"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Improved Killing Machines–‘Enhanced’ Soldiers

I loved the He-Man Figures of the Eighties.  My favorites were Skeletor, Clawful, Stinkor, Kobra Khan, Trap Jaw, and Tung Lashor, pictured below.


They all were human mutants – men combined with animals to create fearsome fighting creatures.  Clawful had a giant lobster claw as one arm.  Trap Jaw had a powerful vice-like jaw that could crush his enemies with one bite. Stinkor had powerful scent glands whose odors could immobilize and kill thousands of enemy soldiers. Skeletor was a half-dead zombie with muscles and live power.  And Tung Lashor was part human, part snake, and part reptile, armed with a savage dragonfly and a magic snake-stave.

There were good guys in the Mattel collection, but few kids played them.  Take He-Man, for example, the centerpiece of the heroes:


Who wanted to be him?  Blond gay guy from Venice Beach fitted out with medieval hatchet and twinky shield?  Never.  My son and his friends wanted to be these freakish, deformed, but scary combinations of men and all the most frightening beasts imaginable. The greatest playroom battles were between twisted creatures, titanic struggles of fang, claw and venom.  Evil against evil – never good against evil.

Even in my day comic book superheroes fought the most diabolical enemies, deformed but powerful:

Kryptonite poisoning.jpg

I identified with Superman, who was a pretty neat genetically modified piece of work.  X-Ray vision, natural body armor, and best of all he could fly.  I and my friends, dish towels around our necks would run and whoop around the back yard trying to get off the ground (Bobby Parker broke two legs jumping off the porch roof because he figured he needed an extra boost to overcome Connecticut gravity).  But I secretly wanted to be some maniacal alien or laboratory concoction that could do serious damage.  It wasn’t just that these villains could create a swath of destruction; it was how they did it.  I never was that interested in Westerns and the hokey bang-bang shoot-‘em-ups, stampedes, Injuns, and riding bareback.  I liked evil, horrific, nightmare villains.

There have been a series of articles recently on ‘enhanced’ soldiers – futuristic, comic-book creations that, like my super-villains, are part man and part machine, unstoppable killing threshers, Robo-Cop with a lot more mobility, cyborgs with lasers that fire out of fingernails, humanoid dervishes with ampheto-LSD in their veins that will comprise the greatest military force American has ever known. Patrick Lin in The Atlantic (1.4.13) writes:

Science fiction, or actual U.S. military project? Half a world away from the battlefield, a soldier controls his avatar-robot that does the actual fighting on the ground. Another one wears a sticky fabric that enables her to climb a wall like a gecko or spider would. Returning from a traumatic mission, a pilot takes a memory-erasing drug to help ward off post-traumatic stress disorder. Mimicking the physiology of dolphins and sled-dogs, a sailor is able to work his post all week without sleep and only a few meals.

This is nothing to what could be, for the various prosthetics, bio-physiological transformations, psychic enhancements, and high-tech, IT, super-fiber, intelligent skin are already within our reach:

[There is] the possibility of creating a "berserker" drug, as well as a warfighter so enhanced that s/he no longer resembles a human being, such as a creature with four muscular arms, fangs, fur, and other animal-like features. If this sounds far-fetched, we need only look at the history of warfare to see that intimidating adversaries is a usual part of warfare. From fierce Viking helmets, to samurai armor designed to resemble demons, to tigers and sharks painted onto warplanes, to ominous names for drones (e.g., "Predator" and "Reaper"), scaring adversaries can demoralize and make them easier to defeat. This suggests that it may not be so irrational nor inconsistent with customary practices to design enhancements to be inhuman and therefore perhaps inhumane.

Now we’re talking! Why stop at some mildly-enhanced soldier, say with better vision or reflexes? Let’s replace his muscles with electronic, super-resilient polymers that can let him “Leap tall buildings in a single bound”; his eyes with the finest adaptive lenses that can see in pitch dark, analyze strands of DNA at a glance, see incoming missiles in the night sky; and his ears more sensitive than a dog’s and complemented by bat-like sonar.  That’s only strategic and defensive.  Let’s equip him with spitfire 10,000 rounds a minute arm-guns, removable extensions of his body like Clawful’s lobster claw which are mind-activated.  Think ‘shoot’ and a blaze of death and destruction is released.

