Automating The Eschaton

Automating The Eschaton May 17, 2016

A Reaper MQ-9 UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) based at Creech Air Force Bace, Nevada, USA prepares for a training mission over the west coast of America.  The MQ-9 Reaper is a medium-to-high altitude, long endurance remotely piloted aircraft system. The MQ-9's primary mission is to act as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) asset, employing sensors to provide real-time data to commanders and intelligence specialists at all levels.
39 Squadron, Reaper, Creech Air Force Base, SAC Andrew Morris, OGL

Let me reiterate: I’m new here. New to ALL of this. But I do understand that Bishop Robert Barron is a “big deal”, very influential and with a voice that carries. But I have to say in response to his recent reaction to Daniel Berrigan’s death in the electronic pages of Aleteia : You keep using this word “violence”…I do not think it means what you think it means.

I’ve read a lot of moving obituaries and remembrances of Berrigan since his death. The most touching include some personal encounter with the man, like Bishop Barron’s does. He uses an anecdotal story about Berrigan’s response to the movie The Mission in order to segue to a quote from Cardinal Francis George:

“In the course of a question-and-answer period, he was asked about the theory and practice of non-violent resistance. The cardinal gave an answer that I had never heard before and frankly have never heard since, namely, that the Church needs pacifists the same way it needs celibates, in order to witness to the eschaton even now in the midst of a fallen world. At the consummation of all things, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage, for marriage will have been transfigured into a mode of love intimate beyond our imagination. The celibacy of clergy and religious here below witnesses to this strange and beguiling state of affairs, which is why it always seems to the citizens of the fallen world a little “off.” In a very similar manner, the cardinal was implying, those who live in radical non-violence even now bear witness to that time beyond time when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and when “men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” “Now,” Cardinal George went on, “just as I don’t want everyone to be celibate, I don’t want everyone to be a pacifist!” He meant that it would be irresponsible for police departments, standing armies, and rightly constituted political authorities utterly to eschew violence, since this would be tantamount to a renunciation of their responsibility to protect the innocent.”

He uses the death of Berrigan in order to get to this Cardinal George quote in order to get to his main point which is: Not everyone should be a Berrigan. It’s necessary to preserve just war theory as it is in order that violence can be harnessed to protect “the innocent”.

Very, um…twentieth century. This would totally make sense if war consisted of men lining up and fighting each other with guns and swords and tanks and stuff. Not saying that I would AGREE with it, but it would make more sense.

The problem is, war is changing. And so just war theory needs to adjust to meet the moral demands of those changes. To put it simply, the guilty/non-guilty dichotomy of war has been baffled by systemic technological changes.

Most notable change: taking the human element out of the conduct of war. By making it “autonomous”.

The Department of Defense has made it pretty clear that their objective is to “gradually [reduce] the role of human control and decision.” The notorious “kill chain” becomes a completely automated process, even from the beginning, when deciding WHO should die is made according to algorithm (which is known as a “disposition matrix”). Intelligence is passed to surveillance drones, which pass information to the weaponized drones able to make the kill, and the subject it destroyed.

At no point in any of this (and while it’s not where we are QUITE yet, it’s where we are going to be very very soon) does a human being decide to kill another. The automated process completely blows apart the ontological underpinnings of just war theory as it currently exists: i.e. (1) that there is a distinction to be made between a person using a weapon and the weapon used and (2) endowing a machine with the “right” to kill a human being is a radical departure from how we currently think about human dignity.

OK, so an autonomous weapon commits a war crime. Who is to blame? A general (tasked basically at this point with tweaking an algorithm and overseeing the maintenance of the machines)? The programmers? Grégoire Chamayou sarcastically suggests that the machine could be put in a dress and made to stand trial itself, like the 1386 trial in Calvados when a pig was executed for infanticide.

Chamayou also writes in his masterful book Drone Theory:

“Not only can there be no simple attribution of responsibility, but the description of that responsibility, diffracted amid this headless network of multiple agents, tends to become diluted. It changes from being intentional to being unintentional, from being a war crime to being a military-industrial accident. Rather, as in the case of “junk-bonds” skillfully elaborated by finance, it becomes very difficult to determine who is or who has done what. This is a typical way of fabricating responsibility.”

War is no longer what Bishop Barron thinks it is. It’s no longer a state of exception, to be chosen or avoided according to a pre-existing set of moral precepts.

In our neoliberal miasma, war is an ever-present vapor. Another automated mode of control, with any traces of power wielded by subjective entities hidden behind a web of administrative functioning, instrumental logic, and rote methodology. There can be no justice before, during, or after war – because it’s ALWAYS war time. We don’t even bother to “declare” them anymore. It’s no coincidence that the Third Annual UN conference on Automated Weapons Systems was held at the same time that Pax Christi International and the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Council held their conference to promote a shift in just war theory to Just Peace.

The problem isn’t that some people should be like Berrigan and some people should “protect the weak”. The problem is that the new system of war as a kind of perpetual, automated, hunting of humans dissolves the very distinction between the two modes of being. In the war of the future, no one will be guilty of committing a war crime, and yet each of us will be implicated by our acquiescence to the system.


Browse Our Archives

error: Content is protected !!