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Technology, changing the face of war

24 April 2015

Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, a brief moment in time when we reflect on the bravery of the individual and the horror that is war.

Sadly, WW1 was one of the most futile battles ever fought by mankind and also one that needlessly cost a huge number of innocent lives.

Back in WW1, soldiers were given a rifle and about 150 rounds of ammunition before being sent out to face what was at times, a lethal hail of bullets from machine guns and enemy soldiers. The word "slaughter" was oft-used in relation to the battles fought on the fields of Europe at that time.

It's easy to forget that 100 years ago there was very little technology available to those who were laying down their lives for "king and country".

Instead of radios, field telephones were just about the only means of communications on the battlefield and before these devices could be employed, long runs of wire had to be payed out across hostile fields and beneath a hellish wall of hot lead. Many soldiers died simply laying and repairing those delicate wires.

Likewise, aside from a few brave (foolhardy?) airmen using their eyes and memories to reconnoiter the situation from overhead, field intelligence was virtually zero -- aside from that brought back by "scouts" who would often be sent ahead... never to return.

By the time WW2 rolled around, technology had evolved significantly.

Field radios, although bulky and heavy, allowed various groups to communicate over reasonable distances so as to coordinate their actions and share information with respect to the enemy's activities.

More effective aircraft flying at altitudes beyond the reach of field-weapons and which had crew dedicated to surveying and photographing the battlefields below meant that officers on the ground soon had a fairly accurate picture of what was going on below and field-commanders were kept up to date with the enemy's position and movements.

Strangely enough however, the arms used by soldiers had not changed much at all. The primary weapon was still the field rifle which still fired 30-calibre rounds. There were no night-sights or much else in the way of hi-tech.

There was a definite up-side to the low-tech wars of the past. They usually fought on a battlefield where the only people present were the troops from each side. As a result, the levels of "collateral damage" were relatively low (bombing raids not withstanding).

Soldiers shot at (and killed) other soldiers -- while the innocent "regular folk" often ran very quickly in the other direction, forming a sea of refugees.

Move forward to the 21st century however, and things are different -- much different.

Today we still equip our soldiers with kinetic weapons -- a rifle which fires small slugs of lead at high velocity -- with the goal of killing an enemy. It's amazing how little this basic concept has changed despite a year's development. Of course today's rifles have selectable automatic and semi-automatic modes but aside from that, there's not a whole lot of difference in the basic theory or practice of operation.

Where technology has changed the face of war however, is the way we have been able to significantly reduce the number of soldiers who are placed in jeopardy.

In WW1, field commanders thought little of sending large numbers of their troops "over the top" -- out of the safety of their trenches and directly into the enemy's line of fire -- where they were all to often ripped to shreds by machine-gun fire before even having a chance to fire a shot in reply.

Millions of young men died during WW1 and WW2.

Today however, "enemy" fighters are regularly being killed by US forces who are actually thousands of miles away, safe in a bunker or trailer located in the Continental USA.

Being an effective solider these days can be an 8 to 5 job where you arrive in the morning, enter your air-conditioned trailer, take your seat at the controls of a hi-tech military drone, wipe out a few enemy soldiers with the push of a button and then, as the heat goes out of the day, sign off and head home for dinner with the wife and kids.

These modern-day soldiers don't even have to worry about getting their uniforms dirty, let alone having to wipe an enemy's blood from their bayonets.

Now this might seem like a good thing -- after all, the fewer lives lost in a war the better, right?

Sadly, it would seem very much as if the downside of this "detachment" from the slaughter of war is the level of "collateral damage" that becomes acceptable.

Those bombing the cities of London and Dresden during WW2 never had to witness first-hand the carnage and slaughter of innocent human lives they created thousands of feet below and it would appear as if today's "hi-tech drone solider" is in the same position. Just push a button and people die. Often, some of those people are innocent -- their only crime being in the wrong place at the wrong time or having a camera tripod mistaken for an RPG launcher.

Mostly, the deaths of these innocents goes unreported and perhaps even unnoticed -- however President Obama took the unusual step of apologising to the families of innocent hostages killed during a drone-strike back in January. Of course this apology was only forthcoming because those killed were allies. What about the countless innocent Afghani and Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the "button pushes" associated with drone attacks? When will their families receive an apology?

Whilst "technology-based" wars have their advantages, they also introduce a scary new aspect to the concept of war. They sanitize the act of killing another human being.

With new generations of our young being brought up on first-person shooter computer games, we have a new army of potential hi-tech soldiers who may well find themselves sitting behind the controls of a drone if there's ever another global conflict. To these people there won't be much difference between playing an FPS game and actually taking human lives -- and that's the way that the military want it.

There is no room in war for a conscience or remorse over the act of killing. Far better that those doing the killing never have to actually smell the blood, hear the screams or witness the suffering they bring down upon their enemies and the innocents nearby.

As war becomes more clinical and those fighting it (at least on the Western side) become increasingly detached from the reality of their actions, the concept of "collateral damage" is likely to become less and less important. Already the USA are probably working to some simple formula when deciding whether to unleash a hellfire missile on a crowd of people. I wonder what the innocent to target ratio is set at right now. Is it acceptable to kill an innocent to wipe out half a dozen suspected insurgents? Will the ratio change tomorrow such that two innocents per half dozen becomes okay? Next week will it be three, four?

I really fear that if those commanded to do the killing in a war are shielded from the true effects of their actions we will lose all respect for human life and when we do that, we are no longer the most advanced life-form on the planet.

Sadly, war is in the nature of human beings and I doubt we will ever be able to eradicate it. However, I fear that the introduction of technology that sanitizes the act of killing is far from a good thing and once the last soldiers of WW1 and WW2 have passed away, there will be nobody to tell us of the true horrors that war brings.

Lest we forget!

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