Game of Drones

The Kroll Show did a smart and disturbing sketch about American drone pilots bombing the enemy from comfy office chairs and running out to the vending machine for triumphant snacks. We’re a long way from Norman Mailer’s “fug”-muttering infantry, Gustav Hasford’s desperate marines (in The Short-Timers, by the way, upon which Full Metal Jacket was based, Cowboy tells Joker in his dying breaths that he never liked Joker, or thought he was funny, a line I always thought the Kubrick film might have benefited from), or even the platoon in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, where the magic realism takes us to Tehran and Paris while underscoring the everyday violence, horror, and wild talk of a decimated unit in the jungle too long. “It was a bad time,” the novel begins. “Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose.” We haven’t always wanted our war stories from the blood-soaked, mud-sucking vantage (think of young Robert Louis Stevenson playing general with his counterpane figurines), but the twentieth century demanded it.

But now, some might suggest that Obama’s drone armada, an image that dovetails so neatly with our national picture of itchy-thumbed, pixel-fucked youth, has erased the need for human voices from “the shit.” Even some lingo runs on fumes, as a veteran of both recent wars I know likes to refer to the “Ghan,” a joke he and a buddy shared, laughing, perhaps, over the fact that unlike the “’Nam” era, no real context has developed within which they can voice their bitterness about the big picture. They’re just pitied for their wounds and trauma, if that. Could it be that the state of the common soldier is less compelling to the popular audience? Should we now envision drone protagonists for the new war fiction? One could portray the drone as a gung-ho robot that begins to question authority. It can work in a short satiric burst, but if it goes for too long, the technical questions (where did these feelings come from?) might overwhelm the narrative missile’s “arc.” The robots-turning-against-us motif, from Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” to 2001’s HAL, seems a little old hat now. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Joseph McElroy’s innovative ’70s novel Plus, which tracks the consciousness of a cyborg brain as it confronts its limits and its mortality. Maybe it’s time for a long-form meditative drone. Or something more parable-like: Jonathan Livingston Seadrone?

Or maybe not. We like to think we’re all sealed up safe in our technology, but it’s a delusion, and good war fiction tends to shred societal delusions. Drone pilots are often suicidal PTSD cases themselves, after all, and plenty of soldiers from all sides died in combat during the last few wars, not to mention the horrific slaughter of so many civilians. Even with Pentagon-issued joysticks, it’s still about boots and dead bodies on the ground. The drone as a fictional character might have some promise, but the grunt’s-eye view will continue to resonate. We’re all underpaid, overworked, underinsured first-person shooters now.

Still, no matter how much civilians identify with grunt soldiers, differences remain. The band-of-brothers trope may be true or false to various degrees in the armed forces, as well as in the big tech companies, but less so in the service economy. Most people don’t clean up aisle 5 for their buddies. We’re more like a band of drones in that respect.

Sam Lipsyte is the author of The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013).