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The Sword and the Joystick

(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.

seven comments

It’s not exactly true that to kill a leader you had to lose a lot of men. Assassination has always been a tactic, be it by guided missile or poison. Granted, even poison must be administered in person to some degree, but it is the impersonal tactic of the past.

In regard to your saying that the quotation we’re working with is irrelevant on the modern battlefield: I disagree. There are plenty of infantrymen who fought in WWII who would certainly be regarded as warriors. I’m sure there are many in our current wars who could be called the same. The increased use of technology just makes it less likely they will appear or be recognized. Can a long-bowman be a warrior? Some might say no because a bow is somewhat of a “safer” weapon than a sword. It’s certainly less personal. Is David less of a warrior for killing Goliath with a stone than with his hands? I don’t think so. Can Robert E. Lee be a warrior at all? He was a general, not a man standing on the front line. He was also extremely good at waging war. A good general is often very good at “bringing the others back.” Isn’t that what Heraclitus says makes a warrior?


@ Jake – I think I covered a lot of the arguments in weds post, but I stand by my statement that warriors can’t make the difference they used to. I’m not arguing that warriors don’t exist, they do, but that they don’t matter as much.

I mean, my question stands, who is the warrior in the above situation? An entire country’s future depends on whether the assassination takes place. And the fact is no warriors were needed to change the future.


This discussion really brings up the idea that technology continues to change society at an ever more rapid rate. Jake started by discussing poison, then long bowmen, then the civil war and soon WWII. With each change, the distances increase, but the bravery remains the same. The only major difference is the amount of men fighting on the ground, the grunts, decreases with every war. The grunts who remain, like most of the ROCK in Afghanistan, have moments of bravery, but they are vastly outnumbered by REMFs at BAF and Air Force and Navy soldiers who have never even seen the enemy.


Do you believe one man can change the course of a war?


Not anymore.


Can one man change the course of a war? For the better, I would say no. Take Petraeus for example — he understands the theories of COIN and how to defeat an insurgency better than anyone, yet he alone is not able to change the way the US military fights. On the other hand, I think one person can virtually lose a war by committing some great error or attrocity. It only takes one soldier’s screw up to have another Abu Ghraib or Haditha and the backlash from these incidents can potentially destroy any chance of winning over the population.


Good point Will, and again it goes with the weakest link theory more than the action hero.