Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

This week has been the best of weeks and the worst of weeks for America and its drone warfare. It counts among its successes the killing of two suspected Al-Qaeda operatives, one of whom was a high-profile operative. However, the American military also accepted responsibility for a botched attack resulting in the death of six civilians.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald raises three important points in his reflections upon the death of civilians this week. He first says the ongoing death of civilians, euphemistically named collateral damage, damages “the moral character of a country.” He then calls attention to the obsessive attention paid to the failed underwear-bomb plot in contrast to the civilian deaths. Building on this second point, he concludes by briefly pointing out that the media’s lopsided coverage reinforces the “Good Guys v. Bad Guys” perception of the war, where the Good Guys are victims turned victors. His point is that those deemed as “Bad Guys” can also be, and oftentimes are, victims.

Alongside these concerns is the frequently-voiced fear that drone warfare turns war into little more than a video game for those with the technology needed to wage such a war. In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, the author expressed fear that “there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing.”

While killing is the “name of the game” in many war games, there is no turning back the clock in real-time war. Once killed, real civilians do not magically reappear or resurrect when you restart the game. (This assumes, though, that war games actually include civilians; in “Civilians in War Games,” Drew Dixon called attention to a recent trend to exclude civilians from war games so as to “sanitize” the impulse of immature gamers to kill civilians for kicks and giggles.) The danger in the war-game mentality is that it drastically undervalues human life.

Civilians should be viewed as “the least of these” (Matthew 25.34-46), not as setbacks to accomplishing a mission. They are vulnerable and oftentimes have pressing needs which must be met. If the point of a war is to spread democracy yet civilians are thought of as nobodies (people who exist but whose lives mean almost nothing to us), there is a serious contradiction in the American gaming attitude toward war.

The treatment of civilians as nobodies is, I think, what primarily leads to the moral decadence against which Greenwald warns. To safeguard against this decadence, the call to develop and reveal “the full legal basis for targeted killings, including its interpretation of the legal issues” is desperately needed at the national and international levels. Firm consequences must be established for the death of civilians in addition to that legal basis for drone strikes (if it can even be reasonably called legal). The most obvious consequence needed is the trial of those who order strikes based on faulty information, resulting in civilian deaths.

At the personal level, Christians should reconsider how they think of civilians in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. If they are deeply saddened by the deaths of American soldiers but pay little attention to or care little about civilian deaths, this is a strong indication that their conception of “the least of these” is too narrow and restricted. We should not forget that our neighbors include those suffering as America continues its strikes against those suspected of plotting terrorism.


  1. Great post, Ryan. I often feel that Glenn Greenwald is a lone voice among “journalists” who don’t bother with the tough questions, and automatically regurgitate the propaganda fed them by their government handlers.

    Sadly, it seems like a large percentage of conservative Christians easily buy the “good guys vs. bad guys” mentality, never questioning that we may not be on the side of the angels. And it is very easy for us to say “war is hell, collateral damage is inevitable” when it’s not our kids becoming “bugsplats” (the oh so sensitive military/CIA lingo for human beings mangled beyond comprehension by Hellfire missiles) and our homes becoming heaps of rubble.

    And we question “why do they hate us?” It isn’t because we’re Christians, capitalists or corrupt…it isn’t because of our “freedoms” (which are dying daily in the name of the “war on terror”). It’s because we’ve been supporting corrupt dictators that brutalize their people, we invade their nations, we negotiate sweetheart deals for their oil that enriches only our companies and their dictators and leave their people in poverty.

    No, I’m no flaming lefty…but since 9/11 I’ve seen the country that I love trying to justify all kinds of evil in the name of “protecting” us. But more importantly, I see the church buying the government propaganda and flag-waving wholesale. Woe to the modern Jerimiahs who decry this evil, the church wants none of it.

    To your main point, the video game arena, I think an excellent foreshadowing of this is Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”. I think we’ve arrived at that state of affairs, but I wonder if we will ever be revolted by what we have done.

  2. Going along with the idea that all civilians are neighbors and a global version of the “least of these,” Brian Cloughley’s article Killing Kids for Freedom over at CounterPunch levels a particularly damning question at Obama:

    When an innocent American boy, Trayvon Martin was killed by a gun-happy vigilante in Florida in March, Obama said:

    “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this . . . Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how something like this has happened.”

    What about some soul searching and figuring concerning the USAF/CIA killing of seven year-old Syed Shah in Pakistan? That was a tragedy, too. Trayvon Martin was suspected of being up to no good, carrying candies in a menacing manner, and he was shot dead. But Syed Shah wasn’t suspected of doing anything at all when he was killed by one of Obama’s drones: he was only seven years old and was asleep when the drone-meisters made sure he would never wake up.

    The article is worth the read.

  3. MKRoss, excellent points.

    I am seriously considering voting for a third-party candidate because it seems as though the Democrats and Republicans have achieved a truly bipartisan consensus that killing kids, assassinating people who say bad things and destroying what’s left of the Bill of Rights is what America is all about.

    Here are some similar articles about the “lesser of two evils” (or rather, the “more effective evil.”)


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