Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
15Apr/131

The Impact of Modern Warfare on Power and Politics

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No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”

Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.

To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.

The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.

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To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.

This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.

Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.

As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.

We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.

As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.

Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.

In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,

happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….

Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.

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Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.

In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.

Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.

-Roger Berkowitz


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