"This here… is a Macbook." He sifted through some rotting, soggy rubble, held the mangled notebook computer up. The logo, an apple, was badly cracked and barely visible through the layer of grime covering its exterior.
"Ah, ok. Worthless piece of junk now, huh?" his friend quipped.
The man holding the computer pensively rotated it about. “Yeah…”
The pop of gunfire sporadically echoed around them. The man’s friend nervously clutched a hunting rifle, looking out of a broken-out window of the ruined house.
This computer brought back a flood of memories to the man holding it. The random gunfire and occasional concussive thud in the background seemed miles away. This was a volatile and hostile place, but the usual immediacy seemed to bleed out all of a sudden.
"Hey man, you alright?" the friend asked.
"Oh, yeah. I was just recalling something. I used to have one of these."
"Heh, that’s a goddamn mistake - recollectin’ the Golden Age like that. Ain’t no good in that."
"I was developing a video game. Spent years working on it by myself, starting, stopping, tearing it down, building it back up, gaining inspiration, losing it for months. Thought I was working on something important at the time. Then the world went to shit."
His friend, now rummaging through a nearby closet, half-heartedly remarked, “You can say that again.”
The computer landed with a hard crack from whence it came; it truly was junk. Even if it wasn’t terminally damaged, electricity to charge and run it was an impractical luxury; and the Internet no longer existed. It was hard enough to find water and food.
The man moved cautiously over the ruinous and uneven rubble, toward another room, in search of vital resources—anything that could be of use. It was humid as hell in there. As he navigated, he thought about his life 10 or so years ago. The Golden Age. Why was it so hard for him to create back then? Why had he wasted so much of his life trying to invent worlds at the cost of creating an actual life? Look what good it is now in this wretched disconnect, even if he would have finished anything. All for naught. He thought about all the knowledge, all the creations, all the hours humanity spent in pursuit of the digital dream—at the ultimate expense of conservation, preservation, of sustaining the golden life with natural harmony. The guilt, regret. Should’ve devoted efforts to more tangible and global things, he thought. Should’ve gave it all up for love. Would it have even mattered? What is the value of a blog post, a cute selfie, a profound scientific paper, an online community, a video game now? The connection has been severed. Everything is just gone. “Like tears in the rain, huh?”, he intoned to himself, a saying that was vaguely familiar but whose origins he had forgotten. Man’s lofty law had crumbled in favor of Nature’s foundational war everlasting.
Approaching the doorway of the other room, he raised his shotgun in anticipation of any threat. Turned the corner - nothing; mostly darkness. The windowless room was illuminated by a few shafts of natural light trickling down from the shattered ceiling. He noticed that one shaft seemed to almost poetically frame a rectangular object in the corner. Curious, he stumbled in close to inspect. My god, it was a painting, damaged a bit but still perched on its easel! He examined it: a young woman; a blazing intelligence and beauty; her arms wrapped around herself; disappointed tears streamed down her face. Who was she? A kindred spirit, perhaps. Was she real? Still alive? He experienced a wave of emotion he hadn’t felt in over a decade. Instinctively, he reached for the painting, but paused right before touching it. He noticed a paintbrush lying on the ground. No. It just felt wrong to take it. It was a perfect testament where it was.
"I didn’t find anything in th—." The man stopped mid-sentence as he left the dark room to return back to his friend. Before him stood multiple, unfamiliar armed men. His friend stood on his knees, arms behind his head. Their guns were trained on the man who had just entered.
"Don’t be stupid - drop it," one of them commanded with an unsettling smirk and tone. The man froze. He knew he was too far away from the room he left to safely reach cover before being struck down. It was a dead end, anyway.
"Drop the gun, motherfucker!" one of them yelled. They all began yelling various instructions to him. Again, just like before, the sounds grew distant and unimportant. The man stared in their general direction for a thousand yards as time slowed to a crawl. He had heard enough horror stories about the captive life and torture to know he really only had one choice. He defiantly uttered, as some semi-conscious last testament, a fragment from a previous digital life, before raising his gun toward the armed gang in finality: "…when we finally start living, it’s become too late!"
