Americans are among the world's best engineers and machine-builders, and their faith in the power of their technological creations to alter history is nearly a national religion. That faith is being tested and challenged in Yugoslavia.
Ever since Vietnam, the idea of the Techno-War has grown as a political and foreign policy tool for enforcing American and Western -- nobody else yet has nearly so much technology-- values and solutions on a dubious and diverse world.
The Techno-War, on display in Serbia and Yugoslavia nightly on cable and the evening news, (this column isn't about whether we should or shouldn't be there) is a powerful reminder of just how complex the mixing of technology and global politics is, especially as the rapid growth of digital technics advances the idea that we really can do and accomplish almost anything, and bend almost anyone or anything to our will.
The Techno-War is a godsend for politicians. Increasingly, it's characterized by these traits:
l. The notion of the painless war. Techno-wars are supposed to be clean, efficient wars, in that they are primarily waged by hi-tech weaponry and machines, rather than by our neighbors, sons, daughters and friends. And their targets, we are told, are buildings and defense mechanisms, not civilian populations.
2. Technology and public relations. Techno-wars are all TV wars, in that they feature lots of digital art showing missiles and bombs - all computer programmed and controlled -- hurtling towards grainy targets, then obliterating them. "Let me show you what our amazing new technology can do," enthused a British General on CNN last Saturday, as he urged reporters at a press briefing to pick up their personal video copies of smart bombs landing on target and demolishing buildings. Public relations are an essential part of Techno-Wars - sometimes it almost seems as if they're the point.
Next to pictures of lawyers screaming and buildings burning, TV loves nothing better in all the world than the picture of a bomb zeroing in on some evil building. The Pentagon loves this even more, since that's how they get money from Congress to buy and build more things.
So beginning with the Gulf War, the unholy marriage between these two -- satellite-fed screen journalism and the military -- has characterized the presentation of the Techno-War. If we have no idea quite what we're blowing up or why, we are amazed and delighted by the process with which we do it. 3. Techno-wars obscure cultural conflicts, in that Techno-War is predicated on the notion that our vastly superior technology will prevail over even the most ancient, bitter and entrenched rivalries and hostilities. For all of this country's history, Americans have seen technology work for them in terms not only of prosperity but of projecting political power.
Yet this faith sometimes obscures understanding of different cultures and ethnicities and the different ways in which they think. >From Vietnam to Iraq to the Serbs, we seem to fall into this trap again and again, thinking that our vastly superior technology will cause determined peoples to crumble and succumb. The thing is, they often don't.
How much do we really know about this particular ancient struggle, the one in Kosovo, elements of which date back hundreds of years and have defied solution, negotiation, or mediation? 4. The techno-gamble. Techno-wars are politically expedient kind of wars, in which political leaders essentially bet they can use technology to change political outcomes quickly. This, they wager, will happen because the public is both enchanted by the technology and placated by the fact that it's machines, not people, doing the fighting. Techno-Wars are declared abruptly, almost always without national or political referendum, and within minutes, accompanied by dazzling satellite-transmitted pictures of tracer bullets, bomb flashes and sounds of wailing sirens. The belief - also hubris, perhaps - is that they will be over before resistance or skepticism can develop.
Almost everyone involved in the latest Techno-War openly acknowledges that public support would vanish instantly if large numbers of American soldiers were being injured or killed, or if the conflict drags on too long.
Since Vietnam, Americans have had little stomach for sending soldiers off to war. Casualties during military actions and terrorist attacks in Beirut and Somalia prompted the abrupt withdrawal of American troops. Military actions in Haiti, Grenada, and Panama saw massive troops committed to overpowering small and impoverished countries for short periods of time with limited goals. All three resulted in minor American casualties and were over in days or weeks. But they were more traditional military operations, involving the deployment of many ground troops. In Kosova, as in recent military actions against Iraq, the Techno-war is advanced as a means to an end, the primary way in which a conflict or problem is resolved.
The idea that technology is power goes back a long time in America. In "The Rise of American Technology," (Iowa State University Press), Friedrich Klemm writes that modern technology - at the heart of American global power and expansion -- took root in the United States more than anywhere else in the world.
The minute the colonies won independence from England, Klemm, writes, they began the process of technical development and industrialization, especially the steam-ship, the railway and the telegraph, all of which played key roles in the expansion westward.
Americans went on to become the premier inventors, engineers, builders and technologists in the world, from mills to cars and telephones. It was precisely this passion for building technology, writes Klemm, that made America so powerful and prosperous a country.
