Since I teach at a large state university, I have several veterans in my classes every semester. This is incredibly valuable for the way I teach, because veterans have direct experience of federal policies, experience of different cities and countries, and a nuanced perspective on geopolitics. So I am thankful for their presence, in addition to the risks they took in service to our country.
This makes me think a lot about the military, warfare, and our daily lives. I agree with Stephen Graham that there is no longer any significant distinction between a condition of war and a condition of peace; there is no longer such a thing as ‘civilian life’ in contrast to pitched, violent, disruptive political conflict (i.e. war). On a continuous basis, the cyber-warfare units of various national governments are trying to crank our personal electronic devices for various reasons. Since these are the same communication systems and operating systems that control weapons, surveillance, and finances, any directed action to damage these is certainly an act of war. Consider what will happen, for example, when enemies of the United States figure out how to commandeer the control-signals for weaponized American drones. Drones are not merely battlefield devices–a hint that there is no longer really a “battlefield”–because they are also used by Customs and Border Control, and by regular domestic police units. The Oakland Police Department wants to use aerial drones to pursue criminals rather than police cars, and I agree that this would be much safer. High-speed chases tend to get a lot of people killed. Likewise, the police in Aurora, Colorado used crawling drones to enter Mr. Holmes’ apartment, because they suspected that it would be booby-trapped. They were correct, and many lives were saved by using a ‘bot first. So I don’t think a categorical ethical judgment of robots is appropriate. They are our instruments. And we have changed the design of our instruments in such a way that the distinction between “exceptional conditions of battlefield warfare” and “normal conditions of daily law enforcement” have disappeared. We need to think about the use of robots, yes, but we need to think much more about the fact that the distinction between peacetime and warfare has functionally disappeared.
The veterans’ perspective
I commute to SF State via BART and the #28 Muni bus. A few weeks ago I was standing next to a young man who was wearing a Vets @ SFSU sweatshirt. I asked about the organization; how supportive it is. He said it helps to share stories with other vets because most of the students just have no sense of the shockingly different experience vets have. He is 27, and a transfer student, and it is weird for him to sit in classrooms with students who have just come from their suburban hometown to study. He understands that this is just the nature of the classroom, But it is a little eerie sometimes. I expressed my appreciation of having vets in my classes for exactly this reason: when I am teaching about cities in very different countries, and when I am teaching about the violent and adverse conditions that many people live in, the vets often help me explain this perspective to their fellow students.
I asked him where he had served: two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. His third tour ended when he stepped on a landmine and lost the lower part of his left leg. I looked at him in surprise–we were standing right next to each other in the crowd waiting for bus. He said the prosthetic leg worked pretty well, and many of his classmates did not even realize he had lost a limb.
The #28 bus arrived. The driver ‘kneeled’ it down at the front and extended the wheelchair lift for a person who was boarding. In a low voice my friend said “I’m never going back to that again.”
“Were you wheelchair-bound?” I asked.
“For a year,” he replied. “The amputation and the prosthetic were not the main issue. Physical therapy was pretty good. The problem was my right leg, the one that they saved.”
“Oh,” I suddenly realized. “Tissue damage, nerve damage…”
“Everything,” he said. “It was excruciating. Took longer to get my right leg working again than to learn to use the prosthetic for my left leg.”
“Ah. I see what you mean about fellow students having a hard time understanding your perspective on life.” He said goodday, we got on the crammed bus, and went to school.