(Spoiler warning for Stephen Gaghan’s incomparably wonderful “Syriana")
I wrote earlier this week about Heraclitus’ overly-repeated quote, “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t be there, eighty are are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” (And again, I can’t attest to the quote’s accuracy, only its popularity.) I made the argument that this quote is irrelevant to the modern battlefield, a battlefield made of guided bombs, the global positioning system and unmanned aerial vehicles.
As I wrote that article, I remembered the closing moments of Syriana. The film's numerous plot threads all converge at a convoy in the middle of a Middle Eastern desert. A Prince and an American business man travel to begin a coup against his backward, pro-America father. Former CIA agent Bob attempts to intercept the convoy. Thousands of miles away, in America, CIA agents watch satellite video of the convoy on TV monitors.
When the time is right, CIA agent Fred Franks orders the Prince’s car to be taken out. A technician, sitting in a plush office chair using a computer joystick like a teenager playing a video game, remotely launches a missile, then begins a countdown.
Tension. Waiting. Then an explosion.
On their computer screens, merely a couple hundred white pixel, then some hand shaking by the agents. In the middle of the desert, an explosion that kills dozens, including women and children.
Who is the warrior in this situation? Is it the agent who orders the strike? The technician who pilots the bomb? The former CIA agent blown up in the explosion?
This is modern warfare. This is the modern battlefield. In the past, to kill a ruler dozens, if not hundreds, of men would give their lives in attack and defense. Perhaps one skilled, brave warrior could make the difference in that battle. But that is all gone now, replaced by computer screens, drone planes and satellites. The future will only be more mechanized, more remote, more detached.
I’m sure some people and soldiers hate the fact that the battlefield is changing, that literally the meek will soon take over the Earth. Honor, bravery, and warriors will be replaced by efficiency, statistics and computer nerds. I don’t mourn this change, but I decry its detachment. What happens when we take ourselves away from our victims? Like the above scene, they don’t see body parts or blood. They see white light on a computer screen. The battlefield has changed but the cost hasn’t.