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Hitting the Books: How American militarism and new technology may make war more likely

·Senior Editor
·12-min read
Handout . / reuters

There's nobody better at persecuting a war than the United States — we've got the the best-equipped and biggest-budgeted fighting force on the face of the Earth. But does carrying the biggest stick still constitute a strategic advantage if the mere act of possessing it seems to make us more inclined to use it?

In his latest book, Future Peace (sequel to 2017's Future War) Dr. Robert H. Latiff, Maj Gen USAF (Ret), explores how the American military's increasing reliance on weaponized drones, AI and Machine Learning systems, automation and similar cutting-edge technologies, when paired with an increasingly rancorous and often outright hostile global political environment, could create the perfect conditions for getting a lot of people killed. In the excerpt below, Dr. Latiff looks at the impact that America's lionization of its armed forces in the post-Vietnam era and new access to unproven tech have on our ability to mitigate conflict and prevent armed violence.

Future Peace cover. It's the top half of a globe with a targeting reticle over it. Very mid-90s Tom Clancy.
Future Peace cover. It's the top half of a globe with a targeting reticle over it. Very mid-90s Tom Clancy.

Excerpted from Future Peace: Technology, Aggression, and the Rush to War by Robert H. Latiff. Published by University of Notre Dame Press. Copyright © 2022 by Robert H. Latiff. All rights reserved.

Dangers of Rampant Militarism

I served in the military in the decades spanning the end of the Vietnam War to the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. In that time, I watched and participated as the military went from being widely mistrusted to being the subject of veneration by the public. Neither extreme is good or healthy. After Vietnam, military leaders worked to reestablish trust and competency and over the next decade largely succeeded. The Reagan buildup of the late 1980s further cemented the redemption. The fall of the USSR and the victory of the US in the First Gulf War demonstrated just how far we had come. America’s dominant technological prowess was on full display, and over the next decade the US military was everywhere. The attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by the long war on terror, ensured that the military would continue to demand the public’s respect and attention. What I have seen is an attitude toward the military that has evolved from public derision to grudging respect, to an unhealthy, unquestioning veneration. Polls repeatedly list the military as one of the most respected institutions in the country, and deservedly so. The object of that adulation, the military, is one thing, but militarism is something else entirely and is something about which the public should be concerned. As a nation, we have become alarmingly militaristic. Every international problem is looked at first through a military lens; then maybe diplomacy will be considered as an afterthought. Non-military issues as diverse as budget deficits and demographic trends are now called national security issues. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are all now referred to as “warfighters,” even those who sit behind a desk or operate satellites thousands of miles in space. We are endlessly talking about threats and dismiss those who disagree or dissent as weak, or worse, unpatriotic.

The young men and women who serve deserve our greatest regard and the best equipment the US has to offer. Part of the respect we could show them, however, is to attempt to understand more about them and to question the mindset that is so eager to employ them in conflicts. In the words of a soldier frequently deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, “[An] important question is how nearly two decades of sustained combat operations have changed how the Army sees itself... I feel at times that the Army culturally defines itself less by the service it provides and more by the wars it fights. This observation may seem silly at first glance. After all, the Army exists to fight wars. Yet a soldier’s sense of identity seems increasingly tied to war, not the service war is supposed to provide to our nation.” A 1955 American Friends Service Committee pamphlet titled Speak Truth to Power described eloquently the effects of American fascination with militarism:

The open-ended nature of the commitment to militarization prevents the pursuit of alternative diplomatic, economic, and social policies that are needed to prevent war. The constant preparation for war and large-scale investment in military readiness impose huge burdens on society, diverting economic, political and psychological resources to destructive purposes. Militarization has a corrosive effect on social values… distorting political culture and creating demands for loyalty and conformity… Under these conditions, mass opinion is easily manipulated to fan the flames of nationalism and military jingoism.

Barbara Tuchman described the national situation with regard to the Vietnam War in a way eerily similar to the present. First was an overreaction and overuse of the term national security and the conjuring up of specters and visions of ruin if we failed to meet the imagined threat. Second was the “illusion” of omnipotence and the failure to understand that conflicts were not always soluble by the application of American force. Third was an attitude of “Don’t confuse me with the facts”: a refusal to credit evidence in decision-making. Finally — and perhaps most importantly in today’s situation — was “a total absence of reflective thought” about what we were doing. Political leaders embraced military action on the basis of a perceived, but largely uninformed, view of our technological and military superiority. The public, unwilling to make the effort to challenge such thinking, just went along. “There is something in modern political and bureaucratic life,” Tuchman concluded, “that subdues the functioning of the intellect.”

High Tech Could Make Mistakes More Likely

Almost the entire world is connected and uses computer networks, but we’re never really sure whether they are secure or whether the information they carry is truthful. Other countries are launching satellites, outer space is getting very crowded, and there is increased talk of competition and conflict in space. Countries engage in attacks on adversary computers and networks, and militaries are rediscovering the utility of electronic warfare, employing radio-frequency (RF) signals to damage, disrupt, or spoof other systems. While in cyber war and electronic warfare the focus is on speed, they and space conflict are characterized by significant ambiguity. Cyber incidents and space incidents as described earlier, characterized as they are by such great uncertainty, give the hotheads ample reason to call for response, and the cooler heads reasons to question the wisdom of such a move.

What could drag us into conflict? Beyond the geographical hot spots, a mistake or miscalculation in the ongoing probes of each other’s computer networks could trigger an unwanted response. US weapon systems are extremely vulnerable to such probes. A 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office found mission-critical vulnerabilities in systems, and testers were able to take control of systems largely undetected. Worse yet, government managers chose not to accept the seriousness of the situation. A cyber probe of our infrastructure could be mistaken for an attack and result in retaliation, setting off response and counter response, escalating in severity, and perhaps lethality. Much of the DOD’s high-priority traffic uses space systems that are vulnerable to intrusion and interference from an increasing number of countries. Electronic warfare against military radios and radars is a growing concern as these capabilities improve.

