‘F15s with Legs’: Man, Machine and 21st Century Warfare

Video games, technology and the de-humanization of modern war.

The advert said it all. Medal of Honour: ‘This is a new breed of warrior for a new breed of warfare. This is force multiplied, relentless, exacting, precise. This is the face the enemy fears’. (The Times, 15 October, 2010) Medal of Honour is actually a conventional game, but the idea is important: a new breed of warrior for a new battlefield. Not to be outdone, another game, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, advertised its own warrior of the future, which would be the players’ to command: ‘In 2013 the Army will unleash a new breed of soldier. A soldier whose lethality has been honed by the finest technologies’. (Teng, 2007, 1) The game, which has been developed by Ubisoft in conjunction with the US Army to showcase its Future Force Warrior concept, is based on the premise of a future invasion of Mexico to restore order after state failure.

The United States, insisted President George W. Bush, would define war on its own terms, and it would do so with a new breed of soldiers, not yet out of school but already being trained to be the warriors of tomorrow. The ambition to patent future war may strike one as absurdly unrealistic, of course, but it captures the Darwinian imperative which governs our lives — war must be made ‘fit for purpose’, and a ‘new breed’ is for once a telling term. Are we breeding true, or breeding out the imperfections that made the warrior so thoroughly human in the past? Are we beginning, at last, to factor human fallibility out of the equation?

Certainly, the boundaries we once took for granted between the warrior and his weapon are becoming occluded, so much so that an American general a few years ago could talk of an individual soldier under his command as an ‘F-15 with legs’. (The Economist, 10 June 2006). If the balance between man and machine has been changing for some time, the fusion of man and machine is much more recent. Take the advert for the video game Crysis 2: ‘Be strong: take on multiple enemies with warrior mode; Be fast: power jump and slide around the environment with amazing agility; Be invisible: use stealth mode; Be the weapon’. In Hollywood’s representation of war the warrior has been becoming his weapon for some time. Films like Universal Soldier and Robocop show a future in which soldiers and law enforcement officers may become beings in which flesh and machine intermesh. Other, more realistic films such as Body of Lies show warriors tied into a cybernetic system which they share with drones flying overhead. The future is already here. ‘The difference between science fiction and science is timing’, insists Col. Christopher Carlile, the former Director of the United States Army’s Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence. It is a quote which appears in an article tellingly entitled ‘The Terminator Scenario: are we giving our military machines too much power?’ (www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-12/terminator-scenario). Are we in danger of factoring out the human differential? In the near future will war cease to be ‘the human thing’, the only definition which Thucydides, the world’s first military historian, was willing to volunteer?

Thucydides—it has been said—wrote a tragedy in prose: a work that, like the great plays of his contemporaries, threw an intense and not always flattering light on the human condition. It has also been claimed that he was influenced by the sceptical rationalism of the Hippocratics, who were bringing at the time to medicine what we can now see as an incipient scientific method: the discussion of the treatment of internal ailments through the correct use of inference when the facts are not to be apprehended by the senses. And Thucydides knew by intuition a lot that could only be inferred, not empirically tested. What lingered in the back of his mind was not the horror of war, or the nobility of individual warriors, but the mystery that men quite ordinary in themselves could tolerate such conditions and cope with such stress. We should take Thucydides seriously because he took his readers seriously, and it is important to understand how war and Homo sapiens have co-evolved because our humanity is continuing to evolve in new and possibly disturbing ways. ‘Men make a city, not walls or ships empty of men’, wrote Thucydides (Thucydides, History 7.17.7), but, of course, we are planning to take this road. The ramparts of our cities are now ‘virtual’ and vulnerable to cyber attack. The next generation of combat aircraft will be unmanned, as will many of our land vehicles. Our skies are already full of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or ‘drones’ as they are popularly known. ‘I hope that many more computer chips will lay down their lives for their country’, remarked an American general after a drone was brought down over Bosnia in the 1990s. Engineers are fast designing robotic systems that will be able to take decisions on our behalf. Neuroscientists are studying how the human brain/emotions can be manipulated. Geneticists studying cloning and bio-engineering, and physicists studying cybernetic networks, are all investigating ways in which the human and machine may co-evolve, both functionally and performatively, and how we may even be able to biologically re-engineer ourselves. Even the term ‘warrior’ is now applied to a new generation of military personnel who spend their days behind computer screens, immured in a cyber or virtual world, quarantined from the traditional dangers and risks that have been central to war, at least in the popular imagination. So much for the common genetic makeup that linked Achilles and Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in American history—the common genealogy, if you like, that links those who over the centuries have pushed their bodies, minds and often spirits, beyond the usual limits of human endurance. Scientists may well be on the way to eradicating the last vestiges of the Homeric worldview from which the warrior myth continues to draw its popular appeal.

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