#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Kyle Grayson, Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Tables. References. Index. Hbk. 218 pp.

Cultural-Politics-of-Targeted-Killing-cover

One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).

In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).

Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).

Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.

The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.

Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

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Air Operations at the Level of Boots on the Ground

Air Operations at the Level of Boots on the Ground

By Sean Welsh

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sean Walsh considers some of the issues surrounding the use of Uninhibited Aerial Vehicles with a particular focus the on the implications for ground units who may increasingly come to rely on such platforms that operate at ultra-low-levels.

Slaughterbots

In the near future air operations will happen at altitudes as low as the heel of a soldier’s boot as aircraft capable of offensive and defensive operations reduce in size and increase in range.

That this is likely is demonstrated by the slaughterbots video that went viral in November 2017. The slaughterbots are autonomous offensive drones that can fit in the palm of a human hand. Fitted with explosive warheads designed to impale human skulls, these very low altitude drones were depicted in the video as having the ability to autonomously select and engage targets based on age, sex, fitness, uniform and/or ethnicity.

The video ended with one such robot killing an unarmed student lying under a desk in a lecture theatre (a clear-cut war crime). Legitimate militaries have no interest in perpetrating genocide, but the prospect of autonomous drones attacking human combatants with explosives and projectiles is very real. 

Very Low Altitude Drones

Future weaponised micro-aircraft will be capable of operations at very low altitudes – just millimetres above the ground. Indeed, some aircraft may become hoppers having the ability to fly through the air and drive on the ground.

This descent to ankle altitude of air power will fundamentally change the nature of army operations. Increasingly, they will come to resemble air force operations. Effective air power is now small enough to fit in a backpack or armoured personnel carrier. This low-altitude air power is mostly used for reconnaissance enabling an infantry unit to have an eye in the sky; however, these systems are starting to become weaponised.

In future high-intensity war, infantry units will need to be familiar with air force logistics and tactics. Future ground troops may need to be airmen as well as soldiers in that they will need to understand low altitude air war in addition to land war. Alternatively, combat airmen may need to be embedded in infantry units. One might argue this is the continuation of a process that started when the cavalry switched to helicopters from horses. Regardless of the institutional arrangements, ground units will need defensive drones, portable anti-aircraft weapons they can carry themselves, or both.

Tiers of Air Superiority

In the near future, it may be there are tiers of air superiority. At low altitudes, the air will be dominated by large numbers of relatively small and cheap aircraft flying at low speed and having relatively low range. At higher altitudes, existing air force concepts of air superiority will continue to apply. There will still relatively small numbers of expensive supersonic fighters clearing the skies of enemy aircraft but F-35s burning through the sky at high speed will be of limited use against swarms of slaughterbots flying less than 10 feet above the ground at relatively low-speed attacking infantry and other ground-based targets.

Indeed, already we have seen how such cheap low altitude drones can be used to attack expensive hi-tech aircraft sitting on the ground. In Syria, in January 2018, a low-tech attack by Syrian rebels was made on hi-tech Russia on its airbase at Hemimim and its naval station at Tartus. Militaries will find it irresistible to develop weapons costing a few hundred dollars that could destroy supersonic aircraft worth tens of millions on the ground. Naturally, countermeasures to guard against such threats have already been developed. The Russians were able to see off the attack.

As an aside, this gives the lie to the claim made in the slaughterbots video that ‘humans will have no defence’ against such attacks. In the history of war, the measure has always led to the development of counter-measures. The spear led to the shield. The submarine led to the depth charge. Barbed wire and machine guns led to tanks. The slaughterbot will lead to counter-measures just like every other technological innovation in military history.

Traditional High-Altitude Air War Will Still Be Critical

Even given the new low-altitude threats, F-35s and other fighter aircraft will still be able to target the transport planes and vans delivering the low altitude ‘slaughterbots’ to a range close enough for them to attack in a conventional war. Destruction of enemy logistics will still be a key to victory as it was in the Battle of Midway and many other historic engagements. However, given suitable terrain, it is conceivable that one belligerent in a future high-intensity war might have air superiority at altitude while the other has air superiority close to the ground.

