- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The relationship between war and technology is curious, and not always wholesome.

Huge high-tech projects, such as new submarines or fighter planes, require huge staffs of engineers. And the technology they develop often puts distance between soldiers and what they are doing.

These engineers spend their time studying lethality, which is odd, because engineers by and large are nice people. They want their products to work. They have no more desire to hurt people than most of us.

And yet they spend their time studying BAE, or Behind Armor Effects. This refers to events such as what happens inside a tank when an antiarmor round hits it.

This, from a report from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., on the measurements made inside a tank: “The pressure transducer was the Kistler type 6121 piezo-electric gauge. This gauge, having a frequency response of 6 kilohertz, was used to measure air-shock pressures generated in the compartment. The incapacitating effects of temperature were assessed using the burn criteria presented in figure 7.”

Air-shock pressure means rupturing lungs. It is strange to talk to the engineer in charge — absolutely a good guy, loves his kids, never kicks the cat — as he talks enthusiastically about BAE. To him, it’s a technical challenge to increase the lethal parameters.

The technology puts an emotional distance between the engineer and the effects of his work. He never sees it.

This from “Sharp End,” about World War II but equally applicable today: “A tank that is mortally hit belches forth long searing tongues of orange flame from every hatch. As ammunition explodes in the interior, the hull is racked by violent convulsions and sparks erupt from the spout of the barrel like the fireballs of a Roman candle. Silver rivulets of molten aluminum pour from the engine like tears. …”

It’s not exactly what engineers have in mind. It’s what they do.

I once visited a nuclear-missile submarine. For sheer lovely technology, complex, advanced, functional, the craft was marvelous. The crew members were nice folk, almost pathologically sane. If ordered, they would have killed millions of people thousands of miles away: whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

They know intellectually what nuclear weapons do. They don’t lust to do it. Yet they are utterly removed from the effects of their weaponry. Sometimes the technology runs into unembarrassed ghoulishness. There is a field called wound ballistics. It deals generally with the effects of bullets on people. The men who study it differ from the engineers at Boeing. The wound guys are hard, not too heavy on conscience, and quietly angry.

With the help of advanced stop-action photography and other instruments, they study such things as the suction effects of supersonic versus subsonic bullets passing through various organs.

My impression has always been that the emotional distance between those who design and use high-tech arms and their targets makes it easier to kill. For most people it is a shock to see photos from a war zone showing what actually happens.

From an AC-130 gunship, blowing up a house means putting a reticle over a square on a ghostly green screen. Easy, clean, quick. The crew would not want to dismember the people with machetes. Same effect. Technology provides the sanitizing distance.

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