Innovation, WMD, and the Pressure Cooker Effect

Sometimes people think I am idealistic. I think, actually, most human beings are just easily caught in inertia. Although most people attribute the quote to Plato, it apparently was Philo or Alexandria who urged us to be kind to everyone we meet, “because everyone is fighting a harder battle.”

It might seem funny to some of you that I am thought idealistic, but remember that idealistic doesn’t mean the same as optimistic. The most diehard pessimists usually have a history of idealism which reality never managed to live up to. This, in fact, is not so far from the case of my own thinking until a few years ago. But I am approaching the point now where I think we need to be idealistic, that it’s not just a failure of nerve but a failure of morals that prevents us from being more so.

For we – meaning humans, all of us, the totality – have a hell of a lot to answer for. It’s not just the way we treat other species, or our fragile island of the Earth. It’s perhaps even more horrifying how we treat our own. We have accepted the notion that there is nothing inherently wrong with manufacturing and selling on a mass scale weapons designed solely for the purpose of killing other humans.

It’s not that this is a new thing. These kinds of weapons have existed for a long time: it’s unimaginable that someone would have hunted boar with a short sword, or used a mace to kill field grouse. Likewise, katana and naginata were specifically designed for homicide.

And I’m exceedingly leery of the historical revisionism that claims, “Yes, but, those times were uncivilized because they were war times. Things are different now.” In fact, I think things are not at all different now, once you simply factor in the changes in technology. In fact, I think the changes that have happened are basically predictable ones in the light of the way that weaponry has developed via technological advancements.

The main difference as I see it is an increase in specialization, increase in scale of effectiveness, and the delocalization of killing. First comes that increase in distance and scale of effective killing. If you start out the human history of homicide as an activity performed with the bare hands, or a rock, and at great risk to the self, what you see is a progressive advancement of distancing the killer from the killed, and an increase in the number of people killed at a given distance. This is the internal logic of the squad of archers, of the catapult, the grenade, the bomb, and the missile.

What follows, of course, is specialization. In the early days, humans didn’t really specialize. Everyone was a hunter, or a gatherer, depending on their gonads and abilities. Everyone was a warrior when necessary, mothers and uncles and elders and kids. You killed people when you had to, or when you wanted what they had. It was not a career, it was just part of the basic human toolkit. (In many parts of the world — even the developed world — it still is.) Later, armies consisted of drafted commoners led by royals and aristocrats, a pattern that endured until the Middle Ages.

It was at that time that states began to appropriate military power and violence, coopting the system and making it an instrument of the state. This much is well known. What is less spoken about is the fact that the aristocrats took advantage of the advances of technology, while commoners simply did without. And so when we look back on the Middle Ages, seeing the armor and the cathedrals, we think of some old element of our civilization. And yet, what is really laid out before us is the trappings of power, of the aristocracy only, while all that was of the peasants rotted within a single (usually brief) lifetime following a given man’s death. The Knight In Shining Armor is the only man in the army with proper equipment; he is every girl’s dream not because he’s more brave, or stronger, but because he’s the only one you can count on probably coming back from a given battle in one piece.

We look back on all of this history, on all these technological developments, as if they were signs of progressing civilization, evidences of the positivist narrative that we Westerners have been taught from the cradle, an idea that probably is theological in origins but now is completely woven into technocracy and scientific thinking. But all of this stuff is, in fact, is tokens of uncivilization. Now, telling people that they are behaving in an uncivilized manner is not a good way to make friends. It’s a good way to annoy a lot of people, and not to get listened to. And yet, I think, that’s precisely how we have been behaving as a global society.

The armor, the weapons, the State power… it’s all configured differently, but not so differently that we cannot recognize it. The State is no longer a government tied up with religions of the supernatural, for example; today, the State is tied up with a different set of beliefs, usually those ideological ones that have to do with economics and class — although it seems that the modern world isn’t even immune from base, corrupted religious rhetoric swaying voting populations. Weapons are something most people never experience directly, or, at least, most people don’t know they are experiencing, until those weapons suddenly kill them. Armor… the worst of all, armor is. None of us have armor, and frankly, none of us need it. Armor can no longer protect us, because armor has been subsumed into weapons.

“The best defense is a good offense”, is the truism that is handed 0ut everywhere from football games to Starcraft competitions and even as a root of foreign policy for America and the rest of the nations allied to America.

It doesn’t take much to understand, however, that for every form of armor developed, the next development in warfare has been a killer app — a new “technology” that has broken through the armor. Arrows with special heads that pierce steel plating; metal plating and battle-trained ship crews countered with boiling oil and greek fire.

