Knowing our limits
Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan have taught lessons on the limits of our formidable but not all-powerful technologies
By John Grula 03/05/2009
In all the recent discourse about the policy and human failures contributing to the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently about our ongoing financial/economic crisis, little has been said about how our much-vaunted technologies have also failed to bring about the desired results. But not only has high technology failed to deliver in many cases, its chimerical powers have served to encourage and amplify human error.
In the case of our military technologies I am not referring to mechanical failure. Most of the time our military aircraft stay in the sky, our missiles hit their targets and our bombs explode as designed. Nevertheless, it has now become clear that our advanced war-making technologies have failed to produce victory in either Afghanistan or Iraq after seven years and six years, respectively, of engagement in those two countries.
The superiority of our military technologies in each case has been overwhelming. We have completely controlled the airspace over Afghanistan and Iraq with the most advanced air force the world has ever seen, an arsenal that includes extremely expensive stealth fighter jets, heavily armed helicopter gunships and hundreds of robotic flying drones also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
On the ground we have also possessed a huge technological superiority. Our troops have been given clear advantages such as highly advanced communication and computer systems, night vision goggles and close air surveillance that enables the conduct of a high-tech “cyber war.” Despite all of this, we currently have a fragile period of relative calm in a divided Iraq, at best, while the situation in Afghanistan is actually deteriorating.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a big believer in America’s superior military technologies, and partly because of his over-confidence in our technological capabilities, he and his boss launched an unnecessary, risky and immoral war in Iraq. This colossal mistake was compounded by Rumsfeld’s botched war-fighting strategies, such as the failure to insert enough ground troops into the Iraqi theater. Again, this was due mainly to his overconfidence in the technological advantages our soldiers would take into battle. The same mistake was made in the Afghanistan war. Hence, we are now hearing calls from the Obama administration that we will have to substantially increase our troop strength in the Afghan conflict.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are both reminiscent of the Vietnam War in more ways than one. In all three conflicts the US either was or has been fought to a draw by an under-equipped, ragtag opposition determined to resist foreign occupation despite the vast technological superiority of their occupiers. There are lessons here for us — not only about the tenacity of home-grown insurgencies, but also about the limits of our formidable but not all-powerful technologies.
More recently, technological overconfidence in the financial world has resulted in disaster in that realm comparable in scale, if not in kind, to the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. On Wall Street, PhDs and other highly educated wizards from the fields of economics, computer science, math and physics have recently sought to reduce or even eliminate investment risks through the use of highly sophisticated computer models.
These quantitative analysts, also known as “quants,” managed to convince themselves and just about everyone who listened to them that their arcane formulas for setting the price of “innovative” financial instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities derivatives, were failure-proof. Now, with the plunge in both the housing and stock markets, we are suffering from the fallout produced by another kind of technological hubris. Once again, we have seen that the inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge the technology’s finite powers can lead to risk-taking which more often than not yields disaster.
The American belief in the power of technology is akin to a religious belief. Our first instinct when confronted with a problem is to devise a technological solution. Our entire secular system is geared for constant technological innovation. But perhaps we are now starting to see that there are limits to what technology can do, and there is not necessarily a technological fix for every problem. Total faith in technology can result in us overlooking other kinds of solutions. The feeling of omnipotence that faith-based technological hubris engenders can also lead humans to disregard risks and the possibility of catastrophic failure. Maybe the time has come for us to search our souls more than we worship technology.
John Grula is a Pasadena resident who is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.