by Joe Scarry
When I was a college freshman, I rowed on the crew team for a brief time.
Before long, I realized that I couldn’t memorize thousands of Chinese characters and plumb the depths of the writing of Flannery O’Connor and also exhaust myself every day out on the Charles, and the rowing went away. But before that happened, I developed a memory in my body of being in a boat with seven others rowers, doing everything I could to keep my oar moving in unison with theirs and also pulling for dear life against the water that felt thick and immovable as concrete.
Rowers in a shell move forward and backward with the movement of the boat on sliding seats; they wield long oars that have to move in unison in order to avoid colliding with each other. You don’t just pull with your arms; it’s a coordinated thrust of your entire body. The shell doesn’t just move forward; if surges up out onto the surface of the water with every stroke, gliding at top speed.
It’s exhilarating — but also terrifying. Years later, I was reading a book about rowers — Red Rose Crew: A True Story Of Women, Winning, And The Water by Daniel J. Boyne — and I read a sentence that helped me understand that experience of being in a speeding crew shell, pulling for dear life on that oar, and knowing you just had … to keep … going ….
When everybody rows, you row too.
It makes me think of the inside of an internal combustion engine, and the way the components are moving out of each other’s way just in time.
There’s a joy to being part of a beautiful machine. But it comes with a price.
Watch this video to feel this sensation:
I thought of this again this past weekend when I went to see a film about drone pilots: Good Kill.
Among the many ways in which Good Kill succeeds is the way it makes it clear that drone pilots are cogs in a tightly controlled machine, and they have no room to exercise judgement or make ethical decisions.
Ethan Hawke portrays a former fighter pilot who has become part of the “chair force,” operating a drone out of a cubicle in Nevada. Every move he makes is observed by his co-pilot, plus two analysts looking over his shoulder, plus (in the instances depicted in the film) his commanding officer standing behind his chair, as well as an unseen team of CIA operatives connected electronically from Langley, VA, plus who-knows-how-many other participants in the kill chain.
|Good Kill: the order has been given|
Without giving anything away, I can tell you that there are a series of events in the film that show the Ethan Hawke character struggling with just what a tightly controlled cog in the machine he is — and looking for any little bit of wiggle room to be his own person.
Being a cog in a certain kind of machine is very appealing — working with others, being super efficient, achieving synergy, having impact: teamwork. It’s what attracts so many young people to consider the military. These are many of the same people who find exhilaration in sports like rowing.
Films like Good Kill are essential for helping young people see what the military machine is really like. Sure: be a cog in the machine. But in whose machine do you really want to be a cog?
The U.S. military is desperately trying to beef up the ranks of its drone pilots – to meet a “near insatiable demand for drones.” There’s only one way that’s going to happen, and that’s if we let our young people think that it’s okay to sign up. The world of military service is more abstracted and foreign than ever. If ever there was a time that young people needed guidance from others about what military service might mean for them, that time is now.
A person may not feel that s/he is another Daniel Ellsberg … or Paul Revere … or Otto and Elise Hampel … or Ai Weiwei … or Bradley [Chelsea] Manning. But these are heroes we can aspire to emulate.
Consider the moment in the film All Quiet On the Western Front when the young soldier returns to visit his old high school. The soldier visits the class of the teacher who had goaded him and many of his classmates to enlist in the first place. Encouraged by his teacher to tell about the “glories” of being a soldier, he delivers a damning verdict . . . .