The last king of England to lead an army on the battlefield was George II, at the Battle of Dettingen in Bavaria in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession.
The last President of the United States to serve in wartime was George Bush Sr., a Naval pilot during World War II. He flew many missions and was in fact awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for heroism and extraordinary achievement… in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944”.
Bush was not directly involved in combat while he was President, although he was Commander-in-Chief during the Gulf War in 1990 that removed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The modernisation of warfare has tended to distance national leaders from the battlefield. But communications technology has now taken us full circle. I wonder what impact it will have on the exercise of power?
On Sunday night, 1st May 2011, President Barack Obama and his closest advisers sat and watched as video cameras mounted on the helmets of the US Navy SEALs relayed a live feed of their attack on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama had ordered the attack with the express intention, it turns out, of killing Bin Laden. We are given to understand that he and his team witnessed the killing, one shot to the head and one to the chest.
The photograph released by the White House shows the President sitting grim-faced, his eyes fixed on the video screens. My guess is it will become one of the most iconic photographs of the year.
What stuck me most about the picture was not the President’s sombre posture but the look on Hilary Clinton’s face — the hand clasped over her mouth, the eyes wide. She can’t quite take in what she is seeing.
Is it an expression of horror? Or of moral doubt? Possibly. It reminded me (and many others I’m sure) of an uncannily similar scene in the film Patriot Games in which Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst played by Harrison Ford, watches with misgiving as US commandos attack and kill terrorists in North Africa on the basis of evidence that he has unearthed but is not completely sure is correct.
I am not about to rehearse the arguments for or against the legality or justice of Sunday’s killing, since I don’t have the training and it has already been done elsewhere (for example by Geoffrey Robertson and David Allen Green). No-one seriously doubts that Bin Laden was involved in the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. But what has been the cost of America’s abandonment of the highest standards of justice? Its adherence to truth and justice were diminished with each water-boarded inmate at Camp X-ray.
Arguably the situations are not the same but the resonance with Patriot Games reminded me of the shoot-to-kill policy alleged to have been deployed by the police in Northern Ireland against IRA terrorists in the early 1980s. True or not, suspicion aroused by the clumsy handling of the investigation of police shootings of IRA men and the subsequent Stalker Inquiry eroded the moral authority of the state. In the case of the killing of Bin Laden there has been no evasion by the US authorities. It has been justified as an act of war. But the execution still leaves me uncomfortable.
And from her face, it seems that Secretary Clinton may also have been unsettled. In public statements of course she has justified the decision of the administration. But her ‘presence’ — by video link — in the bedroom where the leader of Al-Qaida was shot in the head and chest may have created a moment where the real, human consequences of enormous political decisions are played out and become visible.
Does that re-scaling of the experience give us a stronger sense of reality? We should not forget the victims killed as the Twin Towers collapsed — nearly 3000 of them. The sheer number is at once horrifying and deadening. Who can imagine that many people dying at the same time? The numbers numb the imagination in those who were not there or have no connection with the victims. We saw the buildings falling but somehow it was not as awful as witnessing individuals jump from their offices to escape the fire.
The weight of numbers flattens our imagination, our empathy — a variable human capacity that has been discussed recently by Simon Baron Cohen and Jeremy Rivkin and may be the key to breaking out of the cycle of violence.
Perhaps it should be obligatory for political leaders to watch their armed forces in action.