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Technology and the 21st Century Battlefield: Recomplicating Moral Life for the Statesman and the Soldier

Authored by Colonel Charles J. Dunlap Jr..

January 15, 1999

57 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author starts from the traditional American notion that technology might offer a way to decrease the horror and suffering of warfare. He points out that historically this assumption is flawed in that past technological advances, from gunpowder weapons to bombers, have only made warfare more--not less--bloody.

With a relentless logic, Colonel Dunlap takes to task those who say that the Revolution in Military Affairs has the potential to make war less bloody. He covers the technological landscape from precision-guided munitions and Information Warfare to the use of space for military operations to raise issues that could pose difficult ethical, legal and moral problems for statesmen and soldiers. Some of these conundrums are so confounding that the author could claim that in all humility his only purpose was to raise these issues to prompt debate. But Colonel Dunlap takes the next step to outline several broad thematic avenues that may help us all address the difficult problems that lie ahead.


To a French Foreign Legionnaire reeling under murderous Viet Minh bombardments at the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the notion that the advent of artillery would diminish the carnage of war would seem to be the cruelest—and most preposterous of ironies. Yet not uncommonly the introduction of new military technology is accompanied by enthusiastic predictions that the savagery of war will somehow be mitigated. All too often, however, these promises remain unfulfilled. Consider, for example, the widely held 17th century belief that the invention of gunpowder made war “less horrible.”

Such is the faith in scientific progress. In truth, technological advances bear great responsibility for the exponential growth in the sheer destructiveness of war. Furthermore, as the grim statistics of modern conflicts amply demonstrate, much of that destructiveness falls not just upon belligerent armies and their weaponry, but increasingly upon noncombatants and their property.

Today we are once again seeing renewed optimism that technology might yet provide relief from the nightmare of war. Recent scientific developments raise hopes that 21st century warfare—if not avoided altogether—might nevertheless be waged in a more humane manner. Much of this optimism is traceable to the Gulf War where the application of high technology seemed to minimize allied and Iraqi casualties alike. Key to this new perception of war were the widely televised images of precision-guided munitions (PGMs). The hopes those pictures evoked are exemplified by the comments of authors George and Meredith Friedman in their book, The Future of War:

The accuracy of PGM[s] promises to give us a very different age; perhaps a more humane one. It is odd to speak favorably about the moral character of a weapon, but the image of a Tomahawk missile slamming precisely into its target when contrasted with the strategic bombardments of World War II does in fact contain a deep moral message and meaning. War may well be a ubiquitous part of the human condition, but war’s permanence does not necessarily mean that the slaughters of the twentieth century are permanent.

To many, PGMs are not the only means of fulfilling the dream of more humane war. The advocates of “information operations” and cyberwar contend that 21st century conflicts can be fought virtually bloodlessly in cyberspace. In a cyberwar scenario depicted in a 1995 Time magazine article, a United States Army officer conjured up a future crisis where a technician ensconced at a computer terminal in the United States could derail a distant aggressor “without firing a shot” simply by manipulating computer and communications systems. Likewise, the proponents of a growing plethora of “nonlethal” technologies argue that a range of adversaries can be engaged without deadly effect.

Collectively, most experts believe these innovations reflect an ongoing “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). The RMA seeks to produce radically more effective—and, as the Friedmans indicate, more humane—militaries by profoundly altering their doctrine, organization, and weaponry through the widespread application of emerging microchip-based technologies, especially advanced computer and communications systems. Many observers believe that the RMA will give the United States a virtually insurmountable military advantage for the foreseeable future.

The impetus to seek technological solutions to virtually every human dilemma—even the costly viciousness of war—is quintessentially American. “Yankee ingenuity” has long sought to substitute machines for manpower. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the United States has enthusiastically embraced the RMA; technology has rapidly become the cornerstone of America’s military planning. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that his 1996 directive, Joint Vision (JV) 2010, furnishes “an operationally based template” as to “how America’s armed forces will channel the vitality and innovation of our people and leverage technological opportunities to achieve new levels of effectiveness in joint warfighting.”

All of this would seem to bode well for those concerned with the ethical conduct of war. But are new technologies unqualified virtues? In Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, author Edward Tenner reminds us that technological “advances” have the nasty habit of surprising us with unexpected adverse qualities once their full import is experienced. Well-intentioned efforts can paradoxically create problems worse than the ones a specific invention was meant to solve. Even generally favorable scientific developments frequently manifest “revenge effects” which at best “recomplicate” a particular task or situation.

This monograph seeks to examine the moral conundrums that 21st century statesmen and soldiers may face by identifying some of the ethical issues that are generated or, as Tenner might put it, “recomplicated” by technological advances. Doing so will necessarily involve assessing the impact of high-tech war on the existing law of armed conflict (LOAC). The monograph contends that there is a direct relation between ethics and LOAC. As Geoffrey Best insists, “[I]t must never be forgotten that the law of war, wherever it began at all, began mainly as a matter of religion and ethics . . . It began in ethics and it has kept one foot in ethics ever since.” As a result, this monograph will try to show where international law, which should reflect at least minimum standards of ethics and morality, needs reexamination because of the new technologies of war.

Neither ethics nor law, however, can answer all the questions that may arise on 21st century battlefields. Very often policy addresses the many gray areas that ethics and law do not necessarily enlighten—let alone resolve. Policy is critical because even where a particular course of action is technically moral and legal, there remains the important question of perceptions. Perceptions can materially affect the public support that military operations conducted by democracies require. Professors W. Michael Reisman and Chris T. Antoniou explain:

In modern popular democracies, even a limited armed conflict requires a substantial base of public support. That support can erode or even reverse itself rapidly, no matter how worthy the political objective, if people believe that the war is being conducted in an unfair, inhumane, or iniquitous way.

In developing policy for 21st century statesmen and soldiers, leaders must deal with two related aspects of post-Vietnam and post-Gulf War America. The first is the growing aversion in both the electorate and in the uniformed ranks toward incurring virtually any friendly casualties in many military operations. The second, which William Boyne points out “is unusual in history,” requires wars to be won with “a minimum number of casualties inflicted on the enemy.” The rapid end to the Gulf War following televised pictures of the so-called “Highway of Death” illustrates the new ethical and political perceptions that can influence policymakers.

Of course, this monograph does not purport to address every, or even most, of the challenges of ethics, law, and policy produced by high-technology war. Moreover, even where the issues that could recomplicate moral life for 21st century statesmen and soldiers are described, solutions are seldom supplied. Rather, if this essay succeeds, it will pose questions that, in turn, may suggest areas worthy of further study. With this in mind, let us return to PGMs, perhaps the most ready example of the unexpected conundrums of high-tech war.

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