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Thursday, March 25, 2004


On Technology and War (written March 29, 1999)


The recent Oscar ceremonies nominated two movies based upon World War II themes. Over the past fifty years, many of the best movies created have centered on different aspects of war: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Green Berets, The Bridge over the River Kwai, The Longest Day, just to name a few. There is something inherent in the story of war, in its myriad aspects, that facilitates the creation of a great cinematic presentation.

The facility is based in the very nature of war. As cliché, we always think that politicians start the war, generals win the war but individual men fight the war. Such has been the case for the entire history of human civilization. Whether the story of war is told during the wars of ancient civilization, the Middle Ages, pre-industrial revolution, or finally in the era of automatic weapons and "smart bombs," the average soldier has faced the same dilemmas and philosophical contradictions. These dilemmas and contradictions are extreme manifestations of what we all face in every day life.

While the desire to kill is inherently against human nature and rational behavior, this inbred circuit breaker must, by necessity, be overridden in a time of war. The circuit breaker is easier to circumvent when the soldier is convinced he is fighting for home, family, country, and, in the end, for his own life. Yet, the individual's life is by design an expendable commodity in the waging of war. In this dilemma lies the intrinsically dramatic, tragic and, ultimately, entertaining value of the story of war.

Throughout the history of human civilization, including most of today's societies, war has been treated as a necessity. We have all seen images of ranks of soldiers "marching off to war." War has been viewed as a necessary evil to be tolerated, generation after generation, with pain and sorrow but also with patriotic pride and heroism. That the soldier has faced the same fears, anxieties and tradeoffs, regardless of the era, makes war, and indeed the existence of war, an alluring but simultaneously uncomfortable story to behold.

The way most societies treat war is in keeping with the majority of human civilization's history. At any given time there are over sixty armed conflicts being waged on the face of the earth. Even if there are only two parties involved in a conflict, which is not always the case, that implies at least 120 parties involved in efforts to kill other human beings, whether it is over territorial control, religious differences or supposed historic destiny. While most would trade peace for war, it seems that the majority of those engaged in these conflicts take them as an unavoidable evil, if not a truly moral undertaking.

However, there is a growing level of distaste for war amongst the more developed countries, especially in the United States. Within twenty years of the most moral undertaking ever by a free society, those asked to fight their country's wars became adamantly opposed to doing so. The Vietnam generation ushered in a new aversion to war that, while always in existence, was transformed into outright national disobedience; in essence, pre-enlistment mutiny against military authority and service.

The Vietnam experience has been debated by many authors. Was the disobedience driven by a question of morality? Morality alone seems to have been of small concern for most of the wars in our country's history. Was it material well-being that increased the risk-aversion of the younger generation towards physical harm? This argument is initially appealing, but does not explain why we would see anti-war sentiment that transcended income levels. The affluent volunteered in large numbers during the Revolution, the Civil War and up to World War II.

A much more credible argument is that the introduction of television during the Vietnam war, and the accompanying gore, turned the nation from support. Because television presented war in real-time, and relatively unedited, in contrast to the blood packets and quick deaths of Hollywood, it made the story of war much less Romantic and much more disturbing.

The use of television during the Vietnam war placed individuals who were safely away from the dangers of the war in a "virtual reality" war which many treated in the same way they treated Hollywood depictions of war. However, a cinematic production is able to motivate the moral and philosophical decisions confronting the average soldier in such a way that the audience can connect, in a real and palpable sense, with the actions and inactions of the soldier. In the real-time world of television, there is no "director" to lead the audience through the philosophical and moral dilemmas.

Therefore, when we see a Hollywood soldier throw himself on an errant grenade to save his "buddies," thus sacrificing himself for the good of the group, it makes the point that the director wishes to get across. More importantly, such a gesture is rarely introduced at the beginning of the movie. Rather, the scene occurs only after we have learned about the future sacrificial lamb, his hopes and fears and how he relates to his comrades in arms. If the scene is held at the beginning of the movie, with no contextual background, we can feel nothing but pity at best and total aversion at worst.