But if you want to know what really tips the scales, well… Tolstoy’s narrative of the power of guerrilla warfare against Napoleon, though, is the true record a killer app. If you can’t win straightforwardly with an enemy, kick him in the gonads and then win. The history of agriculture is the true killer app. These things have nothing to do with the specifics of weapons or armor, because they use the conceptual systems of extant armies to creative cognitive armor, and cognitive weaponry.

Jared Diamond gives us perhaps the first example of this to affect the old forms of battle among early humans. It wasn’t the invention of a new weapon that changed everything, nor the discovery of a new kind of armor. What happened?

People started planting food, cultivating it, raising animals. This gave them spare energy, spare people. They got a chance to specialize. It was not a change to warfare per se, it was a transformation that had to be effected on a whole society. Agriculture, hard as it was to adapt to — and the adaptation was initially very slow — eventually produced such an edge that whole groups of humans lacking it were chased off the land, made extinct, or driven to isolated islands.

They did not, and absolutely could not, understand in their time what most of my readers’ parents or grandparents understood very clearly during the First World War: that all the resources within a society have a bearing on “the war effort”. This is why your mom, or grandma, depending on your age, had to resort to drawing lines on the backs of her legs with brown makeup when she went out on the town, because the resources for a luxury (or necessity) like stockings were just not available to be spared. This is why people even in America were hungry towards the end of the Second World War — even though America was a latecomer, as usual.

(Sometimes I wonder if America’s always trying to make up for lost time, these days, starting wars and being the first to march in, which is after all why I think there’s been so much self-congratulatory rhetoric about America’s role in the war over the last sixty years. I’m just glad it’s not the Canadians’ jobs to die first in the worst spots anymore.)

The Western world seems to have forgotten about all of that. The Western world seems to have forgotten that, no matter what the gains, war always costs something. Not just the men (and, now, women) who get killed on either side. Not just human life, money, and time. What wars cost us are the status quo. Because, since the height of the Cold War, nothing much new has happened in terms of effective long-range killing. The one thing I see as having emerged is cyberwarfare, which so far isn’t killing anyone, and so we’re not really paying all that much attention to it.

… we’re not paying all that much attention to it. But who is we?

We is not really you and me, is the thing. We’ve got specialists so specialized that you and I can’t really understand their jobs, beyond effusive characterizations based on mystery and romance. These are somewhat like Temple Priests who go behind the curtain and perform secret rituals for the safety of the Tribes, who burn smoke and say the secret Holy Names. Except, you see, when our Priests — the spooks — go behind the curtain, people die. And our spooks never come out from behind the curtain to say “Hi,” and explain anything to us. Because, anyway, most of us wouldn’t understand and those who did understand would probably be mostly disgusted, no matter what side of the political spectrum we come from.

So war is the domain of these people. Sure, we still have our peasants who march off to battle — and the underarming and underprotection of troops in Iraq is but one example of that. The parallel is surprisingly applicable, really. It’s hardly surprising that the most aggressive recruitment drives have been in poor areas of the States; and I imagine fairly soon, some serious recruitment drives will be starting up again in the worst-harmed parts of Texas, and around what’s left of New Orleans. But most of us “peasants”, people in who are just far enough above the poverty line not to think the army a good option, up and throughout the middle class, we live in basic ignorance about how our society and our army are interlocked, interwoven; about how, now, excessive spending is good for the economy, which is good for the war effort.

This mindtrick that’s been pulled on us is only the tip of the iceberg, though; it’s not half as astounding as the mindtrick that’s been pulled on us in general, which is that the proliferations of all weapons — not just weapons of mass destruction — is actually important, and moral, and necessary for the sustenance of our Western civilization. If we are to survive, the logic of this argument goes, we must develop new, better, more effective weapons.

Now, here is the problem. People just really aren’t going to get behind this kind of logic without a good reason. They’re inclined to ask, “Why?” because, after all, these kinds of developments cost a lot of money, require a lot of energy, and those kinds of things are almost always diverted from somewhere else where they’re needed.

So you get wars. The outbreak of a war is an amazing incentive for the development of a new weapon/strategy toolkit. Everyone having horses doesn’t matter until the fighting breaks out; once it starts, though, the people with the stirrups are going to win out. Once you find your society is pitched against another, then, suddenly, all the new weapons development in the world sounds like a great idea. This was the innovation of the Cold War: how to have a War without war on the scale that it would drain you coffers to the point of collapse. Weapons research and development only made sense when the Cold War was on.

Now we’re in the middle of another Cold War project. It’s not a hot war, yet; women aren’t going without their husbands, or stockings, away from the action. People aren’t feeling hungry yet. Until this begins to happen, the real effects of war will not be felt on the part of the developed world. But the thing is, I have this sneaking suspicion that it is going to come to that.

