Remember the American pilots who accidentally killed four Canadian soldiers last year in Afghanistan? Well, turns out that their lawyers are arguing that the pilots' misjudgment was a result of being pumped full of military-issued “go pills” – amphetamines given to soldiers who have to stay awake during extended missions. U.S. troops have used amphetamines for these purposes since at least the Second World War.
Far more disturbing is the Pentagon's quest for the “Extended Performance War Fighter,” a genetically or neurologically modified soldier who won't need drugs to stay alert during combat missions. Military contractors at prestigious universities like Columbia are conducting research to figure out how to “zap” a soldier's brain with electro-magnetic energy to beef up his resistance to lack of sleep.
Some research has focused on animals who stay awake for long periods of time (such as sparrows during migration seasons) or partly awake all the time (sea mammals who need to surface for breath even while sleeping). The idea is that analogous structures in the human brain could be tapped into and tinkered with to ward off the effects of sleep deprivation. Other researchers are trying to isolate the part of the human genetic code that might allow humans to stay awake indefinitely. Soldiers could then be genetically modified to enable them to stay awake for days on end.
If you grew up reading Marvel Comics like I did, you might recall that Captain America, that most patriotic of all superheroes, started out as the proverbial 98-pound weakling. But after being given a dose of “super soldier serum” the skinny Steve Rogers became a one-man Nazi-fighting machine. Maybe our Extended Performance War Fighters will come equipped with red, white, and blue titanium shields to hurl at Osama and Saddam.
Reasonable people disagree about the morality and wisdom of various kinds of genetic engineering, but I think all of us can agree that the prospect of the U.S. military creating genetically enhanced super-soldiers is worrisome, to say the least. If soldiers can be modified at will to stay awake longer, why can't they be modified to be faster, stronger, or more ruthless? Why not more obedient? Why not incapacitate the soldier's ability to feel guilt so he won't have any moral qualms when ordered to carry out orders? In fact, as a recent article in the Village Voice reported, researchers at several universities are developing drugs designed to dampen the emotions associated with memories of traumatic events. This could allow soldiers who witness (or participate in) acts of brutality to prevent their memories from being associated with remorse and other messy emotions. According to bioethicist Leon Kass, this would be “the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt.”
Now, this may be so much science fiction fantasizing, and such a thing may never even be possible. The intersections between human biology, consciousness, and free will may very well remain mysteries. But it's deeply disturbing that the Pentagon apparently doesn't regard the inner citadel of the soldier's soul to be off limits from chemical and genetic manipulation.
It's useful to remember that what sets the State apart from other institutions in society is that it recognizes no law above itself. This is what it means to be sovereign: to be the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, lawful and unlawful. History has shown that States don't recognize the restraints of traditional morality or customs if those restraints stand in the way of a government agenda. When the State attempts to remake human nature itself, it has thrown the last vestige of natural law out the window.
The power to deconstruct human nature and remake it along the preferred lines of the ruling elite was the dream of despots for much of the blood-soaked 20th century. The animating idea of Communism was to create a “New Socialist Man” who would be free from greed and self-centeredness (and unquestioningly loyal to the “People's State”). Traditional thinkers tried (mostly in vain) to remind these utopians that human beings were heir to a tendency toward sin, and that to try to eradicate this tendency would be to erase humanity itself. The nightmare scenario of a broken and domesticated humanity was portrayed with vivid horror in the dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell.
Maybe the obedient, ruthless automaton will have to replace the citizen-soldier in order to man the far reaches of the Empire. We can't have soldiers like Cincinnatus, who dealt with the present danger so he could return to tend his land. No, running the world is a full time job, and we can't let anachronisms like longing for home, love of peace, and conscience get in the way.
And who's to say that successful genetic manipulation in the military won't be irresistible to government officials as a tool of social control over the civilian population? Of course, it would all be done in the name of creating well-adjusted, tolerant, compassionate citizens. Forget Ritalin; get them where it counts – in the genes!
C. S. Lewis wrote, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” The State always seeks to extend its power. This is demonstrated both by theory and by history. And it often does so without regard for natural law. Is there any moral principle that hasn't been violated by governments in the name of some “higher” good (like the infinitely elastic “National Interest”)? Thou shalt not murder? Check. Thou shalt not steal? Double check. What reason do we have to think that it would stop short at violating what was once thought inviolable – the freedom and dignity of the human soul itself?
February 4, 2003