Such is the problem with televised wars. We have no context in which to place the observed actions and reactions of the individuals portrayed. In our living rooms we may wonder and doubt the rationality of throwing oneself on a grenade, or charging a machine-gun nest, or brutally killing a fellow human (only by dumb luck considered an enemy worth killing). We see the actions of soldiers, friend and foe alike, and determine that the entire arena is not worthy of human endeavor. The television audience then elects to disassociate itself from the war effort and turns against it, regardless of what moral and political arguments that can be put forth by its supporters.

One can imagine the heroism of the Virginians engaged in Picket's charge at the battle of Gettysburgh. However, this imagination is only viable in the context of honor and true love amongst comrades in arms; honor and love which super-motivates otherwise rational men to behave in completely irrational ways. However, if one sees Picket's charge as portrayed in the TNT movie Gettysburg, one can only wonder at the complete foolishness of the maneuver. One could imagine the support for the war effort amongst the civilians of both the North and the South would have quickly deteriorated if it had been possible to televise the massacre in real time and (relatively) unedited form.

The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan have a similar effect. The first twenty minutes of the movie inundate the audience with scene after scene of numbing violence and gore. Even with the advantage of historical context, in which we now know the relative importance of the efforts of D-Day, the violence, and in particular the victims of the violence, have no contextual role. Seeing nameless and context-less "actors" being blown away to varying degrees simply numbs the viewer's mind and invokes complete revulsion and aversion to the acts of war.

But the violent ends that are portrayed in the beginning of the movie are also visited upon those that are trying to save Private Ryan. In the end, the majority of the rescue squad, including the most sympathetic protagonist, is killed. However, unlike the nameless and context-less killing at the beginning of the movie, the deaths of those saving Private Ryan invite sympathy and compassion instead of outright revulsion. This is because we have a context in which to place the loss of life, we have knowledge of the hopes and dreams of the individual players and we have a sense of what they have sacrificed in their efforts.

Private Ryan is not unique in this type of cinematic form. The Sands of Iwo Jima develops the relationships between a squad leader and his men. In one of the very few movies in which the character played by John Wayne actually dies, the end of the movie shows us the demise of Wayne's character and the effect this loss has on his men. If the final scene had been portrayed at the beginning of the movie, the effect would have been impossible, there being no context to place it in. Every other cinematic presentation of the story of war has this in common; they all portray the violence and death that is inherent in war in a more "human" light and allow the audience a deeper insight into what the act of war centers around.

Movies that depict the Vietnam war differ a bit from the typical approach of the war-movie genre. Full Metal Jacket and Platoon are excellent movies, invoking feelings of aversion, pity, compassion and pride at various times during the presentation. However, the majority of the efforts have, whether consciously or not, portrayed the war as immoral, or at best ill-advised. These views may only complement the fact that the war was already unpopular, or it may be driven by this fact. However, what is true is that the general society of the United States has taken the Vietnam experience, whether televised or cinematic, as the filter through which all other wars should be viewed.

The televised Vietnam war had the same effect on the domestic audience as Private Ryan had on its audience. The domestic population had no context in which to place the actions of the people they saw on their television. Furthermore, those journalists that reported on the war had little inclination, nor ability, to provide any contextual background of the visions being depicted by their cameras. In the end, the Vietnam experience convinced the American population that war was simply too violent, nameless and devoid of context to be actively supported. This unfortunate combination of technology and the story of war drastically altered the way we wage war.

This became apparent during the Persian Gulf War. Far from seeing real-time television like Vietnam, during the Gulf War we were provided only limited views of action from the ground. The majority of what the national population saw of the Gulf War was the sterilized, so-called "video game" depictions of smart bombs destroying dumb buildings. Smart bombs were advertised as making the necessary carnage of war less troubling and less likely to occur in the first place. Smart bombs were guided with lasers and Global Positioning Satellites to destroy buildings, which were inherently dumb because they didn't get out of the way, and only those (equally dumb) individuals who were trapped inside at the time of impact.

Collateral damage was said to be limited, the ravages of war that led W.T. Sherman to characterize war as "Hell" were made negligible and to cause little concern in the average viewer. Gone were the jungle firefights, medivac rescues and bleeding and gore portrayed nightly during the Vietnam war. So too were the long lists of the killed, missing or injured, also portrayed on nightly television. All of these made the Gulf War "fun" and "less dangerous" than previous wars had been. We were either directly told that this was the future of war, or were led to believe that this was the case.

