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Editor’s letter: The case against—and for—tech in war

An introduction to our special issue on war and peace

October 24, 2019

This issue asks: Can technology be a force for good even in something as evil as war?

Yes, says one school of thought. Today’s weapons may be more lethal than ever, but it’s thanks partly to their lethality and accuracy that advanced nations no longer send young men to kill each other by the tens of thousands.

Gideon Lichfield
Ian Allen

Moreover, technology may be able to help predict emerging conflicts, as Tate Ryan-Mosley explains, and help repair the damage after those that do take place. Finally, of course, countless civilian technologies began life as military projects.

Today, for example, researchers are developing brain-computer interfaces that tomorrow’s troops might use to control weapons with their minds. But the prototypes of those interfaces are allowing paralyzed people to regain the use of their limbs, as Paul Tullis reports. Similarly, Andrew Zaleski’s inside account of the extraordinary surgical effort behind one of the world’s first penis transplants shows how medical advances for war veterans are likely to end up helping many civilians.

However, those same advances could have happened if some of the vast spending on military hardware went into peacetime research. And the costs of high-tech weaponry aren’t only financial.

The proof of that is in Afghanistan, which this year surpassed Vietnam as America’s longest-running war. While Vietnam threw the US into generational turmoil, Afghanistan is almost absent from the national debate. That’s thanks in part to the drones that allow most American troops to stay at home.

Yet the drones’ supposedly scalpel-like precision is a myth, Ali M. Latifi reports from Afghanistan: civilian casualties keep mounting, only sporadically monitored and investigated by either the US or the Afghan government. And in a powerful essay, Anthony Swofford, who served as a Marine in the Gulf War and wrote the memoir Jarhead, argues that advanced weapons like drones create a “moral distance” from the killing, and thus enable more of it.

Blind reliance on technology can go awry in other ways. The deep-learning algorithms that power a growing array of smart weapons contain basic flaws that could be exploited to turn them against their owners, writes Will Knight. Activists have used digital tools to document the Syrian regime’s war crimes in unprecedented detail, reports Eric Reidy, yet it continues to commit them with impunity. Janine di Giovanni interviews a US paratrooper turned professor and Britain’s former top soldier on the failures of international diplomacy and military strategy that technology can’t fix. And Obi Anyadike reports from Nigeria on how techniques for “deradicalizing” violent extremists do little good when the social conditions that radicalized them remain unchanged.

In our cover story, Sharon Weinberger shows how Amazon is cementing its influence in Washington by providing digital infrastructure for US intelligence and law enforcement, and aims to do the same for the Pentagon. Joan Donovan explains how memes have gone from silly jokes to serious geopolitical weapons. Haley Cohen Gilliland looks at why dogs still make better bomb-sniffers than any electronic gizmo, and Patrick Howell O’Neill canvasses national security experts on how the US might respond to a real cyberwar.

Finally, a piece of short fiction by Jasper Jeffers, a serving US Army colonel, imagines a new breed of technologically augmented super-soldiers. Once again, the lesson is clear: when human judgment fails, no amount of technology can make war more successful, or more moral.

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