Saturday, August 25, 2012

the monkeywrench wars

archdruidreport | Among science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s many gifts was a mordant sense of humor, and a prime example of that gift in action was his 1951 short story Superiority. It’s the story of a space war told by the commanding general of the losing side; he is explaining to some interstellar equivalent of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal how his forces managed to lose.

The question is of some interest, as the space fleets and resources of the losing side were far superior to those of the victors. So, however, was their technology. "However" is the operative word, for each brilliantly innovative wonder weapon fielded by their scientists turned out to have disastrous downsides when put into service, while the winning side simply kept on churning out unimaginative space battleships using old but proven technology. By the time the losing side realized that it should have done the same thing, it was so far behind that only a new round of wonder weapons seemed to offer any hope of victory—and a little more of that same logic finished them off.

It’s been suggested by more than one wit that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. The United States military these days seems intent on becoming a poster child for that proposal. Industrial design classes at MIT used to hand out copies of "Superiority" as required reading; unfortunately that useful habit has not been copied by the Pentagon, and as a result, the US armed forces are bristling with brilliantly innovative wonder weapons that don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

The much-ballyhooed Predator drone is one good example among many. For those who don’t follow military technology, it’s a remote-controlled plane designed to fly at rooftop level, equipped with a TV camera and missiles. The operator, sitting in an air-conditioned office building in Nevada, can control it anywhere on Earth via satellite uplink, seek out suspected terrorists, and vaporize them. Does it work? Well, it’s vaporized quite a few people; the Obama administration is even more drone-happy than its feckless predecessor, and has been sending swarms of drones around various corners of the Middle East to fire missiles at a great many suspected terrorists.

You’ll notice that this has done little to stabilize the puppet governments we’ve got in the Middle East these days, and even less to decrease the rate at which American soldiers are getting shot and blown up in Afghanistan. There’s a reason for that. The targets for drone attacks have to be selected by ordinary intelligence methods—terrorists don’t go around with little homing beacons on them, you know—and ordinary intelligence methods have a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio. As a result, a lot of wedding parties and ordinary households get vaporized on the suspicion that there might be a terrorist hiding in there somewhere. Since tribal custom in large parts of the Middle East makes blood vengeance on the murderers of one’s family members an imperative duty, and there are all these American soldiers conveniently stationed in Afghanistan—well, you can do the math for yourself.

Thus the Predator drone isn’t a war-fighting technology, it’s a war-losing technology, pursued with ever-increasing desperation by a military and political establishment that has no idea what to do but can’t bear the thought of doing nothing.


umbrarchist said...

I read that short story in high school if not before then.

I hate to sy it but this drone business is almost funny. It is funny until you think people are getting killed over stupidity. Some nice safe asshole in Nevada is provoking people to attack Americans on the front line, and it is a positive feedback loop.

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