War is hell. So is sharing a stage with Norman Mailer . Wisely, Mailer chose a career in writing and we are all better for it. He burst onto the scene in 1948 with the publication of The Naked and the Dead , a novel about World War II that has since been hailed as one of the greatest novels in American literary history. Written when Mailer was just 24(!), the book follows a platoon of American soldiers who are fighting to win control of the island of Anopopei from the Japanese. The Naked and the Dead describes the experiences of the platoon through the eyes of its members. We become more familiar with the soldiers through a series of personal flashbacks, a tool currently employed by the television show “Lost.” Reading about past experiences, the reader comes to understand the particular soldier''s role in the platoon, both in rank and in social status. The way Mailer describes how war was fought in the 1940s, experienced through the eyes and minds of the troops, drives home the intimacy of the episode and the effects upon its participants.
Juxtaposed to Mailer’s book is P.W. Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century . Singer provides a brief history of the use of robotics in warfare but focuses much of the book on the current and future military application of this technology. Contrasted with Mailer’s fictional writing of soldiers manually transporting heavy weaponry through the jungle, Singer reports on the real pilots who, stationed in what is ostensibly a double-wide trailer in Nevada, spend a day flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Iraq or Afghanistan, often killing suspected terrorists, and who are home at the end of the day for dinner with the family. Technology is changing the way war is fought, from the physical demands to the psychological. It is no longer automatic that soldiers must risk their lives to look for a roadside bomb or cross dangerous terrain in search of suspected terrorists. In many of these instances, unmanned vehicles are deployed to complete the tasks, thus saving lives and providing better information than could be obtained by any number of troops. A lingering question, however, is whether this deployment of technology is “dehumanizing” war, making it into more of, say, a video game versus an intense, life-changing experience.
These two books provide superb insight into the nature of war, both through the eyes of fictional troops (whose experiences are not far from those of actual troops) as well as through the lens of an infrared camera mounted on a UAV. Both books exposed me to the experiences of war, but Singer’s book had a more profound impact due to its examination of current and future uses of robotics in warfare. Yes, technology can reduce human causalities, but at what cost? By killing a suspected terrorist, who is 7500 miles away, on a video screen, do we run the risk of the “warrior ethos” being reduced to a “gamer’s creed?” After reading these two books, I can’t say that I’m any closer to an answer.