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Super Soldiers, Civ-Mil Relations, and the 21st Century Coriolanus

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Written by Michael Robillard


            “Let me have war, say I: it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.”
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus

As 21st century technology continues to progress at an ever alarming pace, the science-fiction notion of ‘human enhancement’ looks, day by day, to be an ever-approaching reality. Neuro-chemical enhancement, genetic enhancement, man/machine pairing; each of these emerging technologies carries with it, both individually and collectively, a host of ethical worries concerning the well-being, autonomy, and identity of the individual person. These ethical worries arguably become even more problematic and complex when considering the specific enhancement of soldiers.

In addition to the many ethical concerns surrounding human enhancement in general, the issue of soldier enhancement in particular appears to come with its own set of unique moral problems. This is so, at least in part, since the role of soldier often requires the promotion of attributes, aspects of character, and capacities that are arguably virtuous within the context of war but potentially vicious within the context of otherwise ‘normal’ society. Indeed, a propensity towards obedience, a disinhibition towards violence, extreme tolerance for risk, and being exceptionally skillful at the trade of killing are not typical attributes we would consider noble or praise-worthy within the day-to-day domestic sphere, though they are attributes absolutely vital for success on the battlefield.

One might then wonder if technologically enhancing these attributes in soldiers might come with certain hidden moral and psychological costs, not only to the identity and flourishing of the individual soldier but also to the larger demos that the soldier fights on behalf of and, at some point, must inevitably return home to. With respect to the former concern, we must seriously ask at what point the technological enhancement of such martial capacities and Spartan attitudes within soldiers might become too deleterious to the soldier’s sense of an integrated self. What’s more, we must also consider at what point the embodiment and use of such violent capacities might outstrip the soldier’s ability to make moral sense of what he or she has done in combat. In other words, latent in these emerging soldier enhancement technologies is the increased likelihood of what ethicists refer to as ‘moral injury’, the psychological damage one does to one’s conscience by transgressing one’s moral code, either by making a moral mistake or by committing some (obligatory) lesser-evil wrong. With respect to the latter concern, soldier enhancement technologies also hold the danger to create what we might call ‘the 21st century Coriolanus’, the ideal soldier’s soldier who has embraced the warrior ethos so much so that he can no longer re-integrate into civilian society and becomes threatening to the very populous whom he originally swore to defend. While such moral dangers on both the individual and collective level are not inevitable, they are at least important contingent worries that warrant greater attention within society and greater dialogue between both civilian and military spheres alike.

All this being said, it may very well be the case that there will be some all-things-considered good worth defending that renders the creation of super soldiers not only ethically permissible but obligatory. Indeed, were I leading my platoon once again in combat as part of a just war with sufficiently just ends, I might regard myself and my troops as duty-bound to take on these enhancement technologies despite their noted costs and risks. This, after all, is precisely the kind of additional burden that a soldier within a democratic society freely consents to bear. That being said, I am admittedly sceptical of just how ‘free’ such decisions actually are given the exploitative nature of the military’s present recruitment practices and the frequent targeting of persons who are often young and/or poor and who are arguably ill-equipped to fully understand the full moral weight of just what it is they are signing on for. But that is another thought for another day.

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