Science has already developed advanced prosthetics – ironically because of horrendous war injuries – and bionic legs, arms, hands, and feet are now routine.  It won’t be long before prosthetic eyes, ears, tongues, penises will be available to Marines who would have suffered immobility, derision, and worse 50 years ago.  Given man’s militaristic nature, aggression, and desire for power, resources, and total dominance, there can be no doubt that enhanced killing machines will be developed in the near future. It is the nature of war.

Believe it or not, despite thousands of years of mayhem, havoc, and slaughter, and the invention of better and better killing machines, there are some who worry about The Rules of War.  I love the scene in The Gladiator when Russell Crowe tells his troops “At my signal, unleash Hell”, and unleash it they do.  First a forest of whistling arrows is shot from longbows, then buckets of burning oil is launched from great catapults.  All these were the finest tools of war available, developed over decades and centuries.  The Roman army with its armored phalanxes, disciplined troops, and advanced hardware was unbeatable.  Rules of war? What rules of war?

Should enhancement technologies -- which typically do not directly interact with anyone other than the human subject -- be nevertheless subject to a weapons legal-review? That is, is there a sense in which enhancements could be considered as "weapons" and therefore under the authority of certain laws?

The author then proceeds to discuss the various legal and ethical ramifications of enhanced soldiers.  First, is an enhanced soldier a weapon – i.e. not a man using a weapon, but a weapon per se.  For this ethical scholars have gone to metaphysics for answers.  I remember in a course in college a professor asked us that if we replaced every part of an old car, but did it progressively – a ball joint here, a cylinder head there – at the end of all the replacements would it still be the same car?  Ah, said we sophomores, what an interesting question; then quickly forgot the issue as academic folderol.

If autonomous robots are clearly regulatable weapons, then consider the spectrum of cyborgs -- part-human, part-machine -- that exists between robots and unenhanced humans. Replacing one body part, say a human knee, with a robotic part starts us on the cybernetic path. And as other body parts are replaced, the organism becomes less human and more robotic. Finally, after (hypothetically) replacing every body part, including the brain, the organism is entirely robotic with no trace of the original human. If we want to say that robots are weapons but humans are not, then we would be challenged to identify the point on that spectrum at which the human becomes a robot or a weapon.

Who in the Pentagon really cares when and if that point is crossed? Most of the generals aren’t even aware there is a point, let alone consider what it is or what it means.  The progression from human to cyborg to complete, autonomous, robot killing machine is the goal of all military planners.

The next question is whether or not human enhancement counts as a biological weapon?  That is, if a soldier has been juiced on ampheto-hallucinogens and has been turned into a maniacal killing machine, is he a weapon of mass destruction liable under International Law? Experimentation to alter or modify human psychology to suit military ends has been around for a long time; and the idea of a mindless, amoral, but obedient soldier makes the generals salivate.  Until we can have a phalanx of robots (think Terminator machines) slashing, burning, and marauding their way through enemy lines, we must have humanoid soldiers do it, albeit on a limited scale.

The best criterion for regulating human enhancement in my opinion is: “Could human enhancement violate international humanitarian law because they are "repugnant to the conscience of mankind"? In addition to the Skeletor-, Tung Lashor-, and Trap Jaw-like enhanced soldiers (“fur, fang, and claw”) cited above, there are additional candidates for The World’s Most Repugnant:

Further, biomedical research is presently ongoing with "chimeras", or animals composed of genes or cells from other organisms not involved with the reproduction of those animals. These may include animals created with human genes, for instance, in order to grow transplantable organs in vivo and for research to find medical cures. Manipulation of human embryos, too, can lead to human-animal chimeras, though this possibility has caused much ethical concern and debate, so much so that U.S. legislation -- Human Chimera Prohibition Act of 2005 -- had been proposed to prohibit this line of research, calling it an affront to human dignity as well as an existential threat.

If war, which kills millions of people at a go, is not repugnant to the conscience of mankind, then no individual weapon used to further national causes is either.  Weapons of mass destruction have been the cause celebre of the last decade.  These biological and chemical weapons, it is said, are indeed repugnant because of their ability to kill indiscriminately.  This sanctimonious argument conveniently ignores nuclear weapons which killed hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and which are still in American arsenals just in case.  The only reason why ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are not used by one nation is because it fears equal retaliation by another – not because of moral or ethical concerns.

More humane wars regulated by international bodies are not the answer for a better world. Wars with cyborgs, chimeras, transvestite, genetically modified killing machines are.  The more horrible and horrific the war, the less likely we are to wage it. And, I must admit, the fact that the Pentagon is playing with He-Man figures, is really, really funny.

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