Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Explorations in Science, Technology and the Natural Environment

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Archives for World Politics

Shooting Sprees, Ender’s Game, and the U.S. Military

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    I’m not sure if it is fascinating or horrifying—perhaps both—to discover that life is like a video game.  At least since the Columbine shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and certainly into the more recent Aurora shooting, pundits have lamented the fact that young men are inspired by video games to enact cruelty on a shocking scale.

    The moralizing that goes hand-in-hand with anti-video game rhetoric often targets parents. During his 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama pulled no punches, saying that parents needed to stop blaming teachers for failing to raise good citizens.  Tell your kids to put down the video games and read a book, he said.  And keeping to this theme of growing up, he exhorted us as a nation to set aside our petty squabbling.  During his 2009 inaugural address he referenced the Bible—specifically, a passage from Corinthians—and told us to set aside childish things.  When we were children, we spoke and thought as children, but when we grew up, we were supposed to put away childish things.

    Okay, fine.  So we’re not supposed to act like kids.  And parents are bad to encourage violent video games.

    But if I may be forgiven a Michael Jackson reference, let’s look at the man in the mirror, shall we?  The U.S. government is a big promoter of video games, and spends a lot of money making them.  And some are quite, quite violent.

    It turns out that the most “grown up” thing you can do—fight, and possibly die, for your country—is fully intertwined with the technology of video games, itself the knee-jerk symbol of all bad parenting.  The U.S. government treats its soldiers like children.  Let’s leave aside the fact that you can join the military at 17, just a year after getting behind the wheel of a car, before you can vote and long before you can drink alcohol legally.  Instead let’s focus on the fact that the U.S. government’s recruitment campaign is to appeal to what children love to do.  Namely, to play games.

    You’ve probably seen ads similar to this one.  Here the U.S. Marines describe joining up “as more than a trial by fire,” and then go on to show a young man wielding a sword, negotiating an incomprehensible but fairly Super Mario-esque geared contraption, pulling a sword from a stone, and then fighting a—what is that, a fire golem?  I can’t tell.

    Tying military recruitment to games or sports is not a new idea.  Here’s an ad that aired during football games in 1981.  Its production values are WAY less than the above, but it does draw links between playing football games and joining the Marines.  It is interesting to note that thirty years ago, the Marines courted athletes, whereas now it courts video gamers.

    Today, the U.S. Army has completely abandoned the idea of forcing its recruits to grow up, and instead adopts a mentality that is very like the characters in the award-winning 1985 Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.  It’s soon to be a movie starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford.  In the book, a cadre of children is recruited to play games, simulating command of a space fleet to fight alien invaders.  Turns out (spoiler alert!) they are partaking, from afar, in actual battles without realizing it. The hero, Ender Wiggin, is the best gamer around.  It’s a fascinating premise, to use those young kids whose dexterity and mental prowess, not to mention their subtle mastery of game controls, are far superior to those of grown-ups.

    In reality, the U.S. Army has invested considerable sums in its America’s Army franchise (rated T for teen!), which has its own YouTube page:

    The Army decided some years ago that, if kids were going to play games anyway, they might as well be playing out scenarios that might, conceivably, help them on the battlefield.  If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll give away what’s in the game: there’s lots and lots of shooting and blowing things up.  Also some tactics that really are only going to be useful in certain settings.

    I still remember my discomfort about the hazy line between our love for violent games and our selectively favorable views of human violence when I would talk to soldiers in Atlanta, Georgia (this was when I was teaching history at Clemson University, in South Carolina).  I did a lot of traveling then, and I would often depart from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.  There were almost always soldiers there in desert fatigues, waiting around for their flights or, just as often, for a bus to take them somewhere.  If I had time to spare I would make conversation with them.  Some were coming home, some were shipping out.  Men and women.  Some didn’t even have uniforms yet, but instead had these fat envelopes with recruitment info inside.  Most seemed far too young to be in uniform.

    Do you know what struck me most about these soldiers? The vast majority of them had portable video games!  At the time, the PlayStation Portable (PSP) was the system of choice among the military, at least in the airport.  The image of a kid (yes, a kid) slumped down in an airport chair, playing a video game, about to be shipped off to Iraq, is a hard one to process.  I wondered, “Are PSPs standard issue now?”  That was right before I wondered what percentage of these kids would make it home safe from Iraq.

    Military analysts, and historians of science and technology like myself, continue to debate not just the past but also the future of war and the role of technology in it.

    To me, there appear to be two broad schools of thought: one wants to use technology to improve the American soldier: to make him a better fighter, to keep him in the best shape, to equip him with the best technology, etc.  The other is to rely less on soldiers, but instead to deploy unmanned vehicles and drones.  (I’ll give you three guesses which the Air Force prefers!)

    One side emphasizes fighting with boots firmly on the ground, with all the personal risk involved, just like in America’s Army. The other is based on remote operation, with humans fighting in Ender’s Game fashion, from afar, without much at stake personally, like a kid in a video game.

    In gaming terms, one is a first-person shooter, and one is a flight simulator.  For a gamer, there’s no question about which one is more fun (sorry, flight simulator fanatics).  But for the United States, which one is the most wise?

