Morality and High Technology

Morality and High Technology

Mini Teaser: Ours is an age in which any untoward development becomes a crisis, the slightest departure from the ordinary is immediately tagged as historic, and the mere glimmer of novelty is heralded as revolutionary.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Ours is an age in which any untoward development becomes a crisis, the slightest departure from the ordinary is immediately tagged as historic, and the mere glimmer of novelty is heralded as revolutionary. Such semantic extravagance is not especially conducive to clear thinking about the real moral and ethical issues posed by change.

By common consent, we live in an era of rapid and momentous change in military affairs. Awareness of this phenomenon fairly burst upon the public consciousness during the Persian Gulf War. It manifested itself above all in the dazzling "systems" that figured
prominently--or at least appeared to figure prominently--in securing victory over Iraq: stealth aircraft, antiballistic missiles, an array
of "smart" munitions, and above all an integrated architecture of command and control. Embodied in hardware such as surveillance
satellites, the Global Positioning System, JSTARS and AWACS aircraft, and Aegis warships, American superiority in C4I2--the product of a concerted effort to tap the military potential of microelectronic information management--provided the key that not only exposed the vulnerabilities of Saddam Hussein's old-style arsenal but rendered it all but irrelevant.

To many observers, these technologies suggested that the United States had achieved a level of military superiority without precedent in modern history. To others, Desert Storm itself was less a demonstration of capabilities fully developed than a trial run that hinted tantalizingly at what was still to come. Extrapolating from the experience of the Persian Gulf, analysts identified four major
capabilities that comprise this remarkable advance in military prowess, none of them altogether in hand, but each within reach for a
wealthy and technologically advanced nation such as the United States. Those capabilities are:

* near perfect, real time intelligence available to commanders at all levels--"a transparent battlefield";

* extremely accurate means of target acquisition, independent of range and immune to countermeasures;

* technologically enhanced methods of command enabling U.S. forces to operate "inside the decision cycle" of their opponent, reacting more quickly than the enemy and rendering his actions meaningless--"information dominance";

* highly lethal munitions capable of hitting targets over extended distances in any conditions while producing minimal collateral damage--"long-range precision strike."

As interpreted by a cadre of imaginative defense experts in the United States and elsewhere, these capabilities suggest the dawn of a
radically different era in military history. Hardly had the Gulf War ended than these experts began competing with one another to identify that conflict's most salient "lessons." More vigorously still, they have labored to fit those lessons into a theoretical framework, one worthy of the larger phenomenon it presumes to describe. That these efforts have yet to yield a consensus is suggested by the variety of labels presently in use to describe that phenomenon, among them the Military-Technical Revolution, the Revolution in Military Affairs, and the Revolution in Security Affairs.

Whatever the label, non-expert opinion in the United States has been virtually unanimous in endorsing this "revolution" as a welcome
development. Whether viewed as a rightful dividend for the national treasure invested throughout the Cold War, attributed to innate
American ingenuity, or interpreted as one more affirmation of divine favor, the spectacular new military dominance enjoyed by the United States has been applauded across the domestic political spectrum and endorsed by confirmed doves no less than by enthusiastic hawks.

A Moral Subtext

Why the universally positive response? There are at least three related reasons.

First, we own the patent to this revolution and there is no one to gainsay our claim. With the Soviet Union now reduced to a bad memory, the United States is without rivals capable in the near term of challenging its monopoly in this new way of war. Seldom doubting our own benevolence, we find it easy to conclude that American possession of that monopoly serves the interests of the world at large.

Second, we have persuaded ourselves that the high-tech combat displayed in the Persian Gulf has restored to force the political utility that it lost in the aftermath of Hiroshima. When it comes to policing the world--restoring order, stemming catastrophe,
disciplining rogues and evildoers, rescuing the victims of oppression--the Left no less than the Right now considers the possession of military superiority to be eminently useful.

Third--and least noted though arguably the most significant reason--we see in the military revolution heralded by Desert Storm a
means to escape from a moral quandary that has dogged the nation since the onset of the Cold War. Aspiring to be both global hegemon and righteous democracy, the United States has struggled with the dilemma of using the vast power at its disposal while still
satisfying self-imposed requirements that it act in a morally defensible manner. In the Persian Gulf, Americans seemed to glimpse a solution to this conundrum.

In other words, underlying America's delight with the outcome of the Gulf War, and punctuating the widespread certainty that the war
marked a decisive turning point in history, was a moral subtext. Desert Storm was satisfying not only because it was a decisive victory won at surprisingly low cost, but also because the enterprise was unbesmirched by ethical ambiguity. "We went halfway around the world", President George Bush assured a joint session of Congress on March 6, 1991, "to do what is moral, just, and right." That assurance was precisely what Americans longed to hear.

Essay Types: Essay