Delivering payloads like never before


Delivering payloads like never before
The Tel al-Hawa neighborhood in Gaza City, Gaza on November 27, 2023. (Photo by Abdulqader Sabbah/Anadolu via Getty Images)

War Gets Smarter, War Gets Worse

OVER THE WEEKEND, Politico reported on a military contracting boom:

Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Add the euphemism "defense technology" to the list of things lost in the rubble of Gaza. What these innovative manufacturers are sending to their customers in the Israel Defense Forces are weapons, to help kill people. Within the first three examples of these high-tech deals, the Politico story escalated from one company's "short-range reconnaissance drones" to another's "self-piloting drones...for close-quarters indoor combat" to a third's "Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones."

The website of one of the companies includes cinematically lit video of its Nova 2 drone—"[n]amed by joint U.S. and Israeli forces as the 'Most Mission Capable Indoor Drone' in the world"—not merely flying reconnaissance through hallways but zipping through a window opening, ejecting an unspecified object into a room, and zipping out again. "Deliver payloads like never before," the promotional copy says.

If there's one thing the IDF was doing in Gaza before the temporary truce went into effect, it was delivering payloads like never before—raining 2,000-pound bombs on dense urban areas, killing civilians at a pace far beyond that of other brutal contemporary bombardments. The premise of high-tech weaponry, always, is that it's going to make warfare more clean and precise. Last week, in a piece about the proliferation of lethal autonomous drones and the lack of restrictions on the technology in international law, the New York Times quoted the Pentagon pundit Thomas X. Hammes calling the use of artificial intelligence–powered killer robots a "moral imperative."

Hammes, in the essay the Times was quoting, cited remarks from deputy secretary of defense Kathleen Hicks on the promise of autonomous warfare:

To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art—just as America has before—leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains—which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times.

Putting fewer people in the line of fire sounds like progress toward more humane warfare. But the fewer people are in the line of fire, the easier it is to open new lines of fire. The United States flying drones out of Niger doesn't seem like going to war, exactly, if the drones aren't shooting at you personally.

But on that receiving end, war will always be war. It takes considerable force to turn a living human being into a dead body, and there's no physically or morally tidy way of delivering that force.

Earlier this month, the Times reported on the aftermath of a secret program of innovative warfare, in which the United States sent artillery units to Syria and Iraq to rain fire on Islamic State targets at a distance. The goal was to avoid the drawn-out horrors of direct urban combat. It worked by substituting a different set of horrors:

An investigation by The New York Times found that many of the troops sent to bombard the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017 returned to the United States plagued by nightmares, panic attacks, depression and, in a few cases, hallucinations. Once-reliable Marines turned unpredictable and strange. Some are now homeless. A striking number eventually died by suicide, or tried to.

The gun crews, the Times reported, were firing weapons "strong enough to hurl a 100-pound round 15 miles" and doing it around the clock, a pace of "more than 1,100 rounds in two months" for each gun. The accumulated rattling of the shock waves left crew members with concussion symptoms on the scene, and with diagnoses of severe post-traumatic stress disorder afterward. "[T]o the crews that didn’t make much sense," the Times reported. "They hadn’t, in most cases, even seen the enemy."

At the unseen other end of that delivery, meanwhile, in the city of Raqqa, the kinetic energy was arriving with much less subtle effect:

President Donald J. Trump had given the task force broad authority to use heavy firepower, and the task force applied it with savage enthusiasm, often bending the rules to hit not just enemy positions, but also mosques, schools, dams and power plants.

Sometimes, artillery crew members said, the task force ordered them to fire in a grid pattern, not aiming at any specific target but simply hurling rounds toward Raqqa, to keep the enemy on edge.

The future of tidy, effective warfare is somewhere over the horizon. Will autonomous technology be the thing that puts enough distance between the people doing the killing and the people getting killed? The case for robot control is always based on some not-yet-proven claim of utilitarian advancement: A driverless car that makes no mistakes would save many, many lives by replacing chronically error-prone human drivers. This becomes the excuse for sending out robot cars that drive full-speed into a person crossing a roadway, or drive full-speed into a fire truck, or jam on their brakes in traffic to cause a highway pileup, or that hit a person and then drag them an extra distance along the road to perform a scripted parking maneuver.

What are the autonomous war drones doing in the war? “The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” an expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Politico. The critical shakedown test so far, though, has been of the ideology behind it—the whole construct of distance and deniability that's sustained worldwide American military action, the agreement that it's not really the same to kill 20 civilians in an airstrike as it is to kill 20 civilians face-to-face on the ground.

But when you kill 20 civilians from above, and immediately kill another 20, and follow it up with a few score more, hour after hour, the numbers stop looking like regrettable mistakes and start looking like bad intentions. The proving ground of the most sophisticated AI-assisted military equipment happens to have become the site of the most indiscriminate slaughter in the world.


New York City, November 27, 2023

★★★ Sun came straight through the cross street to land on the grille of a BMW. The rain had left a mess of scattered leaves and compound leaflets stuck all over the road and the cars, and had pushed the trees well past their peak of glory, though still weeks behind the traditional schedule. Out back, surviving leaves hung down heavy and golden like ripe fruit. The sun could not hold its advantage against the thickening gray and white clumps of clouds, but the gray could not drive the blue fully out of the sky, either. The full moon stood above the roofline with just enough of a veil of clouds drifting over it to emphasize its steady roundness.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 171: A problem for Joe Biden.

Tom Scocca • Nov 28, 2023



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This is a pretty sandwich when finished, showing an inner slice of brown bread between two of white. Butter the white bread with creamed butter mixed with a little mustard or horseradish. On one of these slices lay a thin slice of brown bread which has been spread with cream or cottage cheese. The other side of the brown bread may have the same cheese, or if variety is liked, try anchovy or sardine paste, or any of the potted meats. Cover with the second slice of white bread.

Slice the cheese so thin that it is a mere shaving. Sprinkle on a little paprika and salt. Mustard may be added, if mix with the egg when chopped. The white should be crisp and a delicate brown which imparts a specially delicious flavor to the sandwich. This is not so digestible a sandwich as others made of egg, but is preferred by many on account of the flavor.

Grate any firm cheese and reduce to a paste with ane butter. Cut entire wheat bread in finger strips and spread with this paste. This sandwich is delicious seasoned with anchovy essence, paprika and mustard.

Mix grated cheese and anchovy paste. Season with dry mustard, salt and paprika. Soften with a teaspoonful of tarragon vinegar and spread between thin slices of dry toast.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to


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