Engage! That is the premise of fellow author and retired US Air Force Major General Robert H. Latiff, Ph.D, in his newly-released book Future War: Preparing the for New Global Battlefield. It’s not often someone so highly regarded simply pleads for help, but that is General Latiff’s most salient message. And I, for one, listen.
Technology has changed warfare in ways the average citizen barely comprehends. Each day dizzying choices become available to defense contractors, Pentagon procurement officials, and our elected representatives. Who can understand the impact on our very human warriors of the complexities and consequences of battlefield-performance-enhancing drugs, “intelligent” drones armed with lethal force, split-second orders to destroy based on networked—even crowd-sourced—statistical probabilities rather than the situation at hand, and robotic teammates “watching your six”?
Yet, according to General Latiff, we ask our fighting men and women to go into battle ever more frequently, trusting that the tools we hand them are somehow vetted as the right ones, that their orders are honorable, and that their actions are sanctioned by at least a majority of the citizenry they are sworn to defend.
We ask them to fight our wars for us without engaging in any debate about the ethics of today’s technology-enhanced actions and the costs to their lives…and souls.
Inventors tend to shrug and answer that the solution is ever more technology, more precise weaponry, melding of man and machine in ways that come right out of the pages of 20th century science fiction. Whether it is the Terminator’s Skynet, Star Trek’s Borg, or 2001’s H.A.L., the implications are clear. If we as citizens do not take the time to control our own fate, we are surely allowing a small group of scientists and their love affair with intelligent machines to dictate our future, and eventually run our lives. The institutions we rely on have abdicated their oversight responsibility for so many decades that the memory of such passionate, historical debates has faded completely.
No, I am not an alarmist nor a Luddite. But I, too, have found a lack of ethical consciousness and moral framework throughout Silicon Valley, where chasing wealth dominates discussions of societal priorities. Not all engineers and scientists do, but far too many, especially of the younger generation. Whether due to hubris that some other genius will solve whatever problems crop up, or a passionate quest to destroy previous generations’ flawed, human-based governmental structures and replace them with supposedly neutral machines, there is a significant lack of interest to face and openly deal with the philosophical, ethical, and political implications of their breakthrough ideas, and the world they spawn.
In Future War, General Latiff smartly focuses on the human element of war, and finds America singularly lacking in notions of values and morality. Not just in education, which is woeful enough, but in its citizens’ will to study, consider, debate, and actively choose what both the purpose and nature of future conflicts should be when we put machines between us and our enemy. National defense or national security? Police actions or humanitarian missions? Torture or passivity? Do we develop horrific new weaponry first, or be sitting ducks to nations who beat us to it? Has our own familiarity and comfort with the advantages of technology made us complacent to its evil side?
He sprinkles his chapters with unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions such as these, recognizing it is not the military’s place to be the sole arbiter of right and wrong. However, nor is it the place of the elite few who grasp technology’s power and may use it for nefarious purposes, with or without our consent. Government of, for, and by the people requires involvement and engagement by all Americans. For a truly scary science-fiction scenario, I point you to Dave Eggers’ The Circle, a dystopian peek into the future, supposedly loosely based on conversations with tech leaders who by now have attained celebrity status with political aspirations, like Facebook’s Zuckerburg. As Chicago columnist Mike Royko famously said, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.”
In a world dominated by fake news and entertainment-oriented media, those of us committed to an ethical, values-based future must stand up now and demand a considered thought process behind our rapid deployment of this new technology. As we speak, wars no longer are fought on delineated battlefields between nations over disputed territories, but rather in the world of cyberspace to create economic and psychological harm. How can any military deploy and defend against an invisible entity on an instantaneous, global battlefield? What do we really want our professionally trained soldiers to do on our behalf?
Whether we like it or not, we all have become citizen soldiers: fighting for truth from our media, justice for all, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and property rights in a world that has become increasingly reliant on a virtual network of bits and bytes. At what point could a network virus wipe out all records of your savings account, convert it to Bit Coin, or demand a ransom to release your funds? What if a single foreign hacker who wants to cause chaos throughout America is the sole person to blame?
Is that war? Do we send a drone to assassinate him or her? Are you ready to defend yourself, your rights, and your property as if it were war?
Or are you calling on our military to solve this attack on your behalf? How much is it worth to you in dollars, effort, and conscience? Where will you draw the line on your own civil liberties if the most effective technology has dire consequences here at home?
Alternatively, will you keep your eyes trained on your smartphone, reading Tweets and watching YouTube videos, preferring to keep your head buried in the sand because, in the end, you realize you sealed your own fate by not caring until it’s too late?
Dr. Latiff has asked for our help debating this matter, as we have asked him and his fellow military personnel for help defending us.
Isn’t it our turn to serve?
For the record, last year General Latiff endorsed Rare Mettle: A Silicon Valley Novel, for which I am eternally humbled and grateful.