Increasing Autonomy

Even in an asymmetric war, a plucky low-tech belligerent might find a way through the emerging countermeasures and achieve low-altitude air superiority with devastating effect to a high-tech foe. We can expect those who perpetrated the failed attack on the Russians in Syria to go back to the drawing board and try again, this time targeting the low altitude air defence systems first (perhaps with a suicidal or stealthy ground attack) before unleashing the drones on the high-value targets in the hangers.

Increasingly these low altitude aircraft will be autonomous in their combat functions. This is because such craft is far too small for an onboard human pilot. Also, in the near future, a fight between a human-telepiloted Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAV) and an autonomous UAV will be as fair a fight as Kasparov vs Deep Blue or Sedol vs AlphaGo. There will come a time where the AI has advanced to a point where humans cannot defeat it. A further reason is that existing drone counter-measures use techniques such as jamming GPS and telepiloting frequencies. To counter the counter-measures, drone-makers could resort to dead-reckoning or visual navigation to avoid the GPS vulnerability. To avoid the telepiloting vulnerability, they could disconnect the network card and develop onboard autonomy.

U.S. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and Afghan National Security Forces conduct a joint checkpoint
US Marine Corps Corporal Andrew Margis of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7 prepares a micro unmanned aerial vehicle for flight at a joint vehicle checkpoint with Afghan soldiers and Afghan civil order police in the Now Zad district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, 21 May 2013. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Moral Arguments regarding Lethal Autonomy

There is, of course, a moral argument here in addition to the technical ones regarding lethal offensive autonomy. It is foreseeable that there will be a ban on autonomous weapons but terrorist and criminal groups (narcoterrorists) will readily adopt such low altitude air power because of its low cost and easy availability. Indeed, they already have. ISIS weaponised telepiloted hobby drones in 2016. Drones are now being used to smuggle drugs across borders. It is only a matter of time before cartels use them to assassinate police, judges, and ministers. This will force democratic nations to adopt counter-measures. To be effective, such counter-measures, like existing close-in weapons systems such as Phalanx, will need a high degree of targeting autonomy. Historically, military necessity has trumped moral objections to many new weapons because belligerents will do whatever it takes to win.

Jefferson Davis objected to ‘torpedoes’ (mines) as ‘cowardly’ weapons, but when the Confederacy got desperate, he acquiesced to their use. Submarines and bombers were similarly objected to on moral grounds yet because they were militarily effective and could be used in compliance with principles of discrimination and proportionality, they survived. Military norms changed to accommodate them. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots may get a ban on autonomous weapons, but these efforts may not bear fruit.

Already, the Russian military has prototyped an autonomous tank, the Neretha, which was reported to have outperformed human tank crews in recent trials. A US team of researchers have already built an air combat AI that defeated a retired Air Force colonel in a tactical simulation.

Autonomous Swarms

It is likely autonomous low altitude aircraft will function in swarms and be teamed with humans who will increasingly focus on defining military goals at a high level rather than figuring out how to achieve them in detail.

A human officer might say to a swarm of robots, ‘clear that house’ and the robots will autonomously work together to search for threats and clear it. Swarm robotics is a rapidly progressing area of research. If the swarm of robots needs to shoot enemy combatants therein (be they human or robotic) they will do so within the scope the human order “clear that house” gives them.

Similarly, having disposed of the low altitude air defence, a commander could say to his swarm ‘search for and destroy all Sukhois on this airfield’, and the robots would do this. If they needed to shoot airmen trying to defend their craft, they would do so within the scope of their human order and the normative constraints of targeting law.

At present, such human-robot teaming is not practical, but it is a defined research goal. Most drones remain telepiloted; however, voice-controlled robots that are intelligent enough to respond to simple tactical instructions are not far away, and autonomous robots intelligent enough to comply with targeting law are not so far away either.

Such airborne robots would integrate with ground-based robots. Ground-based robots will be primarily logistical with strike ability mostly airborne except for some very particular tasks, such as sneaking up like snakes on enemy low altitude air defence posts. Command and control will be distributed and redundant. Cybersecurity will be critical.

Much research and development will be needed to ensure these drones operate in accordance with targeting law. However, such research is being funded. In the absence of a policy prohibition, the advanced powers will succeed in developing normatively compliant autonomous weaponry. In a climate where major powers do not trust each other, each will keep their guard up.

