Wartime Luddite

Last week, when I knew the war was about to start, I stood at the edge of Cambridge Common watching the sun melt ice in a colonial graveyard. All around me students were swarming in and out of Harvard Square, their winter-pale arms finally showing because it was the first T-shirt day of the year. The brick buildings across the street were beautiful in the warm afternoon light, and I was having one of those melodramatic, world-is-about-to-end moments. I kept imagining what it would be like if my neighborhood were about to have the shit ripped out of it by cruise missiles.

But it isn't. All of the noises and explosions and dead people are going to be halfway across the globe. That frustrates me on a visceral, emotional level totally unrelated to policy-wonking and ideology and my intellectual grasp of what's going on in Iraq. From a purely psychological perspective -- and I think it's crucial to investigate our imaginations during wartime -- Baghdad is as real to me as Tatooine. But I want it to be real. Veins in my teeth real, as Arlo Guthrie might say.

Maybe that's why I spent most of last week obsessively watching the outrageously cheesy and bizarrely satisfying Sci Fi Channel miniseries Children of Dune, based on the eponymous book from Frank Herbert's epic series. The planet Arakis -- a.k.a. Dune -- is a war-torn desert planet ruled by despotic imperialists who have oppressed the local Fremen tribes in order to mine the planet for "spice," the most valuable substance in the galaxy. Spice is used, among other things, to facilitate faster-than-light space travel. Every planet needs it, and every ruler wants to control the galactic spice trade. Produced by giant, nifty worms who roam the sands of Dune, spice is integral to the planet's delicate ecosystem, which is constantly endangered by the imperialists who want to terraform the place and turn it into a big green park.

Of course, the show's writers had to leave out some details from the book. The Fremen leader Muad'dib, our hero, has inspired a galactic jihad, which sets the stage for the events in Children of Dune. Despite this omission, it's pretty clear the miniseries is supposed to be some sort of thousands-of-years-into-the-future vision of the Middle East.

My disgust with mass-mediated news about the war in Iraq drove me to consume fantastical versions of the same thing. I think it was because something about Dune prompted me to examine what disturbs me most about this war. Sometimes fiction is more helpful than what passes as fact.

In the Dune universe, an ancient jihad thousands of years before the books take place has cleansed the galaxy of "thinking machines," or computers, which were used in war to disastrous effect. As a result, war has become much more personal. Military leaders of the Fremen ride into battle on the backs of worms, and combat is often hand to hand. Souped-up human bodies have become the instruments of war, which means that each instance of violence is strongly felt. Human death means both emotional loss and a depletion in military force.

Children of Dune made me wish we had no thinking machines in our battles. If we have to make war, it would be better for us to fight like Luddites. It's too easy to unplug our ethics when machines target our enemies for us. Having to see the enemy, to realize that he or she is human, is profoundly important. It reminds us that every war is a battle against ourselves: a struggle against human horrors. Placing our bodies in combat reminds us -- soldiers and comrades of soldiers alike -- that war is a sacrifice.

Thinking machines are responsible for making Americans far more willing to endorse the Iraq war. Because technology promises an engagement with few U.S. casualties, there are none of the self-doubts the Vietnam War raised. Should we really be able to bomb Baghdad with no consequences to ourselves beyond the payments for our expensive weapons? Certainly it's true that smart weapons allow troops to hit very specific targets and minimize civilian Iraqi casualties. And that's great, if it works.

Still, I'm suspicious of battles won by the country rich enough to build the coolest stealth fighters and missile guidance systems. There seems to be no honor in it. Our use of computer-guided weapons in Iraq allows us to fight, and to win, like cowards. Wars should not be popular because we can trash the enemy without harming ourselves. They should be popular because we are willing to sacrifice our lives and the lives of people we love in order to win. I'm not convinced the American people would back this war if it meant making those sacrifices. Take away our thinking machines, and we might not be having this war at all.

Annalee Newitz ( melange@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who has a lot more sympathy for the military than you might think. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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