Hannibal and the Terminator
(An Essay for the Times Op-Ed Page)
War dyads, or war pairs, or alternatively double wars, have been objects of contemplation and debate since historian Arnold Toynbee wrote of "Double Great Wars" in Hannibal's Legacy, a voluminous treatise on the Punic Wars published in 1965. War dyads, says Toynbee, are commonplace ("a double name for a war," he wrote, "is the only kind that is fully descriptive and duly neutral”). They represent, according to Toynbee's hypothesis, unitary historical episodes whose impacts encompass and transcend those of each unpaired war taken singly, and their immediate and long-term effects far outstrip those of individual wars.
However Double Great Wars, avows Toynbee, are much rarer. They occur when a second Great War follows "on the heels of a previous war that had been only less great" than the preceding Great War. Toynbee identifies three war dyads in Hellenic antiquity falling within the Double Great category and only a single war pair in modernity -- the WWI/WWII war pair. The Punic Wars, which are referred to in Hannibal's Legacy as the Romano-Carthaginian Wars in keeping with Toynbee's war pair nomenclature, also rank among this handful of history’s Double Great Wars (we get our present label from the Romans, who called their wars with Carthage "the Phoenician Wars" or Bella Punica). These took place between 264 and 201 BC, fought within a period of less than two-thirds of a century.
The history-altering consequences of these titanic double conflicts are inversely proportional to their infrequency. The three Double Great Hellenic War Pairs of 431-421, 413-404 and 264-242 BC signified, according to Toynbee, the breakdown of Hellenic civilization, and the second pair of Double Great Wars, the first and second Punic Wars, brought about the near collapse of Hellenic civilization in Asia Minor and the Near East, while a final antique Double Great war pair, the first and second Romano-Persian Wars of AD 572-90/603-28, led ultimately to the collapse of the Greek world's predominance and Rome's expansion to hegemon of the ancient world.
History's other Double Great War occurred some two thousand years later, in Our Time (approximately, anyway) as the WWI/WWII war pair. Writing in the early sixties, Toynbee observed that though this war dyad’s consequences were immediately felt, its rumbles would continue rolling through history. Indeed they would, as subsequent escalating US involvement in Southeast Asia well proved.
Today, the United States is reaching what appears the end of another of history's rarities -- yet another great war dyad. While not a Double Great War in the classic sense defined by Toynbee (thus presented here in lower case), this present war dyad -- comprised of the Persian Gulf War and OIF/OEF (the Wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan) -- is by no means one of those tempests in a teapot that can be dismissed as an ordinary war pair. And, anyway, in the post-Cold War era a Double Great War along lines of the titanic conflicts of World Wars I and II is no longer a realistic expectation. Among the reasons for this is the state of technological advancement and global interconnection of warfighter communications.
Movements indicating tactical and strategic surprise are much harder to conceal from multilevel global surveillance assets that range from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the lowest tactical operating envelope up to orbiting satellite constellations that can use highly accurate radar, infrared and optical imaging to observe activities on earth in real-time and with ultrahigh definition. Since all of these systems (including UAVs) function at least part of the time autonomously, human vigilance is far less critical a factor in the operations loop. Tactical surprises such as Guderian’s Panzer blitz through the Ardennes to smash the French Maginot Line in 1940, or for that matter the Third Reich's second push through the Ardennes in the last-ditch Battle of the Bulge of winter 1944-1945, under cover of "night and fog," would be proactively detected today by automated digital early warning systems that would alert networked military forces with near simultaneity. Response would be swift. For that matter an incident of profound strategic consequence, such as the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961; an event that took place virtually overnight; would occur today beneath the scrutiny of multispectral aerial and orbital detection systems and would not catch a US president by surprise by next day's dawn as it had caught Kennedy.
Speed is another factor. The tempo of military operations has undergone considerable step-up due to the same technological advancements that have wedded information technology to the tactical domain and have dramatically magnified the lethality of offensive combat systems by several orders of magnitude over even the “precision,” “smart” or “brilliant” weapons of the Gulf War. It’s therefore unlikely that a Great War pair in the Toynbean sense of a prolonged titanic struggle between approximately evenly matched peer national opponents would even have time to develop before either a negotiated ceasefire or nuclear endgame would ensue -- both representing events of brief duration.
“Effects-based” operations (EBO) is a 21st century axiom of warfare, having superseded the “AirLand” battle doctrine that prevailed as late as the end of the last century. Among the many ramifications of effects-based operations is its emphasis on high-technology means to achieve tactical ends. EBO doctrine elevates automated combat systems, such as robotic systems, to primacy, and conversely reduces human involvement in the tactical decision-making process. Future Combat Systems (FCS) aimed to robotize one-third of US forces by 2020. While the program itself has been cut back, the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, released last February, allocates increased FY 2011 budgeting for robotic systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, and other robotic systems.
Other new defense allocations will modernize brigade combat teams (BCT) with improved air and ground robotic capabilities. Projections call for implementation of swarm robotics, in which a single operator controls multiple robotic platforms in a networked battlespace environment. Since there is every indication that 21st century interstate military conflict will be both relatively brief (or if of longer duration, then take the form of sustainment operations) and regional in scope, and on consideration, that a range of forces, including large-scale terrorist attacks, will increase the rapidity and intensity of the aftereffects of such briefer conflicts, I would contend that regional conflict will in our era serve in place of the titanic global conflicts of past eras. Consequently, if a repeat of the WWI/WWII dyad is unlikely, then the most recent Double Great War paradigm is the pair of wars marking the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that began in 2001 and 2003.
