The routine revelations of military atrocities in Afghanistan might lead one to question whether ethicists can be any different from priests blessing the troops before they go into battle.
Mind Wars by Jonathan D Moreno – review
by Steven Rose
Science long ago struck its Faustian bargain with the military. From Archimedes and Leonardo to the physicists of the Manhattan project, Vietnam’s electronic battlefield and the computer-controlled drones over Afghanistan, the lineage is well known. Now it is the turn of the neurosciences to be recruited into the asymmetric wars of the 21st century.
The new brain sciences offer methods to enhance the fighting capabilities of one’s own troops (war-fighters, in today’s military jargon) and to degrade those of the enemy. The technologies range from the biochemical to the electro-magnetic. They promise novel methods of surveillance and intelligence gathering – not just in traditional war zones abroad but also in controlling an unruly citizenry at home. A line once drawn between the military and the police is being redrawn as wars abroad return in the form of urban terrorism and riot to haunt the heartlands of the old imperial powers.
Many of these developments are veiled in secrecy. A rare insight into their development came in October 2002, when a group of Chechen rebels invaded the Nord Ost theatre in Moscow, taking the 850 theatre-goers hostage. Two days later, in an abortive rescue attempt, Russian special forces pumped an opioid gas, fentanyl, into the theatre’s ventilation system before storming it. The gas, supposedly non-lethal, killed at least 129 of the hostages; all the Chechens were shot.
What is closed elsewhere, however, is far more open in the US, where the military is happy to reveal much about its thinking. A central player is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which for decades has funded military research projects straddling the borderline between practicability and science fiction. Darpa’s activities have been followed for much of this period by Jonathan Moreno, bioethicist and historian, who has been in the privileged insider/outsider position that gives him both access and freedom to comment. His new book, Mind Wars, updates his earlier accounts of the military’s wars on the mind to bring us chilling news of Darpa’s latest projects. To these, he is an excellent and authoritative guide. However, he is cautious and less than surefooted about the politics, as when he describes Bertrand Russell as a socialist – a label that would have appalled and astonished the late earl in equal measure.
So what’s on offer? One priority is to enhance the efficiency of one’s own troops. US pilots flying bombing missions over Iraq and Afghanistan have already used Modafinil to keep them alert on long flights and Ritalin to enhance attention. Asked to suggest military priorities for brain research, the US National Research Council pressed for the development of improved cognitive enhancers to add to the existing drugs. Might it be possible to enhance intelligence by tapping directly into the brain? Smart soldiers for the age of smart weaponry? How about a helmet incorporating a hairnet of electrodes to read off the brain’s electrical activity? Or a brain-computer interface to “analyse intelligence information, improve motivation and accelerate learning”, as well as a warfighter’s ability to “detect and identify threats rapidly and at a distance”? Similar interfaces might enable soldiers brain-damaged or paralysed after a roadside bomb explosion to recover some function, coupling the brain’s electrical activity to the movement of a prosthetic limb. One Darpa project seeks to restore memory loss in brain-injured soldiers by bypassing the damaged brain regions via computer inputs. And for those traumatised by the horrors of war, the military is exploring “forgetting” drugs to erase painful memories. As is so often the case the spur of war advances medicine, and such brain prostheses and drugs are likely to become available for civilians too.
As for the enemy, although lethal chemicals are already banned under international conventions, the non- or, more accurately, the less-lethals, such as fentanyl, inhabit a grey area waiting to be exploited. During the 1960s the US military hit on a drug they claimed would disorientate and confuse an enemy. Codenamed BZ, it worked a bit like LSD, and a film was produced that showed troops exposed to the substance collapsing in laughter, throwing their rifles down and ignoring military orders. Unfortunately army chiefs seem to have been too cautious to employ it.
Today a whole new generation beckons, euphemistically named calmatives to the outside world (and to the insiders spoken of as “on the floor” or “off the rocker”). To avoid any suggestion that they contravene international conventions, the funding has come from the civil budget as the “calmatives” are claimed to be intended for crowd and riot control. International agreements only cover the use of chemicals in war, not for police use.
In an unusual burst of openness, the British Home Office announced in April that it was expanding its “non-lethal” armoury to include guns firing pellets that cause intense burning sensations – already routinely and sometimes lethally used by the Israeli military against Palestinian demonstrators as part of its “active denial strategy”.
Also under research are various forms of electromagnetic radiation. Could an enemy be disoriented by a microwave beam? Could thoughts and intentions be read at a distance? As Moreno comments, many US citizens already believe that their brains are being read or manipulated by the surveillance state – and judging by my email inbox, a fair number on this side of the Atlantic share the suspicion. For decades Darpa has been interested in microwave radiation devices that could disorient and pacify opponents, or, even better, read their intentions and modify their thoughts.
Communication between nerve cells in the brain is electrochemical, and where there is an electric current, there is a magnetic field at right angles to it. Interfere with the magnetic field and the brain signals are disrupted. At the current stage of the technology, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) requires the magnets to be placed directly around a person’s head and focused on specific brain regions. In clinical trials such stimulation has been used to treat depression, OCD and Parkinson’s disease. But could such devices read minds and predict intentions?
Moreno investigates the companies that claim to use brain imaging techniques to do so. “Brain fingerprinting” records the brain’s electrical activity to decide whether a person has “terrorist thoughts” or has visited “a terrorist training camp”; NolieMRI offers a sophisticated lie detection system. Most neuroscientists regard such prospectuses as snake oil, and Moreno shares this scepticism, even if Darpa doesn’t.
He ends his book with a plea for “a new role for neuroethics” which he hopes might be shared by military and the neurotechnology industry alike, and praises Darpa’s willingness to bring ethicists into its discussions. The routine revelations of military atrocities in Afghanistan might lead one to question whether ethicists can be any different from priests blessing the troops before they go into battle.