Wired for War by P. W. Singer

Writing is a learning experience, something re-enforced by discovering (slightly to my dismay) that Virtual War appears to be out of print (though thankfully freely available). The excerpt today is perhaps the logical outcome of some of the processes discussed in Virtual War. I selected this piece because in my mind it reflects unexpected changes in the experience of war derived from increasingly automated methods of war fighting.

Some of the most interesting accounts that I’ve been reading about contemporary wars involve the collision between today’s highly technology-literatate teen generation and the wars that they volunteer to fight.┬áThere is, I think, a reinvention of the wheel in complaints about them: that they are unfit, that they listen to Ipods on patrol, and so on. Military life, especially that of ‘teeth’ arms is in a sense hyper-generational. Almost all “newborn soldier” accounts seem to agree on this. 18 year olds arriving in the armed forces look to 2nd Lieutenants a few years their senior for guidance, and to Sergeants maybe ten years older than them for ultimate authority. In civilian life, the gap between an 18 and a 28 year old is large, but not one that would warrant such authority. Similarly, from all but a 22 year old’s perspective, the idea that a 22 year old should be considered vastly more “grown up” than an 18 year old is quite laughable. In this manner military life appears to compress the age range of authority and standing.

It has become commonplace to describe through personaity pieces how today’s soldiers are somehow less fit to serve, because they do things like take Ipods on patrol, or they are concerned with retaining electronic communication with their families and friends while on tour. And whenever I read this, I am somehow reminded of E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, the title of which refers to the “old salts” that predated Sledge and his “greatest generation” of war fighters. In that book Sledge contrasts, in a highly self depricating manner, his generation with the pre-war US Marine Corps. Singer’s book is marvellous, because in exploring the changing experience of war, it also underlines its continuities. The phrase “They don’t make them like they used to.” has probably been a staple of veterans for millenia.

The first four paragraphs of this passage are in my mind, traditional, for want of a better word. It’s a war story, it is the way we picture and think of war as civilians. It even references a contemporary film, Black Hawk Down, to underline the experience for the modern reader. And yet, there are the latter two paragraphs which are meant to jar the reader with novelty. What I find most jarring is the fact that this superbowl-revelation is meant to be somehow shocking.

It is perhaps novel that war can now resemble a computer game, and that combat, rather than being a shared experience of the combatants, can now be displayed in real time at a physical location elsewhere. But in modern times, it has been commonplace to view war through a variety of media, be it news report or cinema reel. I am not, however, sure if this qualitatively changes the “remote” experience of war, as produce by connection to media. The behaviour caused by such connection may change with the medium of transmission, but the category of experience remains in many instances the same. For the participant or viewer, the experience feels different, but from an analytical perspective, it does not appear to offer much in the way of difference. The general population has been viewing war in near-real time since the first cable news networks began live broadcasts from warzones. In the last decade, we’ve witnessed acts of war such as the 911 attacks and the invasion of Iraq in real time. Contrast the live reporting of Desert Storm (watch it here from 5:30 onwards) with 2003’s “Shock and Awe” opening salvo here. In that respect, people gathering around a screen to watch a battle isn’t that remarkable, after all, the rest of the world was doing it. It might be semantics, but I think referring to the experience of war is slightly problematic, since it can’t really be considered an objective measure. Either way, Singer’s book is very good, and available here.

Wired For War excerpt by Peter Singer, fair use for comment purposes. Click for full size excerpt!