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The weird ethics of super soldiers

Why war is different.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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?

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