Modern love has become far too much like the military for this old-fashioned romantic. Both the dating app Tinder and Predator drones allow for precision strikes and immediate results. Both are ruthlessly efficient yet far from effective at winning hearts and minds in the long term.
I began learning this lesson during my tour in Afghanistan in 2009, when coalition forces’ drone strikes angered local communities. I’ve continued learning it listening to others lament about online dating. I partook in those perils myself for a brief period before deciding that the old ways—reading a good book instead of lusting over my phone, having a drink or two to summon the courage to engage someone across a room—didn’t necessarily need updating.
Admittedly, both drones and Tinder can be extremely sexy. The click of the radio presell as you communicate a nine-liner attack run to the drone controller, swiftly followed by Hellfire missiles on the ground and flashes on the computer screen, is an astonishing sequence with god-like overtones. Similarly, the swiping right on your smartphone as you select potential candidates, swiftly followed by the enthusiastic reply that can lead in short time to its own explosive event, is, let’s not be coy, thrilling in its possibilities and actualities. (It’s also much more economical: I might have started a mini-property empire with the amount of money I wasted on nights out trying to meet eligible females during my 20s.)
But in both cases, after the achievement of immediate and apparently satisfying results, building something long-term and durable is far trickier. Part of the problem is that you start with the conclusive crescendo and then try to reverse engineer afterwards. In one case: yes, we just bombed your village, but really, we are here to help; trust us! In the other: wow, that was marvelous…umm, sorry, what was your name?
The slippery slope argument can be tedious, used to turn minor indiscretions into threatening overtures about major apocalypses. But things do have a habit of gradually unwinding, and often they take us in a dehumanizing direction.
When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner at least acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood within the cross-hairs: “Coax man, 100 meters front.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that always attends war meant we referred to “hot spots,” “multiple pax on the ground,” and “prosecuting a target” or “maximizing the kill chain”.
Tinder isn’t as bad as that—though a couple of the above phrases could be applied to it—but the process of swiping left or right, acting as judge, jury, and executioner on a person’s apparent worth to you, left me feeling increasingly compromised with each swipe. Bin—swipe left—bin, bin, oh, she’s hot—swipe right—bin, bin, urgh, definitely BIN, bin, hot, bin, hot, bin. What does such a process make me?
And of course, what appears on the screen can differ wildly from the reality. I remember cueing up a Predator strike against an individual on my computer screen who was burying something in the road—clearly an improvised explosive device. As the drone operator positioned for the attack run, another figure approached the first. Either this one was a giant or the one doing the burying was a dwarf—or a child. I quickly told the operator to cancel the attack run.
While the fallout from a selected, curated Tinder photo that doesn’t quite tally with the reality is unlikely to be so great, it feeds into the problematic strategy of trying to find intimacy remotely and at a safe distance. Such separation allows error to creep in and leaves you far less able to judge as effectively as you could in person. That’s true whether you’re assessing a target in Afghanistan or the potential love of your life across the dance floor.
Obviously, Tinder does result in real life encounters, some of which turn into flourishing relationships. But my brief trial with it left me wondering just how many months of swiping it would take to get there. As I was once told by a single though potentially very eligible bachelor—an Oxbridge-educated lawyer with a high-powered job in London—the last thing he wanted to do was get on Tinder and add to the number of emails he had to send.
We are reaching, if we haven’t surpassed already, the saturation point when it comes to our online existence competing with our offline one. It’s almost impossible to avoid internet encroachment into the work space. Are we willing to draw the line anywhere, or at least fence off some areas of our emotional lives from the intrusiveness of the web?
Part of the problem is our apparent incapacity, or unwillingness, to analyze what we are being sold. As noted in an article by David French at National Review, “For generations, key elements of our cultural and academic elite have been arguing essentially…that liberation from religion and liberation from marriage were prerequisites to true human flourishing.” I, for one, remain uneasy about letting some six-digit-earning introverted computer code programmer shape my possibilities for human flourishing.
Also, we’re not just swiping left on individuals (bad enough as that is). Where would all the centuries of beautiful poetry written from the heart be if we’d had Tinder? Poetry, romance, courage, hope, serendipity, fluke, surprise—that’s all getting swiped left.
For sure, there are societal perks to online dating. Increased rates of interracial marriage are being partly attributed to the internet. And apps like Tinder allow users to meet someone beyond the usual socio-ethnic groups that they mix with. That can only be a good thing. But online dating also allows for racial discrimination. Regular surveys show that black women are the least contacted group on social dating sites. The spider’s web of potential influences behind that are well beyond my pay scale—and obviously we all have “types” we seek, even within our own ethnicity, which doesn’t necessarily have to do with discrimination or racism. But I would hazard to say that if someone were to actually meet the person behind the image, engage in some robust face-to-face interaction, they’d be far less likely to swipe left so quickly.
Which takes us back to smashing the hell out of the Taliban with drones. During my tour, I became increasingly convinced that the only way to bring a resolution to Afghanistan would be by leveraging our clear military advantages to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Finally, a decade on, it seems to be happening. It took a lot of blood, treasure, severed limbs, and dead children to get there. “Empathize with your enemy” was one of the 11 lessons Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, gives in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War when reflecting on his involvement in the disaster that was Vietnam. If we can do that for our worst adversaries in war, then we should be able to relate to each other in peacetime too.
At the lowest point in Afghanistan, I came to loathe those computer screens, along with the entire apparatus of remote warfare. It was the antithesis of what I had joined the military to do. It hinted at a nightmarish future. And while I doubt it will ever come to that, when I looked at that Tinder screen, there were enough flashbacks to the operations room in Afghanistan to give me pause. Walk away from the target on the screen, I say.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.