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Know Thy Enemy, and the Future of Memorial Day

How will warfare change when we know our foes by name, face, and DNA?

canadian soldiers CROPPED

To most modern Americans, war is a distant and impersonal phenomenon. If we interrupt our Memorial Day barbecues to think briefly of the war dead, we picture them in their countless, serried ranks: the neat, symmetrical lines of white headstones at Arlington Cemetery, or images conjured up from half-remembered poems. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row….”

For most of the last few centuries, the wartime dead have been anonymous to their enemies, as well. In my office, I have an old black and white family photo of eight young Canadian soldiers posing together in August 1914, on the eve of World War I. One of those soldiers — jaunty and confident in his high-necked tunic with its gleaming buttons down the front — was a distant relative of mine: a great-great uncle, or maybe a cousin, named Robert George MacFarlane. On the back of the photo, my great-grandmother’s careful script lists the names and fates of those grinning young men:

L.B. Reynolds; B.T. O’Grady; G.H. Revell, Killed; A. Davies; Tom Brown Jr.; A.J. Evans, Killed; L.B. North; R.G. MacFarlane, Shot with a machine gun.

Thanks to Internet archives and a few old family stories, I know a fair amount about Robert MacFarlane. I know he was injured for the first time in July 1915, and recovered, only to be shot again on March 6, 1916, in the Battle of Railway Wood, near Ypres. The second time he was shot, he didn’t recover. I know that he was born in Huntingdon, Quebec, on Jan. 28, 1889, and like his Scottish emigrant forebears, he was a Presbyterian. He worked in Nelson, British Columbia as a mining engineer after graduating from McGill University in 1910. According to Canadian military records, he stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall and had a 38 inch chest at the time of his enlistment in 1914. At the time of his death, he was a second lieutenant attached to the British Army’s Royal Engineers. He had a brother named James and a sister named Elsie.

I know all this, and my great-grandmother, who loved him, knew much more, but the German soldier who killed him didn’t know any of this. The German who pulled the machine-gun trigger hadn’t been stalking Robert MacFarlane for days or weeks, watching his every move, waiting for the perfect moment to end his life. No one in the German military knew anything at all about MacFarlane, in fact, and presumably they didn’t much care: he was shot not because he was Robert MacFarlane, height 5 feet 6 inches, brother of Elsie and James, but because he was an allied soldier in a brutal war that killed millions of soldiers. He just happened to be one of them, in the wrong trench at the wrong time.

To the friends and families of the dead, war will always seemed personal: the dead are beloved brothers, cousins, husbands, sons, daughters, sisters, and wives, each unique and precious. But the enemy dead have generally only been numbers to those on the other side: so many rotting corpses in the trenches of Ypres; so many dead Iraqi soldiers on the stretch of Highway 80 north of Al Jahra, their burned flesh merging with the melted metal of their tanks.

This is beginning to change. In today’s conflicts, we increasingly know our enemies — and this will become ever more true as the technologies of warfare continue to become more individualized.

Think about U.S. targeted killings: drone strikes, for instance, such as the strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, or the strike that killed al Qaeda leader Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi in early May. Most of the time, U.S. officials know quite a lot about those they target: their names end up on “kill lists” precisely because military and intelligence analysts have built a painstaking dossier on them, sometimes over many years. Between human informants and high-tech surveillance, we often know where our targets were born, where they went to school and college, the names of their siblings and children, their favorite pastimes, and much more.

Even those individuals whose names are not known often have detailed dossiers based on their observed behaviors over weeks or months. Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School and former State Department legal advisor, recalls the jarring intimacy of the targeting reviews: “As the dean of Yale Law School I spent many many hours looking at the resumes of young twenty-year olds, students … trying to figure out who should be admitted. I now spend a comparable amount of time studying the resumes of terrorists, same age. Often I know their background as intimately as I knew my students.”

In a 2103 GQ profile, the late journalist Matthew Power wrote of the “voyeuristic intimacy” between a drone pilot and his targets: a drone pilot could watch the targets “drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too.” Pilots watched their targets die in agony, too: “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”

Consider also big data and bioscience, both of which are driving the further individualization of warfare.

