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

Caveat Raptor

Considered in retrospect, what do these three interlocking naval revolutions suggest concerning the ethical implications of today's
ongoing transformation in military affairs? Above all, the naval experience of the century now drawing to a close alerts us to the
prospect that the century to come will experience not one military revolution but several. Just as with naval warfare in this century,
the product of multiple revolutions will not be moral clarity. It will be deepening moral complexity.

Like Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, the United States at the end of the twentieth is a dominant rule-setting world
power with a strong interest in perpetuating that dominance. The existing order--the distribution of wealth and influence, the basic
norms governing the conduct of world politics--suits us well and we are committed to its preservation. Like the British a century ago, as an integral part of our strategy to maintain that order, we have invested heavily to create a defense establishment that assures our
success in a certain kind of war. Indeed, in our efforts to acquire a decisive military edge, we have spared virtually no expense. Having done so, many Americans--including most serving officers--are loath to entertain any suggestion that the model of warfare forming the conceptual basis of those investments might be of limited utility.

Like Great Britain in 1906, eager to define the naval revolution as beginning and ending with Dreadnought, the United States today is
thus highly susceptible to self-deception. With a compelling interest in suppressing developments that might undermine the global status
quo, Americans are predisposed to define military revolution in terms best suited to sustaining the paradigm of warfare with which we are most comfortable and within which the American lead appears to be least assailable. Indeed, as was the case with Dreadnought, the very purpose of a Military Technical Revolution is to fend off more radical change likely to subvert the existing order. The Royal Navy conceived of Dreadnought with an eye toward ensuring that Britain's next naval war would be fought like Trafalgar--and with an identical outcome. Similarly, for many Americans today, the allure of a military revolution is that it will guarantee that future conflicts
are fought like Desert Storm: brief, decisive, successful, and, in terms of American lives lost, relatively cheap.

To be sure, such a narrowly conceived revolution is especially conducive to the application of traditional just-war criteria. Indeed, if the transformation presently underway is merely technical--a change in the means of waging war but not of war's nature--then it may revitalize conventions that have provided the traditional basis for regulating conflict: that wars are properly fought between opposing armies rather than by insurgents, irregulars, or terrorists; that the nation-state retains a monopoly over the means of violence and that the use of force remains illegitimate except when directed by responsible political authority; and that the principle of non-combatant immunity is sacrosanct rather than being waiverable at the convenience of belligerents. Surely, a defense establishment that has mastered the capabilities to which the American military presently aspires--the ability to "see" everything throughout the battlefield, to target with precision, to strike with unprecedented accuracy, great lethality, and minimal collateral damage--is especially well-positioned to adhere to just-war principles such as proportionality and discrimination.

Thus, bringing to maturity the style of warfare presaged by Desert Storm holds the promise of permitting the United States both to
sustain its status as reigning superpower and to congratulate itself on wielding its power in a manner consistent with traditional moral
teachings. Yet enhanced technological capability may well generate its own headaches. As precision increases, so do expectations,
constantly "raising the bar" of acceptable performance. As a result, tolerance for inaccuracy or even human error diminishes. Soldiers in the field may find themselves hard-pressed to satisfy demands for virtually no-fault performance--especially in a media-saturated
theater of operations. In such circumstances, the act that in former days was dismissed as "fortunes of war" becomes "immoral." Consider, for example, the brouhaha following the U.S. destruction of the al-Firdos bunker in Baghdad during the Gulf War. Considerin particular the sensitivity of the U.S. military to the criticism it received as a result of the incident: Embarrassed by this ugly
exception to what they had portrayed as a virtuoso performance, U.S. commanders of their own volition restricted further attacks on downtown Baghdad.

Yet however much the United States might seek to define the military revolution in terms to suit itself, future adversaries are unlikely
to cooperate. Like the German navy of the First World War--stymied by British superiority in dreadnoughts--those disadvantaged by the existing rules will devise new rules more amenable to their interests. Thus, while Americans dazzle themselves with the latest
military application of advanced technologies, America's challengers will seek ways of rendering that technology superfluous. Toward that end, they will have a powerful incentive to undertake a genuine Revolution in Military Affairs, recasting the terms of conflict in
ways that play to their strengths and exploit our vulnerabilities. Alas, as the Vietnam War would suggest, those vulnerabilities are all too apparent.

This prospect of a true Revolution in Military Affairs, driven by those who would challenge U.S. primacy, is not without its moral complications. By jettisoning the established conventions governing armed conflict, such a revolution is likely to move into murky
terrain: people's war, subversion, terror, and banditry. In truth, the past is rich with examples that testify to the efficacy of such
methods. The brief military history of the post-Cold War era, featuring the likes of General Mohammed Farah Aidid, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the masked commandantes of Chiapas, and the suicide bombers of Hamas and the Irish Republican Army, suggests that the continuing relevance of those examples has not been lost on those who reject America's view of how the world should work. Unhampered by the squeamishness or scruples of our own post-Clausewitzian elites, these neo-Clausewitzians are eager to revive old ways of employing force to subvert the status quo, adopting selected new technologies that make it possible for ever smaller groups of perpetrators to inflict ever more mayhem. In the future, such unconventional methods could become more effective still if combined with means drawn from the opposite end of the "spectrum" of warfare: weapons of mass destruction such as portable nuclear devices or highly virulent bacterial agents.

For those who would adhere to the justwar tradition, unconventional warfare--and the countermeasures it invites--has always posed
enormous difficulties. Inevitably in such conflicts the distinction between combatants and noncombatants becomes blurred. Force is
employed not to achieve standard military objectives such as the destruction of the enemy's army or the capture of key terrain but to
intimidate political authorities, capture media attention, or foster an environment of insecurity. As a result, considerations such as discrimination and proportionality quickly go by the board. Often, this is the case not only with those who instigate war using unconventional methods but among the forces defending against such methods.

Unfortunately, when Americans employ the language of morality to disparage unconventional war, their critique does not come across as entirely disinterested. Indeed, it can readily be perceived as self-serving--much as did British criticism of the U-boat campaign
while Britain was engaged in a more traditional (and therefore permissible) blockade of German ports. To the world beyond our
borders, it may appear that Americans are asserting a double standard, denouncing as reprehensible the bomb placed in a parking
garage (to which the United States may be particularly vulnerable), while deeming the disabling of an urban electrical grid by remote
missile attack (which the United States is uniquely equipped to launch) to be altogether acceptable. In an era of great upheaval in
military affairs, U.S. efforts to assert such moral distinctions are unlikely to be persuasive. Indeed, nothing is more likely todiscredit
just-war teachings in the eyes of others than the perception that its principles are being employed not to ameliorate the effects of war
itself, but as a prop for American hegemony and a salve for the American conscience.

The Fundamental Transformation

Of course, all of this presumes that the military revolution can be "captured", that either the United States or some other state or
group of states can determine its shape or direction. It also implicitly assumes that the overall political and social context in which conflict occurs will remain static.

Such assumptions are probably mistaken. To postulate that the military revolution will manifest itself either in terms of the Desert Storm paradigm or as "dirty wars" that arise in reaction to U.S. superiority in high-tech conventional warfare is to disregard
evidence of an even more fundamental transformation afoot--much as the attention claimed first by Dreadnought and then by the U-boat impeded recognition of the air revolution that would subsume them both. That more fundamental transformation--an incipient Revolution in Security Affairs--could well emerge as a result of developments in several quarters: political, economic, and social. Although not strictly military in its origins or content, it would impinge broadly on the conduct of national security affairs.

Essay Types: Essay