Humor Magazine

Not the Face of War but the Screen-shot of War

By Davidduff

Here's a piece of first-class writing by Matthew Power in GQ News on a subject that both fascinates and repels.  I will quote the opening paragraphs without cuts or paraphrasing because the writing is terrific and evocative:

From the darkness of a box in the Nevada desert, he watched as three men
trudged down a dirt road in Afghanistan. The box was kept cold—precisely
sixty-eight degrees—and the only light inside came from the glow of monitors.
The air smelled spectrally of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. On his console,
the image showed the midwinter landscape of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar
Province—a palette of browns and grays, fields cut to stubble, dark forests
climbing the rocky foothills of the Hindu Kush. He zoomed the camera in on the
suspected insurgents, each dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, long
shirts and baggy pants. He knew nothing else about them: not their names, not
their thoughts, not the thousand mundane and profound details of their
lives.

He was told that they were carrying rifles on their shoulders, but for all he
knew, they were shepherd’s staffs. Still, the directive from somewhere above, a
mysterious chain of command that led straight to his headset, was clear:
confirmed weapons. He switched from the visible spectrum—the muted grays and
browns of “day-TV”—to the sharp contrast of infrared, and the insurgents’ heat
signatures stood out ghostly white against the cool black earth. A safety
observer loomed behind him to make sure the “weapon release” was by the book. A long verbal checklist, his targeting laser locked on the two men walking in
front. A countdown—three…two…one…—then the flat delivery of the phrase “missile off the rail.” Seventy-five hundred miles away, a Hellfire flared to life,
detached from its mount, and reached supersonic speed in seconds.

It was quiet in the dark, cold box in the desert, except for the low hum of
machines.

He kept the targeting laser trained on the two lead men and stared so
intently that each individual pixel stood out, a glowing pointillist dot
abstracted from the image it was meant to form. Time became almost ductile, the
seconds stretched and slowed in a strange electronic limbo. As he watched the
men walk, the one who had fallen behind seemed to hear something and broke into a run to catch up with the other two. Then, bright and silent as a camera flash, the screen lit up with white flame.

Airman First Class Brandon Bryant stared at the scene, unblinking in the
white-hot clarity of infrared. He recalls it even now, years later, burned into
his memory like a photo negative: “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the
two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his
right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the
blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot.
His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool
cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him
become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”

Quite apart from anything else this article deserves my thanks for introducing me to a new word - and you know how I just love new words! - in this case, 'ductile', which means, according to my trusty OED, "(of a metal) able to be drawn out as a thin wire".  Anyway, this story raises a confusion of thoughts and feelings.  I remember seeing the first YouTube film of a missile strike as seen from several miles away by a hovering drone.  In that particular case there was no doubt that the men concerned were enemy but even so I couldn't help a feeling of unease watching them walk towards their car not knowing that in seconds they would be obliterated. 

For once, I am not going to re-act to this story instantly, I need to think it through.  Perhaps we can come to some conclusions in the 'Comments'.


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