Even if you never read the comic book or watched the hopelessly low-production-value 1960s cartoon, chances are you've at least seen the image of Captain America – the slightly ridiculous looking superhero in a form-fitting, star-spangled bodysuit. If you're still hazy on "Cap," he was Steve Rogers, a 4-F weakling during World War II who, through the miracle of "modern science" (a "super soldier serum") became an Axis-smashing powerhouse – the pinnacle of human physical perfection and the ultimate American fighting-man.
In the 1940s comic, Rogers had taken part in a super-soldier experiment, thanks to the interventions of an Army general and a scientist in a secret government laboratory. He was to be the first of many American super-soldiers, but due to poor note-keeping methods and the efforts of a Nazi assassin, he became the sole recipient of the serum. Today, however, the dream of Captain America turns out to be alive and well – and lodged in the Pentagon. The U.S. military aims to succeed where those in the four-color comic book world failed. By using high technology and cutting edge biomedicine, the military hopes to create an entire army of Captain Americas – a fighting force devoid of "Steve Rogers" or any other "Joe Average," and made up instead of super-soldiers whose human-ness has been all but banished.
The military has long been interested in creating an always-on, 24-hour fighting man. During the Vietnam War, the Army undertook extensive studies on the effects of sleep deprivation. At the time, however, all the military could offer was copious amounts of amphetamines to keep men wired for combat.
As in the Vietnam era, the military is again stretched thin and, with National Guard recruiting having fallen 12 percent below goal in the first three quarters of 2004, in need of troops. What better way to forestall future manpower crises than by creating two-for-the-price-of-one soldiers who never need to sleep?
To this end, the Department of Defense's blue-skies research outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), currently has a "Preventing Sleep Deprivation Program." Its aim is to work on ways to enable a pilot "to fly continuously for 30 hours," Green Berets to carry out 48-72 hours of sustained activity, or "advancing ground troops [to] engage in weeks of combat operations with only 3 hours of sleep per night" – all without suffering from cognitive or psychomotor impairments.
Scientists in the military-industrial-academic complex are hard at work for DARPA on this line of research. At Wake Forest University, for instance, researchers are studying a class of medicines known as "Ampakines" which are thought to be protective against the cognitive deficits ordinarily associated with sleep deprivation. At Columbia University, new imaging technologies are being employed as part of a program to study the "neuro-protective and neuro-regenerative effects" of an anti-oxidant found in cocoa. (In low-tech World War II, they just gave the grunts chocolate bars.) Who's conducting this line of research for DARPA? Why, researchers at the Salk Institute and also at that all-chocolate-all-the-time company Mars Inc. – yes, the folks who bring you M&M's and Snickers!
At the same time, the Air Force Research Laboratory's Warfighter Fatigue Countermeasure program is looking into a drug known as Modafinil which can reportedly keep people awake for up to 88 hours without sleep; while researchers at the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC), the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR), the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, among others, are working on sleep- (or-lack-thereof)-related projects.
Major Morality, You're Demoted
Sleepless soldiers are all well and good while the fighting goes on; but how does one prevent sleepless, anxiety-filled nights after those missions end? Once upon a time, it seems, most soldiers had a great revulsion against close-quarters killing. During World War II, it has been estimated that as few as 15-20% of American infantry troops actually fired their weapons at the enemy. By the Vietnam years, the military had managed to bring that number up into the 90-95% range! Obviously, the armed forces had found ways to turn American men into more efficient killers. But how to deal with the pesky problems of regret, remorse, and post-traumatic stress disorder?
Well, last year, writing in the Village Voice, Erik Baard raised the specter of the creation of a "guilt-free soldier," noting that researchers from various universities across the U.S. (including Harvard, Columbia, NYU, and UC-Irvine) were working on various methods of fear-inhibition and also memory-numbing by using "propranolol pills... as a means to nip the effects of trauma in the bud." He further reported that at Columbia, the lab of Nobel laureate in medicine Eric Kandel had "discovered the gene behind a fear-inhibiting protein, uncovering a vision of 'fight or flight' at the molecular level." When asked by Baard if he was funded by DARPA, Kandel answered, "No, but you're welcome to call them and tell them about me."
