Be More Than You Can Be in the New Enhanced Army

· March 19, 2009

US Military culture is famously weird (to civilians), and infamously efficient at fueling our war-making organizations. With the exception of melodramatic and shallow takes on warrior’s rituals as presented in popular media, the culture is largely closed to civilians, and very dear to the men and women in uniform. Even the very modern rites and rituals of warriors have roots that can be traced back hundreds or thousands of years. The tradition of single combat, for instance, is still alive in the "grudge matches" of US Army Infantrymen. The sometimes lethal hazing of sailors "crossing the line" (equator) in the 1800s has meandered into gentler forms of pollywog abuse, oft involving Jell-O or cheese…  and bare-bellied Chief Petty Officers.

Be More Than You Can Be in the New Enhanced Army

The new network-centric warriors of the post-Rumsfeld era live in a military culture that straddles the traditions between yesterday and the techno-savvy warriors that they are expected to become for tomorrow’s conflicts. The tools that today’s warriors now must use edges them closer, individually and collectively, toward a transhuman state. This practical instantiation of (some of the grosser elements of) transhumanism still run aground of the older military mindset and culture. How do you maintain a strict hierarchical chain of command in an organization moving toward the valuation of a networked ethos?  Let’s look at some of these likely hotspots for cognitive dissonance, and consider their effects.

One of the most hotly sought and traded coin in the .mil culture is free and open non-classified metadata sharing.  Military movers and shakers are seeking and using information generated by civilian non-profits, corporations, or government agencies to solve problems like food distribution in the Irrawaddy Delta post-Nargis; relationships between income and disease vectors in Asadabad; or the creation of smart firebreak patterns in SoCal. The realization that much mission essential information has been created and published online, to be shared freely, by non-military groups, is a profound point with serious reverberations throughout military and allied organizations. It brings up questions about the possibility of operational inference by "free and open" info-sharing allies.

But there is also, very naturally, a less hippie-cum-latte, more aggressive side to military information management. Personal x-ray devices for seeing through mud walls and concrete bunkers, forced synaesthetic abilities (like the Navy SEAL who sees bodies in the water by tasting the saltwater with his cybergear), pocket-sized forward entry devices (PFEDs) for coordinating air strikes with infantry rushes, networked night-vision monocles, and other person-level information tools bring technology into near-embodiment onto — and within — the soldier. Sharing of this tactical data is strictly intranet, and its use is not usually as humane as the work of an anthropologist in a Human Terrain Team trying to figure up the best route to run a sewage ditch.

Chain of command is based on top-down hierarchies in which information and actions are strictly controlled by commanders on the chain. In a network-centric military, information moves much more quickly, and therefore actors lower on the chain are often more informed (or informed more quickly) than their superiors. As a result, rapid actions with no direct sanction are the norm. Enter "swarming," which is an algorithmic way to design actions and build-in sanction without the constant and immediate presence of command. Brian Friel, in his Spring 2002 Government Executive article, "Hierarchies and Networks," describes it as everyone knowing their job, like on a football team — but the moment the ball is in the opposite team’s hands, every team member breaks loose and runs them the hell down.

In Alexander Kott’s book, Battle of Cognition: the Future Information-Rich Warfare and the Mind of the Commander, Richard Hart Sinnreich, former Director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, writes about the temporal "compression" that happens in today’s engagements: attacks "begin more precipitately, transpire more rapidly, and terminate more abruptly than they have for centuries."  In such a world, dated information is deadly. Commanders must allow unmediated decision making whereby the swarm, perhaps a squad or a platoon (10 to 50 warriors or so), stays with the prescribed duty up to the point they eyeball the enemy. Then, all at once, and in some variation on a well-drilled choreography, they kill the bad hat with the ball. There’s your tactical agility. There’s your post-network pack of lions.

Gays in the military. Lesbians in the shipyards. Lesbians who used to be men working the galley: yummy stuff, comrades. As the physical distinctions between men and women grow fuzzy through technology and technique, so do the psychological, sociological, and cultural roles of men/women. Because warrior culture relies on very clearly defined gender roles, it will be an important transhuman proving ground for gender modification and alteration. Military relationships are overwhelmingly about trust — and it’s hard for most to trust another sailor if you can’t even tell "what" she is. If we have the right to change our gender, to take things even further, maybe we have the right to change our minds neutraceutically or entheogenically. All this opens the possibilities of identities and behaviors that would have traditionally been seen as difficult to manage and useless in wartime. You’ve got to know them to trust them. It’s hard to know or trust them when they’re all mercurial and post-identity.
But, in for a penny we are, and the use of the tools has the requisite built-in buy-in to the ethos of their use. Our tools change us, and the same is true for the tools that warriors use. Networks are changing command sequences. The wider suite of traditional "transhuman" interests, like information technology, will change military culture.

The future of the military is in the hands of tomorrow’s geek-kids playing Kdice and Tower Defense games, swilling their taurine.

It is clear that technology is changing people — physically, mentally, and (most pertinent here) culturally. We can’t see where we are going, and the military, for all its operative intelligence, is driving forward while looking in the rear view mirror (to borrow a line from McLuhan) like all the rest of us. But well-moneyed militaries (and guerrillas) have an opportunity unlike any other group on Earth to create unparalleled destruction and chaos. Most of us grew up in a nihilistic-nuclear-freakout kind of world, and the idea of mechanized auto-extinction is nothing new to mankind in 2009. Perhaps it is through the adoption and mutation of elements from a transhuman world that the military powers may become something altogether new and different. The shape of what it becomes will be determined by whether — and to what extent — the need for organized aggression and defense exists in a post-human world.

But the network, the technology, its deployment, and its embodiment — these all have their vulnerabilities too. In fact, they may attract attack. According to Thomas K. Adams, author of The Army After Next: the First Postindustrial Army, the "criticality and vulnerability" of light-weight relay/transmission vehicles make it "worth considerable effort" to take out these (often mission-critical) nodes in the network. Whether or not the strengths of networks will counterbalance their emerging weaknesses is a very big question. Maybe we’ll answer it before the singularity, and if not, who’ll be around to give a damn anyway? Imagine “terrorism” dripping from our nostrils in the form of black goo — pirated neural nodes fatally overrun by malware. Evolving with the viruses may cost more lives than we’re willing to offer up.

As new strengths and weaknesses develop and establish space in the minds of commanders and their marines, airmen, sailors, and soldiers, new twists on old ways of establishing dominance and trust are likely to develop in the warrior cultures. Grudge matches become Guitar Hero beatdowns. Torpedo Juice drinking games get spiked with HGH. And as genders, machines, and genes get blurred beneath the uniform, "crossing the line" rituals take on new dimensions.

The future of the military is in the hands of tomorrow’s geek-kids playing Kdice and Tower Defense games, swilling their taurine, and figuring out what it means to be a man in a world gone Emo. They will be the ones hugging the inside track as they speed along the curve toward Singularity. They will be the networked warriors who understand al-qaeda well enough to, finally, burn it completely from the face of the Earth.


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