"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 April 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Operation Distant Thunder



Pennsylvania Avenue finds its

own uses for things.


In the narrative imposed by

journalists and campaign

consultants, Bill Clinton was

supposed to represent the

arrival of '60s idealism in the

White House; he is, after all,

the first baby boomer to hold

the office. (And we know how

precious the baby boomers are.)

Clinton has been plenty willing

to play along, comparing himself

to John F. Kennedy with

unfortunate facility. Moving

into the back end of his second

term, though, the supposed

avatar of a decade from the

high-touch past has firmly

embraced a high-tech way of war

that Kennedy could barely have



Clinton's favored military

tactic, carried out by cruise

missiles and high-altitude

bombers in deus ex machina

style, wins the snide

description "a doctrine of

immaculate coercion" from a

former State Department

official. As a representative of

the other '60s culture, US

Senator and former

prisoner-of-war John McCain

runs around the country warning

that "you cannot win a war

without waging it." He misses

the point: In the Clintonian

split-ideology, you fight war by

fighting wars as much as you

fight the nominal enemy; the very

idea is to make the statement

without performing the ugly

parts of the act. If you somehow

get stuck actually waging the

war, you've already lost it.


And this is not so unfamiliar a

pie-in-the-sky game. As others

have carefully documented, a sizable

niche in US culture has wedded

itself to the largely lame idea

that '90s microchip technology

embodies the opportunity

suggested by '60s idealism. In

1968, sci-fi writer Arthur C.

Clarke offered the possibility

of an ideal world carefully

administered by

"ultraintelligent" machines,

which would solve all the big

problems and leave humans with

the task of pursuing leisure.

"It may be that our role on this

planet is not to worship God,"

Clarke wrote, "but to create

him." In the case of cruise

missiles and smart bombs, the

God in question would most

definitely be the Old Testament

God - and isn't that close

enough? The

kind-of-beat/kind-of-hippie poet

and novelist Richard Brautigan

also imagined a "cybernetic

meadow," an Eden in which human

life is peacefully supervised by

"machines of loving grace." And

cruise missiles are pretty

graceful, but maybe that's not

exactly what Brautigan meant.



Tracking the thread of

"techno-transcendentalism" to

its end, tech-culture chronicler

(and occasional Suck

contributor) Mark Dery ended up

accidentally describing the

Clinton approach to making love

by making war. "Their siren song

of '90s technophilia and '60s

transcendentalism seduces the

public imagination with the

promise of an end-of-the-century

deus ex machina," Dery writes of

the computers-will-save-us

idealists, "at a time when

realistic solutions are urgently

needed." Yeah, pretty much.

Ultimately, though, it may be

unfair - or giving him too much

credit - to pin blame on

Clinton's tail for the over

reliance on this sort of thing,

no matter how satisfying that

would be. The chief programmer

of our cybernetic meadow has

relied on cruise missiles and

high-altitude bombing to shut

down supposed terrorist

mastermind Osama bin Laden

(striking what was almost

certainly a pharmaceutical

plant) and to knock Saddam

Hussein from power (whoops), but

he can hardly be said to have

invented the tools that clutter

his toolbox. So how does a

nation - or an opposition party,

say - aggressively pursue the

manufacture of all kinds of

spectacularly expensive

electronic magick,

weapons that purportedly

make war a clean and distant

enterprise, and then criticize a

commander-in-chief for making

use of them? As William Crowley

writes in Slate (in a piece

shuffled off, sadly, to the

magazine's members-only

archives), stealth technologies


appeal to us because they
indulge our fear of
commitment. And this is what
ultimately makes them pose
their own kind of stealthy
threat to us. As we've seen,
stealth weapons blind the
risk-averse public and
policy-makers to the genuine
perils of combat in the
opening days of any military
engagement, turning war into
an "out of sight, out of mind"
proposition. They encourage
the view that there's nothing -
from Iraqi germ weapons
programs to Serbian atrocities -
that a few invisible planes
can't fix. Enticing us into
believing that wars can be won
with Futurama technology and
without American blood being
shed, the seductive charms of
stealth weapons ultimately
evaporate into nothingness. We
are left unfulfilled by their
limitations and cheated by
their costs.


Toward the middle of that

paragraph is a worthwhile nod in

the direction of the US

self-concept, the idea that

Americans have ended up in

possession of Earth's last

superpower. It's a mighty good

thing there's nothing "a few

invisible planes [couldn't] fix"

after all, if all the big

conflicts are going to be yours

to fix. In Kosovo, the great

humanitarian crime of the 20th

century was supposed to be

cleanly suppressed by the

weapons of the 21st. Boeing and

Lockheed Martin vs. War, goes

the script, with the Auschwitz

mess tidied up before the end of

the first reel. (There's an

omnipotent new sheriff in town,

and you never even get a chance

to see the man draw.) None of

those notions are Clintonian

inventions finally. Besides,

Clinton hasn't applied them

quite the way the user manual




Fortunately, though, the

president appears to recognize

that his magick is limited - so

there's also a fall-back. "When

faced before with problems that

bombing failed to fix," The

Washington Post calmly explains,

"Clinton has tended to respond

by redefining his goals."


But the rest of the world isn't

necessarily doing Clinton the

favor of morphing with the

morning spin, not to mention

respecting the calculated

political distancing apparent in

the half-commitment of stealth

power. Almost exactly two years

ago, NATO was the object of a

great deal of front page news,

just as it is today. The news in

1997 was about a growing threat

of hostility in Europe -

remember? The existing NATO

coalition was looking around a

post-Cold War Europe and

looking to absorb former

enemies. The organization

ultimately invited three nations

to join: Poland, the Czech

Republic, and Hungary. In March,

Russian President Boris Yeltsin

growled that the NATO expansion

was "a mistake, and a serious



Before the July 1997 induction,

though, months of anxious

diplomacy went into soothing the

infuriated Russian leadership.

It feared the power of a

military coalition moving up on

its borders, obtaining greater

aggressive strength from the

shifting alliances of former

Soviet clients-by-coercion.

Clinton met personally with

Yeltsin and the Russian foreign

minister. Don't worry, Russia

was reassured. It's just a

defensive alliance. The Russians

were sufficiently reassured to

sign a new treaty, in September,

aimed at limiting the threat of

nuclear war.



The easy technological solution

to Serbian brutality, then,

turns out to have had an

unintended effect. (Or, rather,

several unintended effects.)

"For Russia," the Post reports

this month, "the airstrikes have

been a moment of truth,

revealing a vein of unease and

suspicion about the West -

especially the United States -

that analysts say is stronger

than at any time since the

collapse of the Soviet Union."

Apparently the Russian

leadership has missed the

symbolism of the use of cautious

and distant force. It's not,

like, war, guys, don't you get

it? It might be time to consider

the possibility that Boris

Yeltsin is unfamiliar with the

poetry of Richard Brautigan.


The United States has come to

rely on weapons that isolate the

bloodshed, that make it

dispassionate. Or so the idea

goes. Violence, we've decided,

is a message that we send when

we wish to sue for peace. To

much of the world, though,

violence is still simply

violence. And they aren't about

to let us fight a war without

acting as if we're actually in


courtesy of Ambrose Beers


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