Technology and the Politics of War

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., caused a political firestorm recently when he said he wanted to reinstate a military draft. His radical proposal brings to light a growing theme that both political parties should consider very closely.

In a world where science provides better health and improves the prospects of longevity, death is no longer glamorous, particularly the early variety.

Rangel is incoming chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, making his proposal worthy of attention even if the two top House Democrats — Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader-Elect Steny Hoyer — have no intention of supporting conscription.

Rash Decision

According to a June 2005 Gallup poll, 62 percent of adults oppose mandatory military training and reserve service. This opposition calls for a closer look at Rangel’s thinking. It is clear that he is trying to stop, not start, a war — and it seems he has discovered the politically powerful idea that unnecessary death is unpopular.

“There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft, and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way,” Rangel said.

It is true that there is growing resistance to body counts, a factor in the recent Republican defeat in the House and Senate. However, resistance to casualties doesn’t necessarily mean that war will end — it simply means that Americans need to stop dying in battle. That is where a political lesson for Republicans or hawkish Democrats presents itself.

Biotech Advances

War is changing, and so is the culture from which soldiers emerge. While the company iRobot makes unmanned drones for America’s military, scientists in the biotechnology sector are making great progress toward radically extending human life.

Whether we like it or not, we are now immersed in a culture where living past 100 years will be possible for most people born today. William Perry, former Secretary of Defense, understood this reality and once remarked that wars need to be fought with technology and not people.

Stanford biologist Dr. Shripad Tuljapurkar estimates that between 2010 and 2030, antiaging therapies will increase the normal lifespan by 20 years — an estimate many scientists consider “moderate.” Scientists have already figured out how to extend the healthy life of worms and mice through gene and other therapies, and it’s only a matter of time before these techniques successfully improve human prospects.

Greater Loss

Of course, not everyone is paying attention to what scientists are doing in the lab, but the average person doesn’t have to conduct much research to learn that science is accelerating at a rapid pace. If nothing else, the popularity of reality TV demonstrating how plastic surgeons can almost instantly make a heavy person slim give even the clueless the idea.

What this means is that if someone dies at age 30, they are not just giving up 30 or so years of healthy life, they are potentially giving up 70 years of healthy life. That’s a huge difference, and enough to start changing American ideas on a number of policy issues — particularly war.

Rep. Charles Rangel is politically wise to bring up the idea of conscription, and his leadership is wise to reject it. Whoever is politically savvy enough to recognize this cultural shift will hold a big advantage over those who do not.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

1 Comment

  • I AM now at an age where I can appreciate a comment that William Sloane Coffin made on a PBS interview: "nature gets more interesting the nearer you get to joining it." I offer this as a prelude to Ms. Arrison’s claim: "Whether we like it or not, we are now immersed in a culture where living past 100 years will be possible for most people born today." This assertion blithely overlooks the inadequacies of the health care systems, particularly in the United States. The sad truth is that technology is never a match for bureaucracy; and the culture in which we are currently "immersed" has turned the reins of power over to a cabal of Ebenezer Scrooge’s who see nothing wrong with reducing the "surplus population." As I see it, the question is not whether more and more of that population may be facing violent death but whether they may be facing "death by neglect" while a smaller and smaller layer of the population faces a prolongation of a life already being lived primarily in boredom.

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