A Stiff Salute

From the way he writes, Charles F. French was a Marine.  I don’t know that for certain, but those of us who venture into fiction put ourselves into our stories.  Those who blithely reject something into which you’ve poured yourself are either boorish or unfeeling.  Yes, even literary types can be so.  This year’s reading challenge includes a book from a local author.  Since I live within a (long) commuting distance of the city, I suppose I could count New York as local.  That felt like cheating, though.  To find local authors you have to haunt independent bookstores.  I do that anyway, and a few weeks ago I found a copy of French’s Maledicus.  It fit the bill.

Although the story is about the titular demon, the ensemble protagonists are mostly military men.  There’s a strong sense of combat-readiness among them, and a good deal about military honor.  I have to admit this made me a little sad.  Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for those who are willing to fight to protect their country.  I’m sad because we need military forces at all.  I’m also a born pacifist.  My father was a veteran of the Korean War.  The military was present at his otherwise sparsely attended funeral.  I grew up reading the Bible and committed to the peaceful resolution of disagreements.  In my idealized world, we really wouldn’t need weaponry at all.  There are bad people, yes.  But like Eli Lapp, I wonder how humans can judge such things.  There are good people too.  More of them than there are bad.  More often than not, they are the victims of weaponry.

Given my work on demons, I’m always interested in their origin stories.  Maledicus gives us an evil Roman lieutenant to emperor Caligula (ahem), who is a climber and a sadist.  After his nasty and brutish life, he’s approached by a demon in the next world and joins it.  This even worse Maledicus is then taken on by the Investigative Paranormal Society, which consists of three old men, two of them retired Marines.  So you see how the military comes into it.  I won’t give any spoilers, although to my knowledge I have no local followers here in eastern Pennsylvania.  It’s a nice area for peace, actually.  The same could be said for the rest of the world.  If we put our fears aside and pooled our resources to help the vast majority of good and innocent a good number of our demons would be banished naturally.

Peaceful Resolutions

It came as a shock.  Raised as I was in a nation enamored of weaponry, I did not realize that many countries in the world do not have armies.  In some places, such as Israel, service in the military is compulsory.  In approximately twenty nations, however, people are secure enough not to require armies.  It’s probably symptomatic that such nations are fairly small in land area.  The more you’ve got, the more you want to protect.  Without materialism would we even need militaries?  Yes, we fight over different religious beliefs, but those conflicts are tied to a sense of ownership as well.  This is “our land” and don’t “you” tell us what to do in it!  I can imagine a world where armies need not exist.  The key, it seems to me, is love.

In a Simpsonesque way, of course, hostile aliens might invade.  Could we not try to come to a peaceful resolution?  Or could we not learn to protect ourselves without having to be in a position to destroy those who might prefer a more socialistic lifestyle?  Those who might look different?  Those whose moral standards push us to think more broadly?  Like many people I’m dismayed at the unconscionable size of our military budget.  Killing the world once over is no longer enough.  Now we have to try to pollute space as well.  Where are those aliens when we need them?

The fact is nations exist on this earth without standing armies.  They don’t cause trouble and some of them are extremely bookish (no surprise there).  Can we imagine what our world would look like with an education budget swapping places with the military one?  Do we dare even think such dangerous thoughts as peace and mutual goodwill?  Is no-one big enough to stand up to Adam Smith (with kudos to Thomas Piketty for trying!)?  The wealth of nations could be applied to make well-fed security mostly a reality.  We lack the will.  Well, most of us do.  I draw comfort knowing that several small nations around the world feel no need to waste their budgets on weaponry.  Their rich may not own dozens of houses fit for dozens of kings, but they have perhaps a peace of mind that no amount of military might can give.  We don’t seem to understand that weapons cater to fear, and that, as one religious text says, “perfect love casts out fear.”   

Robo-Stop

I have just read the most disturbing book yet. And for me, that is saying something. The facets of fear that P. W. Singer’s Wired for War manages to cut are sharp and dangerous. That he was able to write the book with a good dose of quirky humor only ameliorated the troubles a minor bit. The subtitle of the book is The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. I was drawn into robotics by the FIRST Robotics competitions in which my daughter’s school competes. Not an engineer or programmer, I merely sit on the sidelines and cheer along those who understand mechanics, hydraulics, and electronics. Quite often I get the sense that since science works so well there is little room left for serious consideration of the humanities. Particularly religion. By the end of Singer’s book, however, my choices in life were reaffirmed. I would rather spend the limited days left to the human race celebrating our humanity. For, it seems, our days may be numbered indeed.

Considering that Wired for War was published three years ago, the technology must surely now be even more advanced than it was when the book went to press. That such technology as Singer describes exists is not in itself too much cause for worry, but the fact that such technology rests in military hands is decidedly disturbing. One of the few resources able to tap into the tremendous budget of the United States with impunity, the military services have been able to commission robots that are even now deployed in our various conflicts. A strong ethical question run through Singer’s account: we are racing ahead with lethal technology and artificial intelligence—and no one is really driving this machine. Shouldn’t someone be?

One of the more sobering aspects of Singer’s account is how humans are increasingly left “out of the loop” when it comes to lethal decisions being made by robots. Their logic is flawless, as is their aim. Their understanding, however, is purely mythical. As I read this gripping account, several issues spiraled out to be considered on their own. I arrived home disheartened and concerned for a future that seems to be inevitably in the hands of those I fear most: those with excess capital. Military robots do not possess empathy or compassion, just physics and trigonometry. And they already exist. When those powerful enough to wage war discuss the rules, their decisions are tellingly called “the doctrine of war.” Doctrine, whether military or religious, is always a sure sign of danger to come. And the robots aren’t coming. They’re already here.