Increasingly, given the advances in AI and robotics, the front line of combat will be a combination of Uninhabited Ground Vehicles and UAVs on land and Uninhabited Sea Vehicles, Uninhabited Underwater Vehicles and UAVs at sea.

Future War May Be Predominantly Robotic in the Front Line

Future war may well evolve into robot vs robot at the front line. Human resistance against robots may become futile. Should such conditions evolve in war, it may be conventions evolve to take human surrenders in such hopeless circumstances.

Indeed, future war might become as ‘civilized’ as the wars of the Italian condottieri in the Renaissance. Machiavelli wrote of the Battle of Zagonara in 1424 that it was a ‘great defeat, famous throughout all Italy’ and yet ‘no death occurred except those of Lodovico degli Obizi and two of his men, who having fallen from their horses were drowned in the mud.’[1]

Historians doubt the body count in Machiavelli’s report as he had it in for the lack of warfighting prowess of the condottieri, but even so, just as the wars of the condottieri were more about manoeuvre and posture than actual hard fighting, future war might become a matter of destroying material rather than people.

Some would argue war has been as much as about destroying material rather than people since the Second World War as evidenced by the raids on Schweinfurt and Bologna and the U-Boat campaigns in the North Atlantic. Once the opposing robots are destroyed, the humans may surrender as the ability of humans to defeat robots in combat might no longer exist. Resistance without robots may turn out to be as futile as trying to beat Deep Blue at chess without a computer.

In a future high-intensity war, it might be written:

[u]sing a new technological invention, the Red robots wiped out the Blue robots in the first days of the war, compelling the Blue humans to surrender. Some Blue humans tried to fight on, but the Red robots disarmed them, laughing at their slowness. The videos taken by the Red robots went viral.

Sean Welsh (@sean_welsh77) is the author of Ethics and Security Automata: Policy and Technical Challenges of the Robotic Use of Force and a postgraduate student in Philosophy at the University of Canterbury. Prior to embarking on his PhD, he wrote software for British Telecom, Telstra Australia, Fitch Ratings, James Cook University and Lumata.

Header Image: Pictured is a Royal Marine controlling a Black Hornet 2 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). This pocket sized and hand launched RPAS uses micro thermal cameras, visible spectrum cameras and proprietary software for flight control, stabilization, and communications. Weighing 18 grams, the Black Hornet helicopter can fly for up to 25 minutes at line-of-sight distances of up to one mile at speeds of 18 km/h. It uses GPS navigation or visual navigation via video and can fly pre-planned routes via its autopilot. The Black Hornet was developed in 2007 and been used by NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011, with the United Kingdom the first to acquire the type and use it operationally. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] Niccolo Macchiavelli, History of Florence, Book IV, Chapter I.

Society and #highintensitywar

Society and #highintensitywar

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson discusses the relationship between society, political culture, and military sacrifice.

In his thoughtful account of the closing days of the Second World War, Max Hastings argues that the character of the conflict in western Europe was determined by the character of the western democracies themselves. The armies of Britain, America and their associates, he suggests, may have lacked the ruthless military prowess and determination of the German and Soviet forces, but ‘fought as bravely and well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilisation were to be retained in their ranks’[1]. When Churchill and Roosevelt invoked ‘Christian Civilization’ as the grand cause worthy of sacrifice, they were not so much making a religious statement as appealing to a shared sense of identity which they expected their listeners to understand and relate to.  Seventy-five years later, it is by no means evident that this shared identity still holds. In this series articles published by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue considering the possibility of high-intensity war in the future, it is worth pausing to reflect on this relationship between political culture and military sacrifice, and some of its implications.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, c. January 1943. (Source: © IWM (A 14063))

As peace returned to the shattered remains of Europe in 1945, some positive developments followed in its wake. West of the Oder, at least, liberal democracy seemed to strike deeper roots than ever before, going hand in hand with a prosperity that followed a solid upward trajectory. Across the Atlantic, America abandoned isolationism and committed itself to be both the guardian and bankroller of freedom. The only primary rival in town, Marxist-Leninism, was seen off the stage after 1990 – it seemed as if the liberal democratic steamroller would flatten a global path for economic and personal freedom. However, all was not quite as it seemed.