The driver, a native of these presently tense lands, looked over at his passenger, flickering in and out of shadows and street lights. The foreign passenger sat stoic and unflinching, staring off to the east into some inner terrain. Even though the driver’s English was halfway decent, he opted to not engage the passenger in small talk, for the language of his body spoke clearly on that matter.
The driver had smuggled many before him across the border and into chaos. But he had never smuggled someone as seemingly culturally out of place as the man across from him. All the others he had transported before came from neighboring areas, fueled by a familiar religious fervor. This guy was an American, lacking any outward fervor. There was a cold emptiness about him.
The driver tried to discern the motives of the man as he second-natured a labyrinth of narrow roads. No, it was obvious he wasn’t some naive ideologue on a mission to right perceived wrongs—by either pen or sword—only to get shocked by culture and shells. Maybe he was an agent of the US government on some top-secret mission, but who knows. He had tried engaging him with questions before their journey to the border began, but the mysterious man gave away little. Oh well, it didn’t ultimately matter that much, because the American was paying the driver handsomely to deliver him to certain death.
The border. As the passenger was getting out of the vehicle, he cryptically stated “pretty soon, war will fundamentally change”. The man got out, looked at a map he had, lifted what little gear he had, and disappeared into the night.
The driver, after much silent contemplation on his way home, reckoned that the battlefield is a kind of universal arena, a beacon calling out to certain people who are compelled to experience and express something essential about themselves on that unique stage. Doesn’t matter where it’s at or where the combatants are from. Like moths to a flame…
Everyone dies. You can’t stop it. You can’t run away from it. Let me tell you something: don’t waste the life you have left fighting. I’ve never thought of you as a son. But I’ve always respected you as a soldier. And… as a man.
Boss… You were right. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about doing our best to leave the world the way it is. It’s about respecting the will of others, and believing in your own. Isn’t that… what you fought for? At last, I understand the meaning behind what you did. At last, I understand the truth behind your courage. It’s almost time for me to go. And with me the last ember of this fruitless war dies out. And at last those old evils will be gone. Once the source of evil returns to Zero, a new One—a new future—will be born. That new world is yours to live in: not as a Snake, but as a man.
Know this: Zero and I—Liquid and Solidus—we all fought a long, bloody war for our liberty. We fought to free ourselves from nations, and systems, and norms, and ages. But no matter how hard we tried, the only liberty we found was on the inside, trapped within those limits. The Boss and I may have chosen different paths, but in the end, we were both trapped inside the same cage: Liberty. But you… you have been given freedom. Freedom to be… outside. You are nobody’s tool now, no one’s toy. You are no longer a prisoner of fate. You are no longer a seed of war. It’s time for you to see the outside world with your own eyes. Your body—and your soul—are your own. Forget about us. Live… for yourself.
|—||Big Boss, Metal Gear Solid 4. “The tongues of dying men force attention, like deep harmony. Where words are spent, they are seldom spent in vain”|
She told me that she could no longer bear living on this planet. She wanted to be caught high up in the gravity, weightless, orbiting afar; appreciating the marvel, the splendor of it all—a hypothetical, transcendent, post-biological being of sorts. She wanted the Earth and its glowing spark to fill the frame full—a new but familiar worldview. She wanted to converse with the satellites, to hear stories and accounts of the bioforms below going about their existence, unimpeded, no matter how seemingly mundane the details were. Even if some of the details were lost amongst the tangled propagation of 1s and 0s, she could rely on her boundless imagination to fill in the gaps.
Why did she want this, I wondered.
Because, she said, every step is a hostile act, a war crime. How many forms of life, she expressed, had she crushed beneath her that she will never even know about by the simple act of bipedal locomotion? By the inexorable pull of the core’s mass on hers? She asked me to consider all the things that were and are propping up her existence, all the life she consumes to sustain her own; and how, given her privileged circumstances, she was part of a competitive system depriving the less fortunate and able of her kind.
Why was she so sensitive to this inescapable reality, I wondered. To be is to be at war. The stitches that define the fabric of reality—by dent of the needle piercing the material and dragging the thread along—structurally encode hostility, conflict, violence, and war itself into the narrative.
The only thing I could conclude was that she was not meant for this world. If she could return to the stars—if she could reverse the violent explosions that defined and propelled her into the world—she would.