The computer may yet top all of these creations. Computers are changing the world, and computing, especially networked computing technology is at the heart of the Techno-War. The Internet perhaps reinforces the idea that because we are technologically advanced, we are more powerful than people who aren't. In this Techno-war, digital technology is used to study weather, pinpoint targets, assess damage, launch weapons, rescue downed pilots, knock-out defenses, and otherwise wage a "clean," relatively bloodless war, if you're on our end of it.
But the problem with Techno-Wars is that they don't seem to work, or when they do work, it's in limited ways. The massive bombing of Germany didn't shorten the war or force the Germans to end it. Israel and Great Britain have for years had the technological means to destroy their political adversaries in the Middle East and Ireland, but their superior technology haven't worked.
Techno-wars may be metaphors for hubris about the limits of technology, no matter how dazzling. It is stunning to watch all those Pentagon-arranged pictures of computer-programmed Tomahawk missiles lifting off from B-52's and sailing as much as 500 miles to fly through the doorways and windows of buildings. But they don't seem to be effective at stopping, or even slowing, the conflict and killing taking place hundreds of miles away.
Saddam Hussein has survived several Techno-Wars, emerging even stronger and more enrenched than he was before. He was pushed out of Kuwait not by a Techno-war, but by a pretty conventional one, in which troops and tanks lined up in the desert to push him back to Iraq.
Satellites and computers are able to find terrorists, but can't bring them to justice. Haiti is still an impoverished and repressive mess. (Grenada wasn't big enough to qualify as a Techno-war, more as a police action).
The world seems shocked when even the heads of tiny countries like Serbia defy technology. Watching these hi-tech tapes on TV night after night, there's the eerie but recurring sense that the only way NATO's goals will ever be achieved is if somebody like John Wayne takes a couple of thousand Marines into Belgrade and hauls somebody off to jail. But this solution would involve humans as much as machines. It wouldn't be a "clean" or "painless" Techno-war.
"Increasingly dejected by the inability of their dazzling weapons to bring Slobodan Milosevic to heel and stop the ethnic purge of Kosovo, NATO leaders are struggling to figure out what to do next if the bombing does not work," reported the New York Times on Wednesday.
The answer? More bombing, and bombing closer to urban centers. That means more casualties, and probably, even more resistance.
Techno-wars are powerful metaphors for the limits of and unpredictable nature of technology. - If technology is becoming more precise all the time, the human nature it's supposed to alter is inherently unpredictable. We have what we believe are rational reasons for deploying technology for political or humanitarian purposes. For the targets, the very machinery itself is a rationale for resistance. - Techno-wars are almost never bloodless. Since machines behave in unpredictable and erratic ways, people get killed on both sides. Clouds obscure satellites, planes malfunction and fall. A bomb's control system fails, or a missile goes awry and the same TV that transmits all those hi-tech pictures of precision bombs is suddenly showing dead civilian bodies. The political equation can change in an instant. - Even the most powerful technologies can be evaded by determined and resourceful opponents (the Viet Cong, Saddam Hussein, the Afghan resistance). Different cultures may resist technologically-imposed political solutions imposed from without, no matter how overpowering the technology is.
Technology can't in itself work quickly enough to compensate for poorly defined goals with little public support, unless it is employed so destructively - as in nuclear weapons - that the cure would be worse than the disease.
Put another way, Techno-Wars don't work unless the technology is unleashed to its devastating limits - as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- an unthinkable political option in any scenario short of Armageddon. So the irony of technology is that we have enough to destroy Saddam Hussein a million times over, but not without taking a chunk of Baghdad with him, something that the world would reject and no politician wants to do. In an odd sense, the reality is that the more powerful our technology, the less likely we are to use it.
Finally, as the Internet and World Wide Web and related computing technologies spread and grow beyond anyone's expectations, Techno-Wars remind us that technology isn't necessarily as powerful as we like to think it is. There are even bigger forces at work, and they don't care what we think or expect.
"Power is ultimately nature itself," writes technology historian and political scientist Langdon Winner, "released by the inquiries of science and made available by the inventive, organizing capacity of technics. All other sources of political power - wealth, pubic support, personal charisma, social standing, organized interest - are weak by comparison."
Or, put more bluntly in one of the corollaries to Murphy's Laws about technology (No. 5: Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad worse) first put forth in l949, "Mother nature is a bitch." firstname.lastname@example.org