Before considering just how the course of history unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is useful to lay out – with a very broad brush – some of the presuppositions that had driven western society up to this point. From the Fall of Rome until the Enlightenment, religious horizons essentially bounded the world, symbolised most powerfully by the Holy Roman Emperor kneeling in the snow at Canossa. Architecture, art, and music all reflected this human concern about relating to the divine. Come the Enlightenment; the focus changed to working out what kind of world humans could create for themselves, relying on their unfettered reason and empirical discoveries. This was the age of science and developing democracy, which held out a dream of unending human progress. The waves of devastation which swept across Europe twice in the first half of the twentieth century cruelly mocked any such hopes. The last spasms of Enlightenment optimism at least gave birth to the liberal democratic project which seemed to triumph – and had been worth making sacrifices for.

However, the liberal democratic project rested on increasingly shaky foundations. Premodern people could find their certainties in religious truth. Enthusiasts for the Enlightenment could base their philosophy on a confidence that the truth was out there for any rational person to discover. Although these two views were divergent in almost every respect, they had this in common – a belief in a transcendent universe which provided a framework for understanding the place of human beings in the world.[2] As James Davison Hunter expresses it, there was a ‘common grammar for recognising the natural affections and moral sentiments shared by all humanity…the seeds of social solidarity could be found in human sentiments, the public good within private interests, the universal within the individual’[3]. This is precisely the transcendent worldview assumed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1945. One of the tragic ironies of recent history is that, just as the liberal democratic project appeared to triumph, its internal coherence began to dissolve.

To put it crudely, liberal democracy bifurcated into liberal and democratic elements. Regarding liberalism, this was not the classic liberalism that Adam Smith would have recognised. Instead, it is something new – neoliberalism. The underlying assumption behind this concept is that the market is sovereign – and not merely over economic issues. Based on the theory of Friedrich Hayek, nothing has a given and immutable value – even those aspects of human significance and meaning that previous generations would have treated as normative. Objective truth is no longer ‘out there’ to be revealed or reasoned out but is determined by what the market will bear. As Stephen Metcalf points out, the old political processes of public reason – debate and thoughtful argument –  are incongruent with this process, as in market terms they are simply opinions. What happens instead is that the public square ‘ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets’[4]. There is no longer a shared, transcendent mise en scène for human existence. Virtues have transformed into values – individually held and formulated – but of no binding or enduring significance.

Regarding democracy, the individual now has an unprecedented status. Once seen in relation to divinity or wider society, human beings are now increasingly regarded as sovereign agents. As the public sphere has become eviscerated of a shared cultural story, the individual is now free to decide his or her path through life.  Alternatively, so the theory goes. Jackson Lears expresses it like this – ‘redefined as human capital, each person becomes a little firm with assets, debts, and a credit score anxiously scrutinised for signs of success or failure’[5]. The individual may be freer to choose than ever before, but also carries an increasingly heavy burden for their destiny. Lacking the safeguards of a benevolent Providence – or a paternalistic society – the individual must shift for themselves. The mantra that every schoolchild knows so well – ‘follow your dreams and you can achieve whatever you want’ has a darker side that few if any primary school assemblies ever spell out. Failure to achieve those dreams or ambitions will be your responsibility alone. In such a culture, the individual faces an unrelenting pressure to boost their own image and status above all else. For example, an intriguing textual analysis of Norway’s main national newspaper between 1984 and 2005 revealed that as the occurrence of self-referencing words such as ‘I’ and ‘my’ increased, instances of other-focused concepts such as ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ declined[6].

What, if anything, does all this have to do with high-intensity warfare in the twenty-first century? Going back to where we began, the armies which liberated western Europe in 1945 did so against a broadly shared cultural outlook. Britannia, Marianne, and Columbia are hardly identical sisters, but bequeathed a remarkably similar legacy of shared understanding to their descendants – and the freedoms for which they gave their lives had a transcendent quality. This situation, it may be argued, no longer obtains. Evidence for this can be seen in a wide variety of forms, from Allan Bloom’s analysis of education to Robert Putnam’s influential work on the decline of social cohesion in late twentieth century America[7].  As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes, ‘the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations’[8]. With his or her small stock of human capital, each person makes their way through life via a series of short-term contracts, which run the gamut of human existence from car insurance to employment. What matters most is the utilitarian and the instrumental – an epistemic ecology where traditional concepts such as humility, duty and sacrifice seem anachronistic surds. Moreover, as analysts of our neoliberal world have suggested, the promised blessings of prosperity and success have not trickled down universally, leading to a considerable degree of cynicism about public life – from fake news to the political establishment. This is not a development which augurs well for a strong common existence. If citizens withdraw from political and civic engagement into a private sphere of personal fulfilment, as Larry Siedentop remarks, liberal freedoms are at risk[9].

