It’s June 1775 and Boston is under siege. It’s the beginning of what would be the American Revolutionary War. The leaders of the colonial forces learn that the British are planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills that surround it. This would give the British control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill. Still haughty with their sense of might, the British perused the colonists, resulting in the famous battle of Bunker Hill. And while the British would prevail, it was a sobering experience for them. The Americans were stronger and more determined than they thought. The road to subduing the rebellion would be long, and ultimately unsuccessful.
William Prescott would become famous for uttering a tactile warning: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Was the order to preserve gunpowder? To get a better shot? Whatever the reason, Prescott may not have been the first one to say it. Turns out the American Revolution likely wasn’t the first time it was uttered.
The origin of the phrase is disputed, yet popular – being assigned to many rulers and wars throughout history. One could look at it as a military tactic that ensures accuracy. Or you could see it as symbolic of the warrior’s resolve and commitment to reaching his target, his willingness “to go the extra mile,” so to speak.
As someone who has not witnessed war first-hand, nor had to look into the whites of the eyes of an aggressor, I wonder what this strategy has meant for soldiers through the ages. Say you reach your target, and then, while gazing into their eyes…watch the life slip out of them. What sense do you make for yourself of what you’ve just done? Sure, seeing the whites of their eyes got you your target effectively, but it also brought you face to face with the reality of your fatal actions.
Some never make sense of this. We’ve only begun to understand the depth of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and the other psychological effects of war.
On the other hand, what if seeing into your enemy’s eyes is a necessary step in helping to contextualize the morally complex minefield of taking another person’s life? What if it’s part of the thing we call war and helps one to understand the gravity of their actions? What if it’s part of justifying it?
The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece called “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior,” where journalist Eyal Press investigated the psychological life of the military technicians who operate drone aircraft. For example, one such person, Christopher Aaron, is described this way: “[he] sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones. On some days, Aaron discovered, little of interest appeared on the screens, either because a blanket of clouds obscured visibility or because what was visible — goats grazing on an Afghan hillside, for instance — was mundane, even serene. Other times, what unspooled before Aaron’s eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes; a man squatting in a field to defecate after a meal (the excrement generated a heat signature that glowed on infrared); an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa…The first few times he saw a Predator drone unleash its lethal payload — the camera zooming in, the laser locking on, a plume of smoke rising above the scorched terrain where the missile struck — he found it surreal...But he also found it awe-inspiring. Often, he experienced a surge of adrenaline, as analysts in the room exchanged high-fives.”
Drone warfare is the next frontier. It’s intriguing. This modern technology has made it possible for less American dollars and lives to be spent on foreign operations. It allows us to be more calculated and specific about our targets. It stops more bloodshed.
Yet Press cautions against this assumption: “Among ordinary citizens, drones seem to have had a narcotizing effect, deadening the impulse to reflect on the harm they cause. Then again, the public rarely sees or hears about this harm. The sanitized language that public officials have used to describe drone strikes (“pinpoint,” “surgical”) has played into the perception that drones have turned warfare into a costless and bloodless exercise. Instead of risking more casualties, drones have fostered the alluring prospect that terrorism can be eliminated with the push of a button, a function performed by “joystick warriors” engaged in an activity as carefree and impersonal as a video game.”
He's right. War is not a fantasy world on the internet. A real person commands the missile. A real person dies. The biggest change now is the distance between the enemies. The people who feel this jarring difference the most are the military operatives who struggle to incorporate the massive moral dilemnas of war into their everyday lives. Jeff Bright, a retired pilot, describes the “bewildering nature of the transition: “I’d literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy, and 20 minutes later I’d get a text — can you pick up some milk on your way home?”
There’s no getting to know the people or environment where the violence is occurring. There are less moments for compassion or new information. We might have more intel, but we have less emotional understanding.
Judaism has much to say about war, from the Biblical injunctions to today’s commentators. Torah outlaws murder yet commands a military conquest. Over centuries, the rabbis have tried to reconcile these conflicting messages – calling human life sacred while also taking it, or saying that one can preserve one life by taking another. They rank the types of war, stressing that war of defense is the most just. Yet proactive war is permitted, especially against sworn enemies of the Jews. We aren’t a pacifist religion.
That said, all the ranking and discussing and debating is to say that we Jews recognize how it incongruent war is with our moral code, yet at the same time that it is a reality of the human experience and can be done in a just way.
So perhaps we are starting to understand “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” differently. More often than not, soldiers who board the planes and fight in the trenches see the turmoil and misery that they are there to heal. They see the eyes of the people they save, and yes, the people they kill. They live in that other world – the shadow world of war. They don’t return at night to regular life because what they are living should never be given the honor of being called real life. Those who serve in the military are heroes – not because they kill, but because they go an stand in that moral no-mans land for you and me, believing deep in their hearts that they are working on the side of justice.
I’m not calling for an end to drone combat. I see its advantages. But let us not have this new technology delude us into thinking that there is a completely moral way to wage war. The battle wounds will manifest – if not physically than psychologically. The hurt must out. We must, in every act of violence, draw ourselves close enough to see, feel, intuit the whites of the eyes of our enemy and see the life slip from it. We may still be called to combat tomorrow, but perhaps the days of war will lessen as we grasp onto our remaining humanity.