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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.