Will DARPA take Kandel up on his tacit offer? It seems only natural that a soldier unburdened by morals, ethics, or remorse would be the military's dream. But for now, DARPA seems fixated on another long-term project – creating cyborg soldiers – which might make an anti-morality morning-after (combat) pill superfluous.
As noted recently in the pages of the New Yorker, searching for perks to retain troops, the military is offering free cosmetic surgery (funded by taxpayer dollars) to "[a]nyone wearing a uniform." So right now "bigger breasts" are the type of implants the U.S. military is specializing in. (Military doctors performed 496 breast enlargements between 2000 and 2003.) However, if DARPA scientists have their way, the implants du jour of the future may be the product of the "Brain Machine Interface Program" which seeks "new high-density interconnects for brain machine interfaces that will allow [researchers] to monitor the brain patterns associated with a wide variety of behaviors and activities relevant to DoD [the Department of Defense]."
Monkeys, with electrodes implanted in their brains, have already been taught to use thought-power to do such things as move a robotic arm. But why stop there? A few years back, DARPA scientists succeeded in creating a "ratbot" – a living, breathing rat with electrodes implanted in its brain that could be controlled using a laptop computer. Today, DARPA researchers, not exactly heading up the evolutionary scale but evidently proceeding toward larger sized natural fighting machines, are working on a remote-controlled shark. And how long will it be until some researcher gets the bright idea of a remote-controlled soldier; short-circuiting free will altogether? The technology isn't there yet, but what happens when it is?
DARPA already has all sorts of programs designed to use high-tech means to prevent humans from "becoming the weakest link in the U.S. military." Take the "Neovision Program" whose goal is "using synthetic materials for a retinal prosthesis to enable signal transduction at the nerve/retina interface"; that is, creating devices to technologically-enhance or even re-conceptualize human vision as we know it. Or how about the Biologically Inspired Multifunctional Dynamic Robotics (BIODYNOTICS) Program, which aims to develop "robotic capabilities," inspired by biology -such as the movements of arms and legs – "for national security applications."
Foodless Fighters? Water-free Warriors?
But what good is an always-on, morals-free cyborg soldier if s/he's caught in the classic quagmire of having recurring desires to eat and drink which simply must be met? How pathetically human! Not to worry. Today's soldiers might complain about choking down MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) but, if all goes well, tomorrow's might not have such worries.
Typical adults require about 1500-2000 calories per day, but Special Forces' troops may require as many as 6,000-8,000 calories per day while in the field. Taking time to eat, however, cuts into time that could be spent identifying targets or killing people, so DARPA's "Peak Soldier Performance Program" is investigating ways of "optimizing metabolic performance" to achieve "metabolic dominance" and so to allow future soldiers to operate at "continuous peak physical performance and cognitive function for 3 to 5 days, 24 hours per day, without the need for calories."
At the same time, the DARPA crew has instituted a "Water Harvesting Program" which seeks to "eliminate at least 50 percent of the minimum daily water supply requirement (7qts/day) of the Special Forces, Marine Expeditionary Units, and Army Medium-Weight Brigades" through initiatives such as deriving "water from air."
And when it comes to their meals, perhaps someday soldiers will be able forgo water altogether for long periods of time thanks to the efforts of the Combat Feeding Directorate of the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts. Yes, the lab that created the "indestructible sandwich" (which boasts a three year shelf life) has now come up with a dried-food ration that troops can hydrate by urinating on it. And you thought military food was piss-poor to begin with!
Super-Suits: Can I Get This in Star-Spangled Spandex?
What can you say about Captain America's outfit? While certainly distinctive, his red, white, and blue threads were always a bit light on function. So what can we expect for the real Captain Americas of the future? They won't be clad in jingoistic jumpsuits. The Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center is currently supervising a seven-year, $250 million "Future Force Warrior" program, set to be rolled out in 2010, which will outfit soldiers with new, lighter body armor, an on-board computer, "e-textile" clothing (with wiring for computer systems woven into it), and a helmet with built-in night-vision, a computer screen monocle, and bone-conduction microphones. Add a decade onto the Future Force Warrior and the military aims to be rolling out "The Vision 2020 Future Warrior system," an all-black, sci-fi, storm-trooper outfit that looks like it came from a B-movie prop trailer. But both may seem so last year before they ever have a chance to encase a military body!
