March 18, 2013

"One of the things we Americans are worst at is sympathizing with the casualties we inflict."

David Bromwich: on the Rand Paul “Convergence”

 …During the Cold War we faced an enemy that could annihilate us, as we could annihilate them if there were a nuclear war. And yet we didn’t commit all of our resources to war. We didn’t think of ourselves as a nation at war. Now we do, and it’s a terrible thing, and it’s not being talked about.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

David Bromwich is my favorite “close reader” of the American story in the Age of Obama. He’s the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, found also at HuffPo and the London Review of Books. His lens on politics is literary. Sweeping a wide horizon, his focus is on language, ideas, rhetoric and character. His biggest disappointment in the Obama years, he’s saying here, is the seal the president has place on “aberrational policies” initiated by George Bush and Dick Cheney — not (mercifully) including torture.

We’ve gone from massive invasion and bombing to this sort of selective, more antiseptic strategy of drone warfare. But the idea that we’re in a war — it’s not called the global war on terror anymore — but that we’re in a war; that the war is perhaps endless; and that serious, mature judgment should favor the intelligent tactics for prosecuting the war, rather than questioning it completely… What’s needed from people of any radically constitutional temper is to break that and do the sort of thing that Rand Paul lately urged, namely vote again on the authorization for the use of force from 2001…

RP filibusI came with questions about Senator Rand Paul’s electrifying impromptu filibuster against the Drone War. Were we getting a glimpse of the long-bruited “convergence” of rebel spirits “right and left” against the permanent war? The bridge between Rand Paul and Glenn Greenwald on drone warfare looks like the bridge Ralph Nader imagined with Rand’s father Ron Paul last year on state capitalism. Can Rand Paul’s words on the Senate floor bridge Tea Party and OCCUPY angers, over a stagnant mainstream?

Professor Bromwich saw more of Rand Paul’s 13-hour marathon than I did, with some of the same awe. Not since the Vietnam debates in the 1970s had we heard “a sustained performance of persuasive argument, whether you were persuaded or not.” And still we feel it’s what lawmakers ought to be able to do: master an issue and speak their convictions. “Most Americans under 50 can’t remember any such thing. Am I right?” Bromwich puzzled. “There’s no other living politician who has exemplified this ability — which seems native to and necessary to constitutional government.”

Like Senator Paul, David Bromwich could leave you asking: what’s not to argue about here?

My reaction to drone warfare is uncomplicated. I find it terrifying and I find it a portent of a future where total surveillance is combined with a possibility of violence occuring anywhere, any time, against victims chosen by a state, somewhere. That’s very close to Orwell’s image of a future…

What the distant “deciders” of death underestimate, in the Bromwich view, is the perspective of people on the ground.

What they don’t, I think, grasp is what it must be like for the relative, the mother, father, child, close friend, of somebody who’s suddenly hit by one of these missiles. The whole world is blasted. The person’s annihilated, not a scrap of him left. And it comes from the sky and you know it comes from the United States. I think the emotion, the passion that invades a person seeing that happen to someone you care for must be: murder in your heart. There must be a feeling so strong one can’t compare to what happens in a shooting war or even under massive bombing. It so specific, it seems so aimed, it seems so god-like, and it seems so evil.

This impact of drone warfare which has been testified to by civilians in Pakistan, by tribesmen in Pakistan and elsewhere, just doesn’t seem to hit home with Americans. But I think in a funny way that sympathy with it was reflected in the filibuster we saw a few days ago. And it may awaken people a little bit. One of the things we Americans are worst at is sympathizing with the casualties we inflict. This is true of Vietnam and Iraq — where in Vietnam we killed, who knows, 2-millions and upward; in Iraq, a half million or a million. And yet, no talk about it. No talk about it, ever! But individuate it to the one person, the woman or man who sees a member of their family, or a close friend, blown up like that by a drone. I think that could strike people.

That kind of shooting seems to me utterly corrupting of American morale, and to encourage a kind of violence so abstract and so remote one can’t even see what a future humanity would be like that followed this example.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

And of course, David Bromwich is invoking also the subject of his biography-in-progress, Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), the great Irish Whig in England’s Parliament. Friend of the American Revolution, scourge of the French, Burke was the patron saint of William F. Buckley’s conservative revival back in the day. But as the ferocious prosecutor of Warren Hastings for the predatory crimes of the East India Company in India, Burke could serve again as a paragon of the coming convergence. Burke stood, as David Bromwich is reminding me, for the restraint of power, for empire as “a generous partnership with other peoples,” for “a natural equality of mankind at large” and for a code of imperial justice to enforce it.

Related Content

  • Drones also don’t work for today’s national security challenges like climate change, economic fragility, and pandemics. I think critics should consider the larger political and strategic challenges the U.S. is responding to rather than going straight to the hot button issue of drones. It’s only a small part of a much larger national security strategy that is in transition, perhaps even reformation, and I think we should not loose sight of the broader picture. That said the prospect of a “drones arm race” is frightening.

  • Sean McElroy

    Since Korea, the neocons have been trying to create a category of conflict for which the rules of engagement of war don’t apply, thus avoiding the inconvenience of voting for a declaration of war (United States Constitution Art. 1, Sect. 8, Clause 11), or worse, funding, in Congress. This hasn’t stopped the Executive branch from prosecuting, um, conflicts without Congressional approval.

    Now comes Rand Paul boldly calling for a re-Authorization for Use of Military Force” (2001) in sight of the Executive unitary redefinition of terrorism as potentially outside the domain of Congress, since it’s not really war anyway. Did Obama/Biden pull off what Bush/Cheney could never have? Is Congress just now getting a whiff that they wrote themselves out of the Constitution? And given that only a couple of Senators took up the cause, should they even care?