In fact, taking historical economies of scale into consideration, this war dyad -- call it, in Toynbean terms, the “US-Afghan-Gulf Wars" dyad (which we'll abbreviate as GW-OIF/OEF) -- has, and will have, global consequences potentially as profound for our era as any Double Great War of antiquity, despite its more circumscribed parameters.
How so? Let's examine the evidence which is measured by the way our society has transmogrified since 1991, the year Gulf War I began and ended, and the 2003 to 2010 period of GW-OIF/OEF. We must also ask ourselves if changes can be attributed to the dyad or to other factors; if the latter is the case, then how much of which? Also, are the changes commensurate with what might have been expected had the war pair not occurred, or does the dyad correspond to an obvious, measurable, quantifiable, and ineluctably perceivable mass disunity? Most importantly, (especially given the limitations in scope of this essay), is there a single effect, or group of effects, that was accelerated by the US-Afghan-Gulf Wars dyad that harbingers or currently demonstrates an especially profound vector of change in the United States?
If any single Toynbean national post-traumatic syndrome can be isolated, it is robotics transformation. As the Gulf War had been called "the first information war" because of the impact of digital systems on it, so the War in Iraq has been called "the first robot war" because it marks the first large-scale tactical deployment of robotic systems of many types. The presence of tactical robots in Iraq is commonly known. Less so is that virtually all of them feature semi- or fully autonomous operation to different degrees, and that iRobot PackBots and other mini-bots are only a portion of the different types in theater, which include Predator, Reaper and unmanned ground vehicles, some of which are the size of small tanks and which incorporate mounted antipersonnel weaponry.
A secondary innovation in use in the Iraqi theater is digitally enabled human profiling that can detect and identify potential terrorists. Not in routine use, but having undergone testing in Iraq and Afghanistan, are devices that use ultra-wideband microwave radars to see through building walls, biometric credentialing and applied evoked response potential (ERP) monitoring that can distinguish thought patterns by reading human brain waves, as does a headset manufactured by one vendor, which picks up "electric information from the brain ... broadcast on the inside of the skull," according to company statements, which can immediately be analyzed on a laptop or other conventional computer.
That warfare has historically provided a testing ground for technological innovations is an assertion that no one can contest, nor is the fact that applied technology for battlefield systems helps forces prevail in war and will inevitably be used. What concerns me is that these same technological innovations, developed for military and security operations, are being transitioned into commercial development and introduced into the civilian sector. There is also little doubt that OIF/OEF acted as a developmental and marketing accelerant. The corporate sector geared up for its share of extensive government outlays for research and development with a dual-use strategy of defense and commercial marketing factored in from the outset.
The closing of ranks behind a Bush administration that requested historical and enormous defense allocations following the attacks of September, 11th, 2001 rivaled that of government and industry which did the same following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In both cases, Washington’s policies provided numerous financial incentives to technology providers ramping up for the Global War on Terror and OIF/OEF. Government contracts were issued to those developers on a rush basis, with more incentives and fewer impediments than ever before.
The threat of what might be described as the rise of a post-Orwellian culture of obedience in a technologically empowered security state is a minacious vision of what America might be like by about 2030. We are already a nation that looks to artificial intelligence rather than our own to make many routine daily decisions. The proliferation of computer systems has been extremely rapid, as has been their rapidly increasing capabilities and advancing automation in the less than 30 years since the IBM PC's 1981 advent. The proliferation of robotic systems, already extremely sophisticated, could prove even faster and more pervasive.
This "Terminator Scenario" as social critics have called it, could result in the subordination of human personnel to intelligent machinery in the private sector and in government institutions within a relatively short time, motivated by economics and mass acceptance by a society conditioned to the inevitability of usurpations of past norms by the relentless, erosive forces of uncontrolled technological change. But what I’m calling attention to here goes well beyond “killer robots” blogs and media bites that have overblown and somewhat demeaned the issue. My concern is about proliferation into civilian society, not war zones; nor about robots going haywire per se, but about the ability of a group of powerful yet indifferent technologies to become integrated into the social fabric in unprecedented, unenvisioned and unalterable modes.
Such may be a root cause of what is observably a split personality culture of outward obedient submissiveness on the one hand, and barely suppressed inward aggression on the other, one reminiscent of Toynbee's remarks on post Punic War Rome. "Hannibal's legacy," wrote Toynbee, "included an intensified need for Rome to show foes and rebels being destroyed in public on a grand scale, a need to demonstrate that poor fighters would be punished and good soldiers rewarded, and a need to entertain and communicate with urbanized and underemployed masses. Politicians and generals soon cultivated these needs into a peculiarly Roman social institution." Meaning gladiatorial combats, chariot races and members of out-groups being fed to lions in public spectacles. It can be inferred from Toynbee's argument that Rome's derangements date from the end of the Punic Wars. Could America’s “Bella Punica” dyad produce similar results?
When the final bastions of privacy -- the walls of the domicile and the ramparts encircling the human brain and its thoughts -- are breached by invasive technologies whose original purpose was tactical battlefield deployment, psychological profiling of a hostile population, and autonomous operation of offensive and reconnaissance systems, a host of potentially dangerous social mutations are accelerated. Neither technology, nor corporate marketing, nor military planners are individually culpable. They are tinkers, tailors, soldiers and sailors, among other things, but they are not ethicists, nor should we expect them to be. On the contrary, it is the responsibility of society itself to place the issue on the national agenda right now, and debate the American and global techno-future, before it’s too late to change it. As H.G. Wells once wrote in his The Future of War, "the development of war has depended largely on two factors. One of them is invention." Computing and related robotics technologies represent inventions with globally transformative military implications and have great potential to drastically alter not only the future of war, but the future of society itself.
Copyright (C) 2011 David Alexander