PUMA SQUADRON MARKS 100 YEARS
An RAF Puma deploying flares whilst on Operation TORAL in Afghanistan, c. 2016. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

One of the founding principles of modern democracy is that the individual citizen surrenders certain freedoms and benefits to the state in exchange for protection and stability. This relationship is perhaps seen in its starkest form when a nation sends its citizens to war. In the post-2001 operations, when the legitimacy of the campaigns was subject to intense public scrutiny, this affected the commemoration of those citizens who had given their lives. As Sandra Walklate, K.N. Jenkings and others have observed, repatriation ceremonies became ‘deeply political acts’ protesting against military action, where those who died were remembered as victims of government policy[10]. Anthony King, in his analysis of the obituaries of British service personnel, comments that the death of soldiers is not seen so much as an act of service for the nation as ‘the meaningful expression of a man who defined himself by his profession’[11]. If the individual is indeed a small firm with a limited stock of human capital, a strong relationship of trust between citizen and society is vital should the citizen be required to sacrifice that capital for a bigger purpose.

Moreover, this is the nub of the argument. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw some two centuries ago, a society which favours atomism and instrumentalism undermines the very freedoms which it cherishes.[12] Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedoms that the western world enjoys have primarily been sustained without significant periods of high-intensity conflict – and the associated heavy demands of blood and treasure. Future military operations may not follow this pattern, and free nations may have to pay a large price for such nebulous terms as liberty and democracy. A worldview furnished from the moral stockroom of utilitarian instrumentalism will offer little strength in such circumstances. To quote Taylor again, ‘high standards need strong sources’ – a stripped down public square does not provide the wherewithal to sustain a deep understanding of human meaning and purpose.[13] Churchill and Roosevelt saw the battle that they were engaged in as something more than a struggle over resources and the possession of territory.

Alternatively, in other words, they understood the need for spiritual resilience – an awareness that human existence cannot be reduced to a profit and loss transaction. The free society which values the individual did not arise from an instrumentalist worldview – indeed Siedentop has recently published a fascinating volume which explicitly traces the development of modern liberal equality right back to Christian thinkers in the middle ages.[14] One does not need to share the faith of these scholars to appreciate their insights. Perhaps it is time to pause in our pursuit of relentless individualism to consider the bigger truths of the world to which we belong. Davison Hunter remarks that our current cultural trajectory is likely set to bend us away from the very concepts of justice, freedom, and tolerance that we treasure. Before we are called upon to defend these convictions in intensive conflict, it is undoubtedly worth reflecting on why they are worth defending in the first place.

The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.

Header Image: Stretcher bearers of the Red Crescent evacuate a civilian casualty in Basra during Operation TELIC. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (OP-TELIC 03-010-37-091))

[1] Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 (London: Macmillan, 2004) p. 588.

[2] James Davison Hunter, ‘Liberal Democracy and the Unravelling of the Enlightenment Project,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Metcalf, ‘Neoliberalism – the idea that swallowed the world,’ The Guardian, 18 August 2017.

[5] Jackson Lears, ‘The long con of Neoliberalism,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[6] Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), p. 264.

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (London: Penguin, 1987); Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000).

[8] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 502.

[9] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual (London: Penguin, 2014), p. 363.

[10] Sandra Walklate, Gabe Mythen and Ross McGarry, ‘Witnessing Wootton Bassett; An Exploration in Cultural Victimology,’ Crime, Media and Culture, 7:2 (2011), pp. 149-65. K.N. Jenkings, N. Megoran, R. Woodward and D. Bos, ‘Wootton Bassett and the political spaces of remembrance and mourning,’ Area, 44:3 (2012), pp. 356-63.

[11] Anthony King, ‘The Afghan War and ‘postmodern’ memory: commemoration and the dead of Helmand’, The British Journal of Sociology, 61:1 (2010), pp. 1-25.

[12] Quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 502.

[13] Ibid., p. 516.

[14] Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.