Another aspect of the Gulf War that differentiated it from the Vietnam, Korean and World War II conflicts, was that it was inherently a technological war. We were shown the smart ammunitions, but also Kevlar helmets, body armor, counter-biological attire, night-vision goggles, global positioning capabilities, stealth technology, fire-on-the-run tanks, hovercraft that were almost impenetrable to beach defenses, and so forth. This technology was advertised as protecting our soldiers, in the end making their acts of war as safe as possible. The advertised protection seemed to be true: the U.S. lost a minimal number of soldiers during the Gulf War. Many have argued that it was safer to be on the front lines than in the rear echelon because of Sadaam Hussein's Scud missile attacks.

The Gulf War thus presented the domestic population a picture of war vastly improved relative to Vietnam. However, as the cinematic presentation of Private Ryan shows us, the Vietnam war experience was no more deadly, gory or "pointless" than the efforts in Korea, World War II and other wars of our country's history. The only difference between Vietnam and the other wars was that it was televised, and we actually saw young soldiers dying in battle without context, without background and were appropriately repulsed by it.

To think that the other wars in our country's history were no more bloody than Vietnam is not only disingenuous but dangerous. On D-Day the United States lost over 2,000 men, almost 3.33% of all those lost in Vietnam. This is not to diminish the loss of almost 60,000 in Vietnam. Rather, it highlights that while Vietnam was fought over ten years, we lost 3.33% as many men in less than eight hours. Picket's charge resulted in almost 12,000 dead and injured in less than five hours. The losses during the trench warfare of World War I were even more disastrous.

While we lost over 300,000 individuals in four years of World War II, we lost only 60,000 in Vietnam, and less than 300 in the Gulf War. Indeed, as technology has improved, fighting our nation's wars has become relatively more safe; technology is doing its job. In Vietnam the advancement of medivac helicopters allowed for more of the injured to be rescued and saved with much faster medical treatment. Indeed, the advancements of medical science increased the chances that an injured soldier could be saved in part or whole.

The Gulf War gave use reason to more strongly believe that war is now relatively safe and that we can expect the casualties of war to be minimized, at least on our side. This expectation has rooted itself in the social psyche to such an extent that, we may never be able to fight another large-scale war again. Unfortunately, the advent of technology on the battlefield has caused the general population to expect that the danger, violence and ultimate physical harm that accompany war have somehow been swept away.

Our current efforts in Kosovo present a classic example of this. During the fourth day of hostilities, March 26, 1998, a stealth fighter was shot down. While our forces have been dropping smart and dumb bombs on the "enemy," while our ships and planes have been firing laser guided and cruise missiles, we have enjoyed relative military supremacy. Yet, we are still engaged in hostile conflict with the "enemy." That enemy will assuredly protect itself, will it not? In the course of protecting itself, it is possible that, despite our technological advantage over the "enemy," we may incur casualties. Can our society handle this reality?

The immediate knowledge that ONE of our planes had been shot down initiated a wave of concern, outrage and late-night news analysis of the situation. Reports that the pilot of the fighter had survived the crash and been rescued by recovery teams were met with an appropriate sigh of relief, but perhaps the sigh was just a bit heavier than warranted. It is a sign that our society is not willing to support significant casualties in war, and this is a problem.

If one doubts the truth of society's refusal to accept casualties of war, only witness how the administration reacted to the downing of the stealth fighter. The administration had two significant messages to present. The first was that, while the stealth fighter is a very advanced plane, it is not completely invisible to the technology of the "enemy." That the administration had to remind the public that war is "hell" and that technology is not able to completely eradicate the ravages of war is very telling. Our society has come to believe that our smart bombs and stealth planes have reduced the risks of war to be minimal, if not completely extinct.

This deep-seated belief was only reinforced by the second message presented by the administration. The message was that, notwithstanding the loss of one plane, our military would continue to engage the "enemy." We had been at war for five days, lost a plane (but, thankfully not a pilot) and the administration felt it necessary to engage in a preemptive strike against those who would call for an end to hostilities. If society is so quick to turn against a war effort by the loss of a plane, can one actually imagine that our society would once again tolerate another Utah Beach?