Earlier this year, Dr. Steven G. Wax, the director of DARPA's Defense Sciences Office (DSO), addressed members of the academic, corporate, and military communities and told them that the mech-suit worn by Sigourney Weaver in the movie Alien was fast becoming a reality. While various clunky exoskeletons have been produced since the 1960s, Wax indicated that "breakthroughs in structures, actuators and power generation – with a bit of help from advanced microelectronics" left DARPA capable of creating a workable "external structure that can move unobtrusively with a soldier and still carry more than 100 pounds with no effort by the wearer." And through its "Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation" program, DARPA claims to be en route to creating even more advanced "self-powered, controlled, and wearable exoskeleton devices and/or machines" specifically designed, of course, to "increase the lethality" of U.S. soldiers.
Food for Thought
In a world where many still lack access to adequate clothing, despite it being decreed a basic human right in 1948, DARPA is pouring massive sums into building costly robotic suits. In a world where 800 million people suffer from malnutrition and 1 billion lack access to potable water, food and water are only made "sexy" when DARPA researchers figure out how a few (well armed) people in the global North can do without them on military missions (generally in the global South). There's no DARPA-esque organization involved in actually solving the most pressing problems in the world. And yes, while some in the developing world could benefit from possible DARPA spin-off, trickle-down innovations like futuristic prosthetic limbs, many, many more could benefit from low-cost, low-tech public health initiatives. Of course, many would have no need for high-tech prosthetics if, for so many years, the U.S. military hadn't pumped so much money into weapons, especially landmine research and production. (In Vietnam, for instance, as many as 3 million landmines and "800,000 tons of war-era ordnance" may still lie in the ground.)
DARPA's chunk of the vast Pentagon budget is a cool $3 billion, a sizeable hunk of which is now being devoted to creating real-life Captain Americas or, more accurately Captain DARPAmericas. Like so many DARPA projects, the agency's efforts to craft the super-soldiers of tomorrow typify the ultimate in sci-fi thinking. What was once the stuff of comic books and futuristic movie serials is now assumed to be America's military future.
In reality, however, most DARPA projects fail to meet their ultimate goals. During the Vietnam War, massive amounts of money, firepower, and high-tech weaponry proved unable to stamp out an enemy that regularly used punji sticks (sharpened bamboo) as a weapon. Today in Iraq, billions upon billions of dollars in military and intelligence spending for satellites, state-of-the-art surveillance devices, stealth bombers, fighter jets, tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Humvees, heavy weapons, night-vision devices, high tech drones, experimental weaponry and all the trappings of Technowar, though capable of killing large numbers of people, are again unable to stop resistance fighters who lack heavy armor, airpower, spy satellites, body armor, or high-tech gear and fight with AK-47s – a rifle designed in the 1940s – pickup trucks, and bombs detonated by garage-door openers. Captain DARPAmerica – an always on, never hungry or thirsty, morality-free, remote-controlled soldier – is a frightening prospect; but odds are, even if such DARPA projects pan out, the high-tech super-soldier of our future will fail too, due to underlying conceptual flaws and the ceaseless hubris of U.S. military planners that typified the American experience in Vietnam and continues to do so in today's war in Iraq.
Further, DARPA imagines the future through the lens of the present. Its projects are largely typified, at their core, by the very opposite of blue-sky thinking, being mired in the mindset and premises of today (or even yesterday). Where Pentagon seers envision an Army of unstoppable comic-book heroes, they may well find over-wrought, strung-out soldiers, suffering from the still unknown side-effects that are sure to come from interfering with basic human functions like sleeping and eating. They will be clad in temperamental gear that will prove vulnerable to yet undeveloped, but sure to be cheap, crude, and effective jamming devices and counter-measures. Odds are, the Pentagon would be better off investing in Captain America outfits. Not only would it be infinitely cheaper, but who's gonna mess with a platoon clad in star-spangled spandex?