Report for Your Destruction

Posted: May 20, 2017 in Cinema, Culture, Narrative, Politics, Technophilia, War
Tags: , , , , ,

An old Star Trek episode called “A Taste for Armageddon” depicts Capt. Kirk and crew confronting a planetary culture that has adopted purely administrative warfare with a nearby planet, where computer simulations determine outcomes of battles and citizens/inhabitants are notified to report for their destruction in disintegration chambers to comply with those outcomes. Narrative resolution is tidied up within the roughly 1-hour span of the episode, of course, but it was and is nonetheless a thought-provoking scenario. The episode, now 50 years old, prophesies a hyper-rational approach to conflict. (I was 4 years old at the time it aired on broadcast television, and I don’t recall having seen it since. Goes to show how influential high-concept storytelling can be even on someone quite young.) The episode came to mind as I happened across video showing how robot soldiers are being developed to supplement and eventually replace human combatants. See, for example, this:

The robot in the video above is not overtly militarized, but there is no doubt that it will could be. Why the robot takes bipedal, humanoid form with an awkwardly high center of gravity is unclear to me beyond our obvious self-infatuation. Additional videos with two-wheeled, quadriped, and even insect-like multilegged designs having much improved movement and flexibility can be found with a simple search. Any of them can be transformed into ground-based killing machines, as suggested more manifestly in the video below highlighting various walking, rolling, flying, floating, and swimming machines developed to do our dirty work:

Our trajectory toward Star Trek-inspired administrative war couldn’t be clearer. One might believe such a ratiocinated conception of warfare, removing actual humans from theaters of conflict and instead killing from a distance, is desirable. I believe it’s a dangerously slippery slope from the abject awfulness of the first two world wars to (new, improved!) war fought from substantial remove (e.g., via aerial bombardment, including nuclear bombs) to clone or proxy wars using unmanned, remotely operated devices and ultimately to (clean, sanitized!) war via computer simulation. Think that’s crazy? It’s no more crazy than mutually assured destruction (MAD) that fueled the arms race and Cold War. Indeed, war in and of itself is considered a sort of madness that overtakes us with regrettable though reliable regularity. Some even say that the warrior code bears a strong family resemblance to the predatory instinct that allows us to eat, so combat will never be extinguished. Assuming armed human conflict will never go away, we should not be content to wage continuous war (as we now do) but should instead make it ugly enough (not glorious!) that memory of the last one keeps us from entering into a new one except as a last resort. Living memory lost to attrition ought to be the minimum threshold for intervals between conflicts, something no war memorial can accomplish.

From one perspective, the Cold War was an administrative war, fought mostly on the strength of which of the two superpowers (U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.) could muster the most massive military without actually fighting each other. Why either party was suckered into that pointless, paranoid, bankrupting expense is a good question worthy of consideration (deferred, sorry) when so many other pressing needs went unaddressed, but eventually, the U.S. won and the U.S.S.R. disintegrated. The U.S. continues to devote itself to the Cold War as evidenced by the size of its military budget and number of foreign bases, to say nothing of the ridiculous and fabulously expensive technologies developed and deployed. Other superpower wannabes are getting back into the game, too (e.g., China and Russia). Much as I would prefer to say that the Cold War has been rejoined, sadly, I judge that it’s merely been accelerated by cyberwarfare and asymmetrical (stateless) conflict.

Star Trek may have forewarned us earlier than most narratives, but plenty of others have come to similar conclusions. Robocop (1987) and its sequels and remakes were the civil authority version of a hybrid man/machine, largely without conscience and so hyper-violent with no compunction. Like Starship Troopers, it was probably intended as farcical but went right over the heads of most audiences, who frankly reveled in the cartoonish violence for its sheer entertainment value. Ironman 2 (2010) warned not to dispense with the (thinking) man in the suit by turning the suit into a programmed and hackable production line of battlebots. I daresay that warning was missed by audiences distracted by superheros. A similar loss of message occurred with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) where a robot army was deployed against the same superheros. Lest I forget, Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002) featured yet another robot army. And before Star Wars, a far more thoughtful but no less hyper-militaristic futuristic dystopia was presented in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, recently made into a live-action film that flatly missed the philosophical point of the original mangas.

One last point: it’s no stretch to say that we already have regimes that embody the idea that citizens should willingly, meekly report for their own character building destruction. Though the U.S. military is currently voluntary, we had conscription (a/k/a the draft, national service, or selective service) three time in history, most recently 1940–1973. Many want to bring it back. National service is not uncommon around the globe, which shows that considerable demand for cannon fodder still exists. Certainty of destruction depends a lot on circumstance, but any nation’s ability to demand compliance is what’s at issue.

Update: Keith Olbermann references A Taste For Armageddon, which was apparently a short story before it became the basis for a Star Trek episode. Is Olbermann reading this blog?

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