The reason why is that, with every new development of a technical or technological nature, you get an equal and opposite quantum leap on the side of one’s enemy. In this case, we shall have to look to the enemies of America in this current Cold War scenario. It’s basically Fundamentalist Islam, sure, okay. So you have America in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, fighting a war on someone else’s territory. Now, for all the backwardness that, yes, the Arab world suffers from in areas, you have to give these people credit. I know that it’s far from the fashion in America to respect al Quaeda, but consider the fact that these are the first people, since the British, to have mounted an assault on continental American soil. They figured out how to do it, and they did it; and they scared the living hell out of America.

That’s what to expect in the future; more of that. Homeland Security couldn’t even protect people from a storm that was seen coming days ahead of its arrival, so how is it going to protect America against the multi-fronted, decentralized forms of assault that al Quaeda and other groups are already using? And the bigger question is, how will Homeland Security — or whatever institution inherits its mandate — deal with the innovations that will come later?

I know, innovation usually isn’t used in this way. Usually, we call something innovation when it’s something we like. Innovations we don’t like get some other bad word applied to them; but this is part of what has blinded us. “Terrorist” means something like “bad guy” or “dirty fighter” or something in contemporary North American parlance. I suspect that many people would categorically object to the notion that al Quaeda, or any organization like it, could be the source of any kind of innovation at all in our world.

Well, that’s what the French surely thought when they looked at Russian peasants. I’m sure they had just as offensive terminology as we now occasionally hear leveled at Arabs. I’m sure they would have, even after being chased out of Russia, strenuously objected to the idea that any kind of innovation had played a part in their defeat. I’m not an historian of war, but Tolstoy seems like a bright guy, and I have to suspect that at least part of the notion that the French were defeated by the weather appealed to the French, to Western Europeans in general. (Just as, equally, the notion that a Russian military innovation would have appealed to the Russians, and to Tolstoy; which is why I’m leery to give his account too much credit.)

But we don’t have to rely on Tolstoy for precedents. There are plenty of other ones. Consider how the old guard misunderstood the nature of war once World War I broke out; all of that hokum about glory and honour was out the window once the tank and mustard gas were invented. War wasn’t glorious anymore — well, of course, it hadn’t been for most people, forever, but now it was fast becoming universally a kind of hell. The German invention of mustard gas was an innovation that was formed in the face of a difficult, perhaps unwinnable struggle, were it to be fought according to the old rules of war. And for that matter, the invention of the tank — by the British, this time, an act that the Germans managed only barely, and not very forcefully, to mimic — was an innovation driven by the same need to break the rules of conventional warfare.

Tanks rendered trench warfare obsolete, according to Wikipedia and commonly received military history. Mustard gas was a powerful weapon against the infantry that accompanied such tanks, and a horror for all who encountered it.

Of course, this drive has not always resulted in successes. Military zeppelins have not become a fixture in modern warfare, because, well, it’s just stupid to fly about in slow-moving, highly flammable vehicles. But I once attended a lecture by Ariela Freedman, at Concordia University, who delved into all of the literary accounts of zeppelins in the British war experience and man, everyone talked about them as if they were the craziest new thing. Because, you see, that’s exactly what they were.

Now, as Freedman pointed out, when military zeppelins were new on the scene, they were not at all stupid; but this was not necessarily the case at the time when they were first used, in scouting and bombing raids over the ocean and in Britain, during the First World War. If you read on in that article, you’ll discover that zeppelins were used in the first bombing raid ever, and that, beyond the few deaths caused by the bombings — people, after all, had time to flee the lumbering zeppelins; Virginia Woolf, according to Freedman, made a breathless entry in her journal about the excitement of escaping from an oncoming zeppelin in a mere taxicab — material setbacks affected the British war effort potentially more than one might imagine. And the biggest thing, of course, is that in the zeppelin, the air raid was invented. This has profound implications for the history of warfare in the almost-century that has followed. War, you see, is now all about the air raid. Even 9-11 was a kind of lotech air raid. Air raids are everything. But before the zeppelin raids, they only existed in science-fiction; specifically, in H.G. Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air, which sits on my desk waiting to be read, even now.

Yes, even the military use of the zeppelin, which looks downright stupid to us, was an innovation… an innovation of profound importance to the way war has been fought since the first bomb was dropped from a zeppelin.

Now, the thing I hope has been becoming clearer is that these quick, more recent quantum leaps in innovation with regard to fighting “battles” and killing “enemies” is that they come at moments of intense pressure, when the status quo begins to look endangered. They come at moments when a battle or occupation has begun, and is starting to look like it will take a long time to win. They come when it looks like one society or another — whoever loses — is going to be wiped out, or at least subjectively looks (on both sides) as if it is risking such a fate. Suddenly, you have zeppelins dropping bombs on East Anglia. You have mustard gas coming across the fields, leaving the first young to encounter it completely bewildered. You have the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, and all of its descendants.

