almost certainly a false hope.

          The gap between venting one’s frustrations in flamewars and breaking out the plastique is very, very wide. And I don’t believe the modern American man, as a class, is psychologically-equipped to jump over this gap, regardless of what is pushing at his back.

          The chaos which follows ‘when the trucks stop coming’ is a far more dreaded thing to most civilized people than enemy bullets. We are all living in the proverbial ‘glass house,’ and no thinking person is likely to start ‘throwing stones.’

  6. vm says:

    Many years ago, Churchill bemoaned the fact that, “[w]ar, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid.”

    The trend since Churchill, naturally (or unnaturally) enough, has been towards ever increasing squalidness. People, when they seem to care for no obvious reason about the means of warfare instead of the ends, are really subconsciously reacting to this horrible and dreary reality. As we go ever onwards into the depersonalisation of social relations and the total mechanisation of all life, those few remnants of man’s higher nature cry out against it. All to no avail, of course, and with less and less vigour as liberalism’s dominance becomes more complete. Eventually, this too shall pass, as a mass man emerges who cares not for his alienation, who does not shy away from annihilation and the end of humanity, but who celebrates the absence of man and personhood from every sphere, and his own descent to the level of beasts, as a historical triumph and the summum bonum itself. Hymen Io Hymen!

  7. Pingback: Trends in Modern Warfare « EO IPSO

  8. Erik says:

    I agree with several of the above, so will focus on an element that seems so far unmentioned: The distancing from responsibility and death. This is related to Handle’s point that war should be personal, but that sounds to me like a positive moral imperative, while what I’m concerned about is more of a negative concern about incentives.
    It becomes more likely to do something regrettable if 1) the thing is easier to do and 2) the thing is harder to trace back. Therefore, to limit regrettable things, one might oppose drones, which make it easy to kill someone remotely and hard to trace back whodunnit.

  9. Handle says:

    Nick Land also has a related Quote Note from Andy McCarthy. Here’s the whole paragraph of note:

    Now, I have a confession to make: I am unimpressed by the Western obsession over chemical weapons. They are ghastly, yes. But so, in the wrong hands, are bombs and jumbo jets and hollow-point bullets. To me, the shrieking over weapons of mass destruction is the international version of the Left’s domestic campaign against guns, and of a piece with its trendy revulsion against land- and sea-mines. This is the delusion that discord is caused by the song, not the singer. It is a cop-out: the pretense that there is a valid excuse for failing to grapple with the players and the ideologies that resort to violence — as if we live in a make-believe world where destructive weapons in the right hands are unnecessary to keep us safe; and where laws, conventions, and purported “norms” against various types of weapons are effective against rogues like Assad and al-Qaeda.

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