China and Russia both have substantial space programs, and they intend to challenge the US in space, where we are vulnerable. With both low-earth and geosynchronous orbits becoming increasingly crowded, and with adversary countries engaging in close approaches to our satellites, the situation is ripe for misperception. What is mere intelligence gathering could be misconstrued as an attack and could generate a response, either in space or on the ground. There could be attacks, both direct and surreptitious, on our space systems. Or there could be misunderstandings, with too-close approaches of other satellites viewed as threatening. Threats could be space-based or, more likely, ground-based interference, jamming, or dazzling by lasers. Commercial satellite imagery recently revealed the presence of an alleged ground-based laser site in China, presumed by intelligence analysts to be for attacks against US satellites. Russia has engaged in close, on-orbit station-keeping with high-value US systems. New technology weapons give their owners a new sense of invincibility, and an action that might have in the past been considered too dangerous or provocative might now be deemed worth the risk.

Enormous vulnerability comes along with the high US dependence on networks. As the scenarios at the beginning of this chapter suggest, in a highly charged atmosphere, the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding incidents involving some of the new war-fighting technologies can easily lead to misperceptions and, ultimately, violence. The battlefield is chaotic, uncertain, and unpredictable anyway. Such technological additions — and the vulnerabilities they entail — only make it more so. A former UK spy chief has said, “Because technology has allowed humans to connect, interact, and share information almost instantaneously anywhere in the world, this has opened channels where misinformation, blurred lines, and ambiguity reign supreme.”

It is easy to see how such an ambiguous environment could make a soldier or military unit anxious to the point of aggression. To carry the “giant armed nervous system” metaphor a bit further, consider a human being who is excessively “nervous.” Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that excessive aggression and violence likely develop as a consequence of generally disturbed emotional regulation, such as abnormally high levels of anxiety. Under pressure, an individual is unlikely to exhibit what we could consider rational behavior. Just as a human can become nervous, super sensitive, overly reactive, jumpy, perhaps “trigger-happy,” so too can the military. A military situation in which threats and uncertainty abound will probably make the forces anxious or “nervous.” Dealing with ambiguity is stressful. Some humans are able to deal successfully with such ambiguity. The ability of machines to do so is an open question.

Technologies are not perfect, especially those that depend on thousands or millions of lines of software code. A computer or human error by one country could trigger a reaction by another. A computer exploit intended to gather intelligence or steal data might unexpectedly disrupt a critical part of an electric grid, a flight control system, or a financial system and end up provoking a non proportional and perhaps catastrophic response. The hyper-connectedness of people and systems, and the almost-total dependence on information and data, are making the world—and military operations—vastly more complicated. Some military scholars are concerned about emerging technologies and the possibility of unintended, and uncontrollable, conflict brought on by decisions made by autonomous systems and the unexpected interactions of complex networks of systems that we do not fully understand. Do the intimate connections and rapid communication of information make a “knee-jerk” reaction more, or less, likely? Does the design for speed and automation allow for rational assessment, or will it ensure that a threat impulse is matched by an immediate, unfiltered response? Command and control can, and sometimes does, break down when the speed of operations is so great that a commander feels compelled to act immediately, even if he or she does not really understand what is happening. If we do not completely understand the systems—how they are built, how they operate, how they fail—they and we could make bad and dangerous decisions.

Technological systems, if they are not well understood by their operators, can cascade out of control. The horrific events at Chernobyl are sufficient evidence of that. Flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel, with little understanding of the concept of operation, led to a fatal series of missteps. Regarding war, Richard Danzig points to the start of World War I. The antagonists in that war had a host of new technologies never before used together on such a scale: railroads, telegraphs, the bureaucracy of mass mobilization, quick-firing artillery, and machine guns. The potential to deploy huge armies in a hurry put pressure on decision makers to strike first before the adversary was ready, employing technologies they really didn’t understand. Modern technology can create the same pressure for a first strike that the technology of 1914 did. Americans are especially impatient. Today, computer networks, satellites in orbit, and other modern infrastructures are relatively fragile, giving a strong advantage to whichever side strikes first. Oxford professor Lucas Kello notes that “in our era of rapid technological change, threats and opportunities arising from a new class of weapons produce pressure to act before the laborious process of strategic adoption concludes.” In other words, we rush them to the field before we have done the fundamental work of figuring out their proper use.

Decorated Vietnam veteran Hal Moore described the intense combat on the front lines with his soldiers in the Ia Drang campaign in 1965. He told, in sometimes gruesome detail, of the push and shove of the battle and how he would, from time to time, step back slightly to gather his thoughts and reflect on what was happening and, just as importantly, what was not happening. Political leaders, overwhelmed by pressures of too much information and too little time, are deprived of the ability to think or reflect on the context of a situation. They are hostage to time and do not have the luxury of what philosopher Simone Weil calls “between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection.”

Today’s battles, which will probably happen at lightning speed, may not allow such a luxury as reflection. Hypersonic missiles, for instance, give their targets precious little time for decision-making and might force ill-informed and ill-advised counter decisions. Autonomous systems, operating individually or in swarms, connected via the internet in a network of systems, create an efficient weapon system. A mistake by one, however, could speed through the system with possibly catastrophic consequences. The digital world’s emphasis on speed further inhibits reflection.

With systems so far-flung, so automated, and so predisposed to action, it will be essential to find ways to program our weapon systems to prevent unrestrained independent, autonomous aggression. However, an equally, if not more, important goal will be to identify ways to inhibit not only the technology but also the decision makers’ proclivity to resort to violence.

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