On the Internet, more and more data is available about more and more people. Governments keep census data online; banks keep financial data; hospitals keep health data, keeps purchasing data, social media sites keep our photos, videos, and personal musings. Data from cell-phone and security cameras are stored in the cloud. Add in rapidly improving facial- and voice-recognition software and rapidly advancing data-analysis technologies, and it will soon be possible (and probably quite cheap) to build up detailed dossiers on half the people on Earth. As former Air Force Deputy Judge Advocate General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. notes in a recent article on what he calls “the hyper-personalization of war,” these capabilities are rapidly being militarized: “[I]n the not-too distant future, the U.S. military — and likely other militaries — will be able to launch swarms of drones equipped with facial recognition software to roam battlefields looking for very specific members of an enemy’s force.”

In the bioscience world, breakthroughs in our understanding of genetics are opening up the possibility of personalized medicine: cancer treatments tailored to a specific person’s genetic code, for instance. But the same discoveries that may soon allow doctors to tailor life-saving treatments to the needs of specific individuals may also allow the development of DNA-linked bioweapons: a virus designed to disable or kill only a specific individual.

In some ways, the individualization of warfare may be a good thing. Targeted killings may be troublingly intimate, but they are surely better than indiscriminate killings. The law of war obligates parties to a conflict to avoid the intentional targeting of civilians and take all reasonable measures to avoid causing incidental civilian deaths, and the technologies that enable the individualization of warfare represent significant leaps forward in our ability to ensure that wars kill as few people as possible. Compared to the firebombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, weapons capable of killing only specific individuals seem like a moral advance. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could spare frightened young conscripts and kill only their bloodthirsty leaders, or target only terrorist masterminds and the architects of genocidal campaigns, sparing those with lesser culpability and influence?

Indeed, as Harvard’s Gabriella Blum notes, the individualization of warfare raises the possibility that warfare itself will be utterly transformed, becoming more like policing, with its focus on individual harms, individual victims, and individual culpability. When individual malefactors can be reliably taken off the field, there’s no reason to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers off to fight their counterparts in foreign lands. War, like policing, can become more tailored and deliberative; as warfare becomes more individualized, it will also become possible to add to warfare some of the due process protections common in law enforcement, but historically considered unfeasible on the battlefield. The individualization of warfare thus has the potential to bring war more in line with core human rights norms.

But it’s not so simple, of course. For one thing, while individualized killing technologies are currently the prerogative of only the wealthiest and most technologically advanced states, this is changing fast, too. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other malignant non-state actors are already attuned to the emerging possibilities of personalized warfare: in 2007, for instance, terrorist sympathizers hacked into the email and telephone records of Danish soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and used the information to harass and intimidate service-members’ families. More recently, in March, an Islamic State website posted the names and home addresses of selected U.S. military personnel and their families, urging “our brothers in America” to “take the final step” of killing them. Drone and facial-recognition technologies are commercially available already, and will become steadily more sophisticated; bioscience information, techniques, and materials also increasingly available to individuals and small groups. Even if we believe our own government will use these technologies responsibly — not a foregone conclusion — there’s little reason to imagine others will do so.

The individualization of warfare also raises some distinctly Orwellian possibilities. Andrew Hessel, Mark Goodman, and Steven Kotler noted in a 2012 Atlantic article that DNA-linked bioweapons may usher in a future in which “politicians, celebrities, leaders of industry — just about anyone, really — could be vulnerable to attack-by-disease. Even if fatal, many such attacks could go undetected, mistaken for death by natural causes; many others would be difficult to pin on a suspect, especially given the passage of time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms Moreover … these same scientific developments will pave the way, eventually, for an entirely new kind of personal warfare. Imagine inducing extreme paranoia in the CEO of a large corporation so as to gain a business advantage, for example; or — further out in the future — infecting shoppers with the urge to impulse-buy.”

It’s a brave new world, all right. And looking back at the photo on my wall — at those eight young faces, not yet marred by the muck and blood of the trenches — I wonder, sometimes, if they would consider this a better world.

Photo credit: Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-002749 / Creative Commons


Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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