Friday, July 7, 2017
The whites of their eyes
It was at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775 that the famous order "Don't fire until you see the whites (or color) of their eyes" entered the American phrase-book. It is unclear who first gave the order; most attribute it to either (or both) Col. William Prescott or Israel Putnam. Some accounts append to the order another directive: "And aim low!" It is also unclear as to WHY the order was given. Some suggest it was to save ammunition; others assert it was simply to increase accuracy or effectiveness. Regardless of who uttered the phrase, or WHY, one thing is apparent. Warfare, even in the 18th century, was primarily a face-to-face matter (although the introduction of artillery was beginning to change that). Battling from a distance is a more modern "innovation".
This "'collision" of different philosophies of engagement in war is brought to the fore in the current block-buster movie: "Wonder Woman." As the title character begins her quest to save humanity, she finds herself amongst a collection of "interesting" companions, one who is (ostensibly) a sniper, able to take down an enemy combatant from a long distance.* Wonder Woman asks, incredulously, " You can't see their face?" The implication is that there is no honor in such a killing.
One of the philosophies of warfare, of course, is to cause the most damage to the enemy with the least damage to one's own forces. The use of snipers, or any sort of long-range weaponry, helps meet that goal. And we've clearly seen that in play over the last century's battles/wars, whether it is carpet bombing, napalm or nuclear weapons. In some ways, it seems to me, this has become almost the "norm" in waging war. But, it comes at a price.
That "price" came to light for me the other evening as I was watching the 2015 drama "Eye in the Sky" starring Helen Mirren (and featuring Alan Rickman -- "Severus Snape" in the Harry Potter series -- in his last role before his death). IMDb describes the film: "Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare." Part of the "dispute" has to do with at the common ethical dilemma of whether it is better for one innocent person to die if it will prevent many more from dying. But the point related to the "price" to which I referred above has to do with the effects of drone warfare -- especially precision-strike drone warfare.
Hopefully without spoiling the film, the two "pilots" of a drone are put in the position of seeing the direct effect of their following of orders . . . even though they are piloting the drone from thousands of miles away. No longer was it simply killing-from-a-distance (which, of course it was), but the technology allowed them to almost "see the whites of [the victims'] eyes", and they were traumatized by what happened. What that suggests to me is that we may have become incredibly de-sensitized to the realities of taking lives -- whether in battle or on the "mean streets" of the US. And, when we are brought face-to-face with that, we are ill-equipped to deal with the psychological/spiritual effects.
We cannot go backwards in the practice of war; we cannot return to swords and bows-and-arrows. But, perhaps, when we look in the mirror and see the whites/colors of OUR eyes, we can recognize that the price of war -- for whatever reason -- means that the eyes of others, often innocent others, are closed forever. Closing our eyes to that reality puts our souls at risk.
* I was surprised to see an article in the Denver Post recently about a Canadian sniper who hit his target from a distance of over 2 miles!