A fundamental principle [of ancient Greek tragedy], often overlooked, is that the double and the monster are one and the same being.
- René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (p. 160)
The debate about the use of drone strikes in the so-called “War on Terror ” has shed light on an inevitable calculus of war: how many civilian casualties can be tolerated in pursuit of our goals? President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 23 at National Defense University, referred to the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, admitting, “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all war.” But of course, our wars and our use of drones were conceived as a legitimate response to the civilian deaths on 9/11 and a defensive maneuver to prevent future attacks.
Obama Defends Drone Attacks
In his speech, Obama further justified the use of drones by stating it reduces the number of civilian casualties compared to boots-on-the-ground wars. Though the numbers are hard to determine, it has been reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that civilian casualties caused by our invasion of Iraq number somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000. In Afghanistan, from the time reporting began in 2007, the Guardian reports that the total number of civilians who have lost their lives in the armed conflict to be 14,728. For drone strikes, the highest estimates put total civilian deaths at around 950, indisputably a better number.
The Illogical Logic of Violence
Reducing the number of deaths caused by our use of violence is a worthy goal, and Obama does seem genuinely engaged in drawing the number down. So for the sake of argument, I will take him at his word. But (you knew there was a but coming!), he is trapped, as so many of us are, within the logic of violence. This logic asks us to make calculations about the use of force without ever challenging the bedrock idea behind war and drone attacks: that our use of defensive, judicious, and legal violence can put an end to the unprovoked, disproportionate, and illegal violence of our enemies. The goal of all our violence, whether it is covert or overt, is of course to eventually eliminate the threat of violence coming from our enemies. In the highly moral language of conflict and war, the civilian calculus is part of an operation of simple division: violence is divisible by two. There is good violence (ours) and there is bad violence (theirs) and the two are as different in kind as the heroic is from the monstrous.
Defending Our “Good” Violence
In the most revealing paragraph of his speech, Obama makes a direct comparison between the forces of good and evil. After confessing, on behalf of himself and his “chain of command,” that the civilian “deaths [caused by drone attacks] will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he added his “but:”
But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places — like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu — where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.
So here we have the calculus laid out in grade-school simplicity: our violence is better than yours because 1) we kill civilians by accident and you do it on purpose, and 2) you kill way more innocent civilians than we do. Within the framework of faith in the power of violence to achieve peace, this is a highly moral position; I do not dispute that. What I dispute is the premise of such morality, that there is a difference between our violence and the violence of our enemies.
What Can Ancient Greek Tragedy Teach Us about Modern Violence?
In his analysis of Greek tragedy, René Girard points out that in this genre, “everything alternates.”
“In short,” he explains, “there is always a tyrant and always an oppressed, but the roles alternate. There is always one character who is angry; but while one of the enemy brothers rants and rages, the other may temporarily regain his composure.”
In order to maintain the simple division of violence into good and evil — which is the primary function of ancient myth — myths emphasize one side of the alternating pair at a time. As we are taken in by the shifting emphasis, we fail to see the similarities that unite the characters.
The Greek tragedians, though writing persuasively about these distinctions, have a deeper point to make. For them it is not that there are oppressors and oppressed, angry monsters and noble heroes, but that all characters take up all of these roles in succession. The more rapid the alternation, the more chaotic and violent the scene, until unfathomable tragedies occur. In fits of madness, even fathers (see Heracles by Euripides) and mothers (see Euripides’s The Bacchae) murder their own children who appear to them as monstrous hallucinations. The distinctions between good and evil that the myth works so hard to maintain dissolve in a paroxysm of undifferentiation in which everyone is human and monster, murderer and potential victim, simultaneously.
Obama Clings to His False Difference from a Monstrous Other
I fear that the paragraph I quoted from President Obama’s speech is evidence that he is focusing on a mythical distinction between good and evil while failing to see the way in which he and his enemy have become disturbingly alike. While he insists that the civilian deaths caused by his violence are justified by our need for security, he fails to see that his enemy is using the same argument. And so he and the terrorists alternate between killing and being killed, without recognizing their own image in the monstrous other.
Obama is clinging to an array of false differences, between boots-on-the-ground wars and drone attacks, between legal and illegal violence, between high and low numbers of civilian deaths. So-called terrorists subscribe to the same differences, but in reverse. Each side fails to see how they have become monstrous doubles locked in an endlessly alternating cycle of violence whose end has been foretold by the ancients.
We live in an age in which violence is capable of producing nothing original, only endlessly replicating itself like a flesh-eating virus on the body of humankind. The only cure is to renounce the distinction between good and bad violence and recognize that when good people use violence, everything goes bad.
Image: Military drone, F.Schmidt / Shutterstock.com