Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Neuroweapons, oh my!

From this post of Catie's. I'm not going to delve too much into the legal ramifications too much, the article mentioned in the post, and the mindhacks article go into this a lot.

Now this is a juicy dual-use dilemma. White, in his paper, mentions the beneficent side of this technology: enabling people with severe physical disabilities to gain back some of their independence. Specifically, White mentions mind-control prosthetics. Hello bionic revolution! This has numerous potential positive effects on the level of health care in western societies, and White notes that DARPA has plans for using the research to help out veterans. This is great news, to my mind, because the greatest cost to a country in terms of war is not necessarily the death toll, but the number of injuries. Now, I'm not saying that getting hurt is worse than dying (in all cases, at least), but in terms of the burdens inflicted upon the wounded soldier's psyche, the burdens on the health care system, and the families of all those involved. it'd be lovely if a quadriplegic could have some mobility. For a pentaplegics (so neck also immobilised, which often entails lack of speech, and essentially is full paralysis), this could mean better communication with the outside world, something terribly important.

What about the negative, though? Obviously, there is the new set of weapons coming out, which have many implications for what it means to commit a war crime, as White mentions in detail. But I'd like to raise another negative outcome of this new technology. This requires me to digress slightly, to fill in a couple of points about the nature of combat. I'm referring here primarily a conception taught to me by the late Philip D'Alton, who was a lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and I had the great fortune to be taught by personally. The conception of war we have, unsurprisingly, is a glorified one. Even to look at the dioramas in war memorials, in all their `realism,' we fail to understand the sheer brutality summed up best by Karl von Clausewitz, the immortal slogan: "War is Hell." We fail to understand that in the scenario of modern war, although casualties may be low compared to the advent of total war, or the analogues we can best envision in nuclear holocaust or world war, injuries are generally present in combat at a 1:8 ratio, death:injury. This ratio, in the case of certain recent maneuvers by the United States military, may be as high as 1:16. So imagine that in the current actions in Iraq, not claiming in excess of 3,000 lives, that between 24,000 and 48,000 men have been wounded in one aspect or another. not all of these are life threatening, and not all of these are disabling, but many are. We here "1 killed, 6 wounded" on the news, those 6 may be cuts and bruises, or amputations, internal bleeding, organ failure, etc. And those of us back home have no conception of this, short of the occasional movie that bothers to go partly into this detail (there have been more recently, but still not many compared to the swathe of rambo-esque movies out there).

So what does it mean for an army controlled from home? What does it mean to have a soldier whose understanding of the nature of war is, even after a tour of duty, no more than a kid's after a run through on a video game (although if you believe Jack Thompson, they are more likely to kill you...)? As war becomes not only more clinical and sterile on our TV screens, inuring many in our society to be tacitly accepting of whenever a country decides to head off to another conflict, but more sterile for the soldiers, it would be my opinion that the normative concepts that stay our hand when we conceive of going to war are eroded, and this is a terrible thing. The foundations of any conception of a Just War rely on an intuition that understands that war is hell. People die, limbs are shot off, landmines tear face apart, people walk in a daze with vital organs spilling out. I'm not sure how many of you, dear readers, have ever actually been in a fist fight of any kind, but for myself at least there is a certain understanding that if that's what getting punched in the face/ribs/ear feels like, getting shot is going to be a darn sight worse.

I'm not one of those guys who disagrees with the conflict in Iraq because I "don't support the troops." I support the sacrifice a career soldier makes in choosing to take the act of killing and dying on as his principal vocation. But what has to remain in the consciousness of those who sanction a war, and in a democratic society the citizen forms a part of that process, is that there is a fundamental aspect of war which, while necessary, should inform our decision. If we take the understanding of suffering away from the process of war, this could be highly problematic.

So, not so much a rant on neuroweapons, so much as a rant on what removing the soldier from combat could mean. It's almost 10, I should, you know, write my thesis. Or something.


Chuck said...

You should take a look at Suzy Killmister's article in the May JAP on the more general topic of remote weaponry. She looks at some of the further implications of such systems.

Catherine said...

See I'm all for those days back then when the kings and generals used to lead their armies into war. See the blood and guts and first hand stuff. I wanna see GWB and other armchair warmongers go out there and see what they're doing to civilians and soldiers on the front lines. Problem is there aren't really lines as such these days -- things seem to be more about how far away you can fire your missile from or blow up your bomb or whatever. Also these insurgent wars don't seem to follow the good old chap type rules of war which seems to make it more permissable in these warmongers' eyes to approve nasty ways of doing things anyway. Bler. War sucks. I'd rather take a fist to the stomach.

Nick said...

Chuck: thanks for the reference. It's a good article!

Catherine: I agree. It's a problem with assymetric wars, and something that needs better ethical analysis, and better understanding on a public and policy level. "realist" conceptions of war are fading fast, and "terrorist" warfare is fast becoming the only resort. Walzer mentions a number of conditions of resistane/guerilla warfare, but in effect, we are all living in a pseudo-empire goverend by american desires. As such, any militant dissent will only be able to take the form of that which is commonly used in occupied territory, hence terrorist attacks.

Of course, in Iraq, they are occupied, so all the more reasons for insurgent tactics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments on the paper. I agree that the consequences of increasingly autonomous/remotely-controlled technology will likely significantly change the nature of war. Society, I suspect, will probably shift toward accepting more collateral damage and civilian deaths as the actual horrors of war become less and less concrete for the soldiers responsible for them. I'm not sure how to prevent this from happening, but it seems that we need to think about how to diminish non-combatant killings before the technology gets ahead of us, as it always seems to do in wartime, when machines get increasingly advanced and people, increasingly morally compromised. --Stephen