War is destructive, not only of dumb buildings, but of smart technological wonders like a stealth fighter and heroic individuals who pilot them. Our society will never again tolerate losses as were incurred in the Civil War, World War II, or Korea. These wars were brutal and would have been no less reviled if they had been portrayed in real-time like Vietnam. Unfortunately, most military strategists and historians would agree that these wars would never have been won if it had not been for these drastic, and costly, maneuvers directed by the military leaders at the time.

Hancock's corps, defending the stone wall that was the target of Pickett's division, having seen Pickett's division charge and retreat, regroup, charge again and actually reach the wall, could have been justified in retreating. If the battle had been portrayed in real time, most likely General Hancock would have retreated, or at least felt the intense pressure to do so. And yet, if he had retreated, the South may have won the battle of Gettysburg and the war may have turned out different. The fact that Hancock did not have to worry about how the public was going to respond to the blood and gore of the exercise allowed him to make a decision that would seem politically unpalatable in today's society.

But this leads us to another problem in the waging of war. If our society has come to expect that the ravages of war are either extinct or unnecessary in the fighting and winning of war, is it possible for our generals and soldiers to actually fight a war and win? Is it possible for a general to actually command to win, even if such decisions incur heavy loss of life? It is said that General Eisenhower had written a letter taking full responsibility in the event that the Normandy invasion was a failure. This story is often used as a comparison to today's general buck-passing and lack of personal responsibility. However, the comparison begs the most important question of waging war.

While Eisenhower was willing to take personal responsibility for a failed invasion, it is more important to inquire as to why he made the decision to invade in the first place. More to the point, is it conceivable that he would or could make the same decision in today's environment? Would a modern-day General Eisenhower be able to order the assured death of thousands of men knowing that these visions would be displayed to the civilian population back home in real-time or short-delay? Even if the general had the internal fortitude, constitution and confidence to make such a decision is it practical to believe that he would be able to make such a decision?

Can one imagine that a president such as Bill Clinton, who is admittedly poll-driven in his decision making, would allow one of his generals to order the equivalent of a Normandy invasion, knowing that heavy casualties are assured and total annihilation is a possibility? A military command beholden to civilian control is perhaps the most sensible way to wage war. But the civilian control, which is in turn political in nature, is beholden to the voting public, and the poll-driven politics of our current age make it nearly impossible to imagine the equivalent of D-Day.

With this, we come to the message of this discussion. Technology has made the waging of war much safer for the individual soldier, but by no means risk-free. With the improved safety of the battlefield, our society has come to expect that future wars will be like the Gulf War: complete and unambiguous military victory with minimal loss of life. This, in turn, has bound the hands of our military and civilian leadership. We will never again have the stomach for fighting a large-scale war with significant casualties.

A country that is not willing to throw itself completely into the ravages of war is one that is, in the end, incapable of defending itself or its allies. If North Korea chooses to invade South Korea and overruns the 30,000 U.S. military personnel on the DMZ, can we imagine that, as a society, we will be willing to reinvade South Korea in order to expel the North? After having incurred thousands of casualties, we may be willing to engage in strategic air strikes, perhaps to even use tactical nuclear weapons, but it is highly unlikely that we will be willing to suffer thousands of additional casualties. We may decide that economic sanctions are more appropriate, that the use of the IMF and the World Bank, the United Nations or some other noncommittal, and in the end militarily minimized, response is the safest path to follow.

We must remember that war is indeed necessary at times, and that those who fight a war are in harm's way. Further, if a military action is justified then the loss of life is justified as well, as long as the loss of life leads to ultimate victory. Those that died on Utah Beach are immortalized as some of the greatest heroes of our country's history. If we had lost the war, they would be honored as fallen countrymen, but not honored as ultimate heroes. Notwithstanding the public's exposure to smart bombs and other technology on television, it is mandatory for our society to accept that the ravages of war are ultimately unavoidable. Until such recollection is completed, we stand as a country that is ultimately unable to defend itself or its allies.

Copyright © 1999, Craig A. Depken, II, All Rights Reserved

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