Bryant preferred night shifts, because that meant it was daytime in Afghanistan. In the spring, the landscape, with its snow-covered peaks and green valleys, reminded him of his native Montana. He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children.
When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls.
He observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
"I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot." He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. "They were good daddies," he says.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the consequences of the US military’s drone program is that it adds a layer of ‘distance’ and ‘clinicality’ to war. It makes war more remote. But even drone operators are subject to PTSD. I have this sense that the US military wants to take this notion of distance further: I think they want to abstract away the horrors of war, to distort the reality on the ground in such a way that it makes things more palatable for soldiers/operators; less PTSD-y. And maybe one way to do that is to make war like a video game. Package the experience and presentation of a remotely-fought war into the established grammar of video games: war as a derivative experience, a rewarding set of interacting systems, through the interface of controlled and increasingly sophisticated drones/avatars and information technology.
A soldier sets out to graduate at the top of his class. He succeeds, and he becomes a drone pilot working with a special unit of the United States Air Force in New Mexico. He kills dozens of people. But then, one day, he realizes that he can’t do it anymore.
For more than five years, Brandon Bryant worked in an oblong, windowless container about the size of a trailer, where the air-conditioning was kept at 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) and, for security reasons, the door couldn’t be opened. Bryant and his coworkers sat in front of 14 computer monitors and four keyboards. When Bryant pressed a button in New Mexico, someone died on the other side of the world.
The container is filled with the humming of computers. It’s the brain of a drone, known as a cockpit in Air Force parlance. But the pilots in the container aren’t flying through the air. They’re just sitting at the controls.
Bryant was one of them, and he remembers one incident very clearly when a Predator drone was circling in a figure-eight pattern in the sky above Afghanistan, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) away. There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs, as Bryant recalls. When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact.
"These moments are like in slow motion," he says today. Images taken with an infrared camera attached to the drone appeared on his monitor, transmitted by satellite, with a two-to-five-second time delay.
With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.
Second zero was the moment in which Bryant’s digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Did we just kill a kid?" he asked the man sitting next to him.
"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.
"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. “No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.
They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?
When Bryant left the container that day, he stepped directly into America: dry grasslands stretching to the horizon, fields and the smell of liquid manure. Every few seconds, a light on the radar tower at the Cannon Air Force Base flashed in the twilight. There was no war going on there.
Modern warfare is as invisible as a thought, deprived of its meaning by distance. It is no unfettered war, but one that is controlled from small high-tech centers in various places in the world. The new (way of conducting) war is supposed to be more precise than the old one, which is why some call it “more humane.” It’s the war of an intellectual, a war United States President Barack Obama has promotedmore than any of his predecessors.
In a corridor at the Pentagon where the planning for this war takes place, the walls are covered with dark wood paneling. The men from the Air Force have their offices here. A painting of a Predator, a drone on canvas, hangs next to portraits of military leaders. From the military’s perspective, no other invention has been as successful in the “war on terror” in recent years as the Predator.
The US military guides its drones from seven air bases in the United States, as well as locations abroad, including one in the East African nation of Djibouti. From its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the CIA controls operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
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(Photo Credit: Gilles Mingasson/ DER SPIEGEL)
"Did we just kill a kid?"
"No. That was a dog."
'A dog on two legs?'
In a way, life is an arms race.
Everything is trying to keep up pace with the rest out of an obligation to persisting. From the uncountable simpler forms of life competing for scant resources, to the uncountable masses employing myriad strategies to gain the attention and time from others on social media. From weeds that you’ll never bother to learn the name or nature of fighting for control of some forgettable piece of land, to the constant strengthening and cracking of encryption standards. From countries trying to control battlefield Earth through inescapable and overwhelming force and total information awareness, to the memetic battle of ideas, right and wrong, and language in the social sphere.
In a way, life is an arms race. In a way, everything is—a fractal truth expressed from the very bottom to the very top. And, in an inexorable way, to be is to be at war, trying to continue being, against the fundamental undoing of entropy.
