The weird ethics of super soldiers

Why war is different.

The Lance Armstrong scandal and subsequent revelations of widespread doping in professional cycling laid waste to the sport’s credibility and public reaction was clear enough - doping is cheating and cheating is wrong. But does this ethic hold true in all situations? Could the advantage Armstrong sought, judged as bitterly unfair in the sporting world, be applicable in the context of modern warfare?

War is a thoroughly unique circumstance. If soldiers are tasked with defending a perceived greater good against an oppressor, should every avenue to gain an advantage be explored? And could this ethically extend to furthering the physical limits of human beings?

The US Department of Defense’s shadowy research agency DARPA has long been interested in boosting performance through biochemical means, with its Peak Soldier Performance Programme established to explore ways in which soldiers could operate in the field for up to five days without requiring sustenance. In pursuit of this, no genome was left unturned.

The ethical ground upon which DARPA stand was summed up very clearly by one official who informed Wired that the goal was not to create Supermen, but to make it so that “these kids could perform at their peak, stay at their peak, and come home to their families.” This isn’t so much an issue of overpowering an opponent, as much as it is one of getting soldiers home, safe and sound.

The ethical dilemma posed by boosting a soldier’s capabilities was even discussed within a 2003 report produced by the office of US President George W. Bush. "Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness" explored several ways in which so-called super-soldiers could be produced, and how far the ethical argument in support of such developments could stretch.

“What guidance, if any, does our analysis provide for such moments of extreme peril and consequence… when superior performance is a matter of life and death?” the report questioned, concluding that “there may indeed be times when we must override certain limits or prohibitions that make sense in other contexts.”

A line has, however, been drawn, placing great importance on the notion of “men remaining human even in moments of great crisis.” Alluding to the development of supplements suppressing soldiers’ fear and inhibition, effectively converting them to killing machines capable of acting without both scrutiny and impunity, the US Department of Defense is seemingly unwilling to venture as far as creating submissive super-humans.

Pumping a warfighter full of steroids and supplements raises all kinds of connotations and images of seven-foot tall behemoths rampaging around a battlefield, with nothing but a trail of wanton destruction in their wake. An arms race for the modern era, US soldiers could soon be enjoying the same kind of physical advantage Armstrong held over his opponents, with all too familiar results.

The ethical debate raises several legitimate concerns regarding the enhancement of man’s physical limits and retaining principles of humanity, but the arguments Armstrong’s opponents used cannot be replicated for the unique context of war. If the greater good is indeed at stake, surely each and every feasible advantage should be explored?

Read more here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Stoker is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era