    This is a fascinating drama but not one that is playing in living rooms across America. The game controller generation is perfectly ambivalent about shooting down the bad guys without leaving the comfort of the couch, even if the definition of bad guy isn’t quite formulated until the end of the game. Of course there will be no parading of the glorious laurels, who goes to those things anyway? When the entire enterprise can be carried out from an effectively appointed cubicle, what’s the point of standing around in the cold breathing confetti? And there certainly won’t be anything as distressing as accountability for the conduct of the enterprise.

    It should surprise no one that acceptance of a worse situation than warfare is nigh upon us, But for the situation to become Orwellian, the notion that there’s a better alternative has to exist. When there’s no war, there’s no peace either.

  • sifta

    It was heartening to hear that Rand Paul took a stand, but many of us were not able to witness the actual event. So, it’s heartening to hear the report of a perceptive observer like Prof. Bromwich.

    Whether it is a turning point or an opportunity is not clear, though the unique thing about this was not the action, but the reaction. There has been no lack of people willing to speak truth to power. For instance, you might remember that Robert Byrd, the senator from W. Virginia tried to philibuster the Iraq War resolution. He was swept aside. Cindy Sheehan was (and is!) extraordinary in making people aware of the situation. And there have been many others, including Bradley Manning. Thus, such sentiments have not been lacking a spark.

    However, in this case, the fact that it was coming from the Tea Party, directed at Obama, and in common cause with progressives in the background made it particularly potent. Hopefully this will lead to inroads for progressives, and maybe the president would be receptive for an excuse to rein in miscarriages of power. Though, it does seem pretty far fetched.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Yesterday I went online and read two articles in the British newspaper “The Daily Telegraph”: “The myth of ‘shock and awe’: why the Iraqi invasion was a disaster,” by Richard Sanders, and “Iraq would be better off under Saddam,” by Andrew Gilligan. Of course it was the avatar of New Labour, Tony Blair, who abetted Dubya in prettifying the carnage in Iraq with invocations of lofty moral purpose, and the “Torygraph’s” verdict should be weighed in that balance. But there is in Britain a widespread conviction that the Iraq invasion was a piece of treachery, and the Afghanistan war, a daft affair presided over by an American cousin of Colonel Blimp, with his bull neck and diminutive brain.

    If another democratic country had visited destruction and death on a sovereign nation with which it was not at war, and with the kack-handed primitivism of our decade of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq, we might, should anything credible remain of our avowals of being democracy’s chief advocate and protector, have roused ourselves to say of the aggressor’s citizens that they were unprincipled, conscienceless, and cowardly for having so readily dispensed themselves from the precepts democracy imposed on them.

    But then in our country, democracy is invoked “differentially,” depending on how much of our history we think it expedient to misremember. Vietnam never happened. Manifest Destiny is that movie in which John Wayne marries a native and mostly treats her decently (for a real-life reactionary, that is). Generalissimo Dubya and his trogs are out of sight and out of mind. Feldmarschall Obama picks and chooses which of the atrocities committed by his predecessor he will personally adopt.

    It’s sobering to realize how much the institutions on which we claim to hold the patent, enlightened self-governance and the free market economy among them, have degenerated in our country since 1970. One cause might be that Americans have adopted the cow as their animal spirit. When the oligarchs export our jobs to China and their wealth to the Caymans, we switch our tail. When Kaboom Inc. devises another Artifact of Doom and shops it to Congress, we deposit a cowflop. When firestick idolators tell us guns are from God, we bite the water bowl. When the Christers finally impose the burqa on women and confer full citizenship on blastocysts, we shall start stall prancing.

    Bessie is a gift to humankind. Bovine oblivion is the death knell of democracy.

  • Potter

    It is terrifying. And I don’t think the deciders estimate at all never mind underestimate the effect. It’s our terrorism; we are terrorizing, we are terrorists. How is this is supposed to eliminate terrorism? This is the same stupidity the Israeli’s fell into- the dark notion that might makes right and prevails while moral issues are bent or rationalized (ie we have to kill them there so they won’t kill us here).

    I hope you are right about the coming convergence.

  • nother

    In Feb. of this year, a fugitive ex-cop went on a killing spree targeting police officers and their families. When he was on the loose and had ditched the car, a very liberal friend on facebook posted an impassioned lament that authorities were considering using a drone to locate him, and thus a drone against an American on U.S. soil would be a very dangerous precedent, she said. Personally I found it preposterous that she thought we should refrain from using this resource to stop this mad man…all because of a moral and intellectual stance.

    We know that drones are not going away because as Chris says in this program “it’s not the highest technology in the world,” and – as with the fugitive cop – there are limited instances where they are needed. Which reminds me that I just watched Zero Dark Thirty and I thought they did a good job of showing that in some instances a certain level of interrogation of detainees is necessary to save lives. As when Bill Clinton defends the Jack Bauer scenario when it comes to torture.
    My bottom line is that I agree with David Bromwich that international agreements are called for placing severe limitations on drones. Severe being the key word.

    With that said, I believe the word “drone” is almost on par with the word “terrorism” in terms an amorphous metaphor. And it’s a precursor of psychological violence that will make Steven Pinker blush when he finally gets his head around it.

  • The Parrot

    Superb conversation and comment thread. This conversation is a nice counter-point to Chris’ conversation with Professor Pinker (Better Angels) and his take on drones and the evolution of violent paraphernalia and their accompanying policies. Thank you Chris and Professor Bromwich.

  • Pingback: Do Corporations Enjoy a 2nd Amendment Right to Drones? | Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire()

  • Pingback: robin willis » Blog Archive » David Bromwich: on the Rand Paul “Convergence” | Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon()

  • Pingback: Bromwich between the lines – The Review of Reviews()