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.

In the terms of the just-war tradition that enjoyed a revival in the debates preceding the actual liberation of Kuwait--and despite the
contrary predictions of various ethicists and moral theologians--Desert Storm neatly fulfilled the criteria of jus ad
bellum and of jus in bello. That is, in the common sense judgment of most Americans, the decision to use force against Iraq was morally justified and the manner in which American forces fought was morally appropriate.

This latter point is especially important. With military briefers and television analysts celebrating the surgical accuracy and carefully
calibrated effects of American weapons, U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf seemed to exceed all previous standards in adhering to
the requirements of proportionality and discrimination, the classic jus in bello criteria. As a result, Desert Storm proceeded to its
happy conclusion with few of the moral controversies that had marred virtually every other large scale use of American force since 1945: collateral damage was kept to a minimum; civilian casualties were few; operations were promptly terminated as soon as military objectives appeared to be within reach.

Thus, besides demonstrating a stunning capacity to project power, the revolutionary new style of warfare heralded by Desert Storm also suggested that the United States had discovered a military-technical solution to the dichotomy implicit in its identity as democratic
superpower. This new military revolution--one might call this sanitary war--would enable Americans henceforth to satisfy their yearning to believe themselves virtuous even as they exercised commanding influence across the globe.

Yet this is a dual illusion. Events since the Gulf War have already outlined the limits of U.S. military superiority as an instrument of
policy: The promised new world order will come only at enormous cost, if at all. At the moment, the American people show little sustained willingness to pay that cost.

In the moral realm, too, the legacy of the military revolution is problematic. The expectation that Desert Storm has endowed the United States with the capacity to dominate world events without soiling itself in the process only sets Americans up for bewildering and painful disappointments. Given the extent to which policy in a post-Cold War world will be beholden to public opinion, those
disappointments will haveimportant political ramifications. For in truth, even a high-tech military offers no easy escape from the moral
ambiguities that remain the lot of an imperial democracy.

Sea Changes

As the lack of consensus regarding a preferred label suggests, little agreement exists on how revolutionary the military revolution of our day really is. Despite all the expert commentary, it remains ill-defined. How deep does change reach? How far does it extend? Has Desert Storm established the paradigm to which warfare in the twenty-first century will adhere? Or was that brief, visually gaudy conflict simply the final triumphant turn of a superannuated mode of warfare that is giving way to something radically different, the
precursor of a future not yet fully perceived? In other words, do the wondrous technologies displayed in the Gulf War signify a change in the tools of war--a change of means, but not of essence--or, as some contend, are they transforming the very nature of human conflict? Or, a third possibility, is change in the realm of military affairs proceeding as a subset of broader and ultimately more decisive social, political, and scientific developments?

These are preliminary questions that must be considered before drawing any conclusions about the moral implications of the latest
advances in military technologies. A brief discussion of what happened in the realm of sea power in the twentieth century--a story
of multiple, interrelated revolutions--may help to make the point.

The first of this century's upheavals in naval affairs occurred in 1906. In that year, Great Britain launched the first in a new class
of very fast, heavily armored, all big-gun battleships. In the eyes of naval experts then and since, the Dreadnought transformed naval
warfare. In a single stroke, every other capital ship afloat--including every other battleship in the Royal Navy--was rendered obsolete, consigned to the lowly status of "pre-dreadnought."

Essay Types: Essay