Note that these innovations have not always come on the side we consider to be “the good guys”. These kinds of innovations have come up on both sides of the divide, because they tend to do that. And forget your illusions about the Arab world being so “backward” that it couldn’t pull off an innovation of this scale. Hell, the very structure of al Quaeda is an innovation of this scale, already, with them actually yet springing into massive, anarchic action. The idea of hijacking airplanes not for hostages but with the intention of using them as massive flying weapons, that was an innovation. Maybe it took incredible amounts of planning — though I hardly believe it took as much as people claimed. What I suspect all that noise was really about was the reassurance people needed to feel, knowing that this could actually happen. Their sense of “the normal” was totally collapsed, the normal became unheimliche, like in a Gothic novel, and everyone was itching for the rationalist explanatory ending banishing the monsters and ghosts and demons out of reality. Except those ghosts and demons are out there, still, now, an army of them.

Regardless, it’s almost certain that this was not the only trick in al Quaeda’s bag. These people are not stupid; they’re smarter than to start a prolonged struggle without at least a few more tricks in their bag. Bruce Sterling long ago points out that the 9-11 trick isn’t likely to be repeated. It was a one-off; but that doesn’t mean they don’t have other ideas of how to make life in America suck. They’re thinking about how the toilets of America could be made deadly; about how to turn the local grocery store into a major disease vector; about how to take over an under-guarded nuclear power plant and have some fun in the name of Allah. I’m not the only person that thinks so, either: the mail in America is still routinely irradiated.

And meanwhile, at America’s helm we have another band of innovators. If al Quaeda is thinking about America’s toilets in that way, you can be certain that people at the Pentagon are thinking up all new kinds of tanks and zeppelins. I’d wager they’re chemical, biological, and extremely small, rather than extremely big. Probably not nanotech, because that’s probably ages away. But I bet these people are working on things SF writers would eeriely, sadly, frightenedly recognize from contemporary dystopias.

What the Bush Administration has done, frankly, is to take a single assault — an awful, yes, frightening, yes, and to Americans a unique experience in history; this I have to admit, though much of the world deals with terrorism, because most nations, their first time, tend to react badly — and these Bush people have used it as an excuse to set up a pressure cooker with a lid only half-screwed on.

WMD? We haven’t seen anything yet in the department of Weapons of Mass Destruction. And it’s not that we actually haven’t seen anything yet; it’s just that the horrors that made me cry when I was a child, the horrors of looming nuclear war and chemical war and disease war, these things will look like mild hells compared to what’s likely to be invented in the next decade or two. Until America is out of Iraq, and probably long after, there will be an infection in that wound, just as there was an infection in the American mind that could be traced back to the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The real war that needs to be fought now is between the sane and the insane. The sane, us, we need to be fighting against this forward advance. We need to stop it. We need to find other ways to win over those who wish the destruction of Western Civilization. We need to win over everyone who lives around them, and get those people to want them to stop it — because right now, any refusal to condemn is not completely incomprehensible. America was a victim; then America invaded Iraq and vinctimized a people who had already been victims of someone who actually, after all not so very long before, had been given the tacit support of the American government.

There are madmen on both sides — and madwomen, too; one must not forget Ms. Rice — who need to be halted in their tracks, because they’re not just running a war on lies and profiteering. Worse than that, they’re forgetting the long term costs — the really long term costs, which include the monstrous innovations that will, of necessity, as with all other major conflicts in the past, will undergo a monstrous birth under the pressure that they themselves, in cooperative opposition to al Queda, created in the Middle East, and around the world.

This pressure must be halted before the brainchildren conceived under this pressure are issued forth. Because once they begin to pour out and upon us, once they start, they will increase that pressure, and and monstrosities of increasing awfulness will continue to issue forth. The end of it all is something I do not dare imagine.

And so, as far as I understand the situation, now, as of October 11th 2005, four years and a month after September 11th, is that whatever else happens, the American occupation in Iraq must be concluded as soon as is possible without completely collapsing the country… and that completely collapsing it, or making aggression to any other country in the region, must be avoided at any cost that is even remotely reasonable when the long term cost is considered. Not to do so is to ignore a very important duty we share, all of us, all enemies, which is not to render the future uninhabitable to our mutual descendants; to at the very least maintain what habitability we have not yet destroyed, what little habitability was left to us. This is a moral duty that outweighs dozens of others used to rationalize American activity in Iraq.

It’s probably idealistic to say so. It’s sad that ideals are worth so little nowadays, is all I can say in response.

UPDATE: But you know, I bet you it’s gonna be too late before people realize it. When you have hubris like this, not so very long ago… well, let’s just say even smart people can be cognitively retarded into being blind to the bigger picture.

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