An unmanned U.S. Predator drone
  • AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
  • An unmanned U.S. Predator drone

Chivalry is a spent force in warfare, drones are the latest culprit, and the dramatic arts have taken up the case. In a new movie, Good Kill, Ethan Hawke is a former pilot who operates drones from a trailer outside Las Vegas but longs to be back in the cockpit. According to the New York Times reviewer, it’s a “blunt, outspoken critique of remote-control warfare, which is transforming the ugly reality of battlefield carnage into a video game whose casualties are pixels on a screen.” It makes a “persuasive case that our blind infatuation with all-powerful technology is stripping us of our humanity.”

So it’s not war itself—that “battlefield carnage” of which the Times speaks—that threatens our humanity. It’s this newfangled war we fight the wrong way. An important distinction.

And Grounded, a one-woman play now being performed in New York, finds Anne Hathaway as a pilot who gets off on “that ecstatic communion with the sky” until she finds herself grounded by pregnancy and assigned to what she calls the Las Vegas “chair force.” Sure enough. “The responsibility of making life and death choices while waging war from an emotional distance begins to unsettle and unnerve her,” reported the Times. The play suggests “that engaging in combat from a place of relative safety may take just as harsh a psychological toll as traditional deployment.”

During the Vietnam war—waged by America with half a million men and massive bombing—critics of the war and how it was fought and everything about it ripped the pilots in cockpits for their disconnectedness. After the POWs came home in 1973 I asked a couple of them about this. William Stark, a navy commander shot down in 1967, picked his way through his thoughts. “I think you pay an emotional price to participate in any type of warfare as a combatant,” he said. “And all I’m saying is in my personal case the price was relatively less because of the impersonal arena in which I function. . . . I think in many ways ground pounders had a tougher war . . . because of what I suspect would be their more personal involvement in that situation. Were I in the south in an infantry unit I’m sure I would be more emotionally involved in what I’m doing. . . . I’ve never killed anyone face to face—and I hope I never will.”

As I recall, I was grateful to Stark for validating this important point in what had become the standard litany of reasons to denounce the war. But I was happy to give air force lieutenant commander Jack Van Loan, also shot down in 1967, the last word. “‘I’ll tell you,” said Van Loan, “when you start engaging 85- and 100-millimeter shells it’s pretty damn personal. You may not see the face of Ho Chi Minh on those shells but it’s pretty damn personal. You don’t have to see a face behind those guns for it to be personal. . . . When you see those tracers flying by, and you realize there are people down there who don’t like you, it’s very damn personal.”

I think Van Loan’s side won the argument. Wars become more romantic as they recede, and eventually the ecstasy of aerial combat gained the upper hand in Vietnam too. Curt Bennett, a marine corps captain, flew combat missions in Vietnam and later wrote many poems. “Jet Pilot” is one.

Adrenalin driven blood,
Pounds the body,
Coursing swiftly
With a glowing, tingling feeling
That rushes and swirls
To engulf the total being. . .

Nothing in the world
Can ever compare
To the desperate, hollow feeling,
Of seeing death’s hungry eyes
Staring through to very soul!
And then to escape unscathed,
To dance alone in the high, morning sun.
To flip off death….and the whole fucking world!

Drone warfare is nothing like that. You don’t get to flip off death, let alone enter into “ecstatic communion with the sky.” And when you stare at your screen you’re no Ender Wiggin either—a visionary and virtuosic genius. You’re a civil servant with a joy stick.

Since all war is hell, the argument that drone warfare is particularly hellish doesn’t resonate, but the case that it’s unsportsmanlike, unchivalric, and unromantic is hard to refute. Then again, there’s always a measure of disrespect for the warrior at the edges of the fray. Centuries ago war was no different.

Here’s what historian John Keegan had to say in The Face of Battle about the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Nobles decked with swords and armor went toe-to-toe while English archers at a distance rained their arrows. “Archers stood outside the chivalric system,” Keegan observed. They were tough and professional, but “many had enlisted in the first place to avoid punishment for civil acts of violence, including murder.” They were riffraff. Keegan said it’s possible some French nobles chose to surrender because the alternative would have been to engage them. “There was no reputation to be won in fighting archers.”

A skein of sadness runs through the history of war over its noble but vanishing ways to die. When it’s reduced to computers fighting each other, we might as well not bother.