I’d say the chances of missile strikes are now less than one in ten. The sudden turn of events has already led the Syrian government to reverse its longstanding policy of denying that it possesses chemical weapons, a situation that would have Monty Python-like possibilities if not for the daily horrors. That move suggests the better possibilities of diplomacy. …
[E]ven if the plan works, Syria will be no closer to the fall of Assad or to his negotiated departure. The killing will go on. Death by gas might be taken off the table, but children and other human beings, by the thousands, will still be pulverized in indiscriminate shelling and burned to death by incendiary devices. There will be more to celebrate in Washington and at the United Nations than in Homs and Aleppo.
In the strange period since August 21st, when the poison gas attacks took place, the White House has seemed incapable of strategic thinking. The State Department seems incapable of coherent communication. Republicans who never raised a question about Iraq are now in full flight from the use of force because they don’t like the Commander-in-Chief. The United Nations can’t bring itself to condemn chemical weapons regardless of who’s using them. Assad’s war crime has turned into Obama’s embarrassment. Everything is upside down; nothing seems to be working as it should.
From the Misrata Memorial War Museum, in Libya. [warning: photoset contains some horrific images of war]
I recently saw this on Anthony Bourdain’s Libya episode, which was a kind of amazing look inside post-Gaddafi Libya. If I recall correctly, during the revolution, the city of Misrata was besieged by Gaddafi’s forces for a long time, and the resistance there was cut off from all the rest. Against all odds, they were able to hold out under relentless and brutal conditions and bombardments, eventually taking control of the city and joining up with other revolutionaries in the final push on the capital of Tripoli.
I was reminded of something I felt in 2011 when I was trying to follow the Libyan Revolution: that there’s something truly inspirational about the people of Libya, who were able to induce a popular uprising and improvise weapons—yes, that’s a child’s vehicle rigged up with a huge machine gun and with remote control capability—and, generally having no prior military training, learn how to fight a war, and succeed against pretty much all odds in toppling a truly tyrannical regime that was universally loathed by the people.
“Team America, with their anonymous uniforms and nonregulation scruff, were the competition’s wild cards. The Dutch marines were pretty sure they were Deltas. The Canadians thought they were SEALs. During the ceremony, a Kasotc representative accidentally introduced them as “American Special Forces,” adding to the intrigue. The truth was, Team America wasn’t actually called Team America. It was a nickname they chose for themselves, after the movie by the “South Park” creators — a sendup of patriotism that they knowingly repurposed as actual patriotism.”
This is so weird. When you read this, you can see how bizarre fictional works about the nature of war and military like the film Apocalypse Now and the video game series Metal Gear Solid contain unexpected kernels of truth. Postmodern is apt.
Then again… maybe, in many ways, this is how it’s always been.
I was born on a battlefield. Raised on a battlefield. Gunfire, sirens and screams — they were my lullabies. Hunted like dogs, day after day, driven from our ragged shelters. That… was my life. Each morning, I’d wake up, and find a few more of my family or friends dead beside me. I’d stare at the morning sun… and pray to make it through the day. The governments of the world turned a blind eye to our misery…
I became a sniper — hidden, watching everything through a rifle’s scope. Now I could see war, not from the inside, but from the outside, as an observer. I watched the brutality, the stupidity of mankind through the scope of my rifle. I joined this group of revolutionaries… to take my revenge on the world.
|—||a dying Sniper Wolf, Metal Gear Solid. All she—and Snake—ever knew or has known is conflict, war and the battlefield. It is their unavoidable and fundamental fabric and center, the lens through which all else is first filtered.|
“For three years during World War II, Nadezhda Popova terrorized German troops fighting on the Eastern Front. The Soviet pilot was one of the most celebrated members of an elite all-female regiment that flew bombers that had been converted from plywood-and-canvas crop dusters. Flying only in the dark, the pilots would surprise the enemy by shutting down their engines in the final stages of their bombing runs. The Germans heard only a whoosh in the air above them and, likening the sound to a broomstick, called the women “night witches.” Their skill prompted the Germans to spread rumors that Russian women were given special injections that endowed them with cat-like night vision. “This was nonsense, of course,” said Popova, who flew 852 missions in the war, including 18 in a single night, and was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honor. “What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.” …
The casualty rate was high among the pilots. Popova saw dozens of her female comrades die, and thought that she might have survived the war simply because she was born lucky. “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” Popova said in 2010. ‘I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”