    I remember that during the crisis in Kosovo, then-President Bill Clinton caught some flack for not being realistic about what it takes to win a war.  Clinton was committing the apparently mortal sin of using drones and remote technology to fight.  It seemed amateurish and non-committal.  General Wesley Clark and others complained—to use the memorable phrase—that you’ve gotta have “boots on the ground.”  Years later, Clark and other still underplayed the role of remote warfare—an attitude some Air Force aficionados didn’t care for.

    Well, we’ve had plenty of boots on the ground since then.  And between Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, I feel like I know which one caused the least trauma to Americans, and least long-term repercussions worldwide.

    Either way, we’ve passed the point of no return on integrating video games into our military.  And in fact this is the case in other domains too.  We’re a “gaming” culture now, apparently.  Even President Obama, who has made some pretty anti-game statements in the past, has embraced them as part of promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, in projects like the “National STEM Video Game Challenge.” 

    The United States does flex its military might around the world, and it does operate in ways that mimic computer and video games—or it creates games that mimic battlefields, with all the shooting and mass killing that it entails.

    So next time you want to blame parents for allowing these video games to ruin the next generation of kids, maybe you could—again, quoting Michael Jackson—look at the man in the mirror, or at least consider where your own tax dollars are being spent.

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      Wikileaks and Information Control

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        As a historian of science and technology, I am fascinated by Wikileaks.  But I’m also guilty of benefiting from it as a scholar, because I’ve used the cables for research in my work, much in the same way that I’ve used the Pentagon Papers for research.  As a scholar, it’s impossible to resist punching keywords into the various online search engines that tap into the vast network of exposed classified diplomatic cables and other documents.  After all, if it’s in the New York Times, surely I don’t have to feel guilty, right?  Maybe.

        As an American citizen, I find myself uncomfortable with the disconnect I feel between my desire to read the cables and the hard-line stance about the cables taken by the United States government.  Daniel Ellsberg (the Pentagon Papers whistleblower) is one of my heroes, exposing the lies of successive presidents during the Vietnam war era.  And let’s be honest, he probably is revered by the same people in today’s government who would like to see Julian Assange hang from a tree.  It’s hard to reconcile.  Forty years from now, I wonder how Wikileaks will be perceived.  Actually, I don’t wonder.  I’m pretty sure I already know.

        Still, following Wikileaks requires one to stomach a lot of sanctimonious verbage, and more than a little of what Han said to Leia when he learned that Luke had been strutting around calling himself a Jedi: “talk about delusions of grandeur.”

        It’s clear that Assange and others at Wikileaks are giddy at their role in facilitating what they perceive as the decentralization of technological control.  To hear Assange talk with other “cypherpunks” (you can watch this at assange.rt.com), one might get the impression that they over-dramatize their roles.  They think they are at the cusp of a massive reconfiguration of social power, largely because of the internet’s ability to strip governments of tight controls of information.  And they may be right.  But it is still a little… well… here’s a quote from Assange, which admittedly is just an intro to the program, but it gives you a sense of the drama:

        “A furious war over the futures of our societies is underway. For most, this war is invisible.  On the one side, a network of governments and corporations that spy on everything we do. On the other, the cypherpunks: virtuoso geek activists who make codes and shake public policy.  This is the movement which spawned Wikileaks.”

        Using the word “war” has some consequences.  Mainly it forces us to ask, which side am I on?  I’m not just talking about those who will want to use this as an excuse to throw out the rule of law and just “take him out,” as an endless stream of jingoistic pundits have done and will continue to do.  What I’m talking about is the notion that the decentralization of cyberspace will lead to more voices being heard, less ability of governments to stifle information, and presumably greater democracy around the world.  But who really is the war against?

        Watching Assange interact with hackers is an interesting experience, and it is not unlike sitting in a graduate seminar and discussing the ways that technology shapes our lives.  It reminds me of the revelatory experience of reading Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society or Lewis Mumford’s multi-volume The Pentagon of Power.  Ellul was distrustful of technology, seeing it taking on an oppressive life of its own, directing us onto paths not of our own choosing.  And Mumford, taking a position that always surprises my students, compared American technological projects during the Cold War arms race and space race to the Pyramids of Egypt.  They were mega-technologies, built on the backs of the masses whose direct interests were hardly involved at all.  When I read these books for the first time, I began to question my own role in facilitating technological control by others.

        I think of Mumford in the context of Assange because, in an era when China and Russia continue to clamp down on freedom of speech and—at least in China—internet access is severely censored, it is remarkable to see the United States portrayed as the epitome of information control, as if it stands for the forces of evil.  But it is even more remarkable to see the United States and the United Kingdom taking the bait, acting in reactionary ways, which surely just makes matters worse.  The witch-hunt model is counterproductive, especially when the entire strength of Wikileaks is its ability to disseminate widely each step and misstep that any government takes against it.  The Wikileaks affair is a textbook case on how to lose a PR war.

        This past week we watched two important and very disappointing events unfold.  The United Kingdom, evidently against the advice of its own very sensible lawyers, threatened to enter the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange currently resides, despite this being a self-evidently bad idea.  Presumably the British did not want to lose face by allowing Assange to get out of their hands.  Once the government realized what a horrible idea it was, it backtracked.  In the meantime, the UK’s commitment to the rule of law (treaties, anyone?) was momentarily shaken.  Predictably, Assange’s stock went up in the eyes of the world and the US and UK’s stock plummeted.  I couldn’t help but think of all the Cold War era spy movies I’ve seen, in which the principal goal was to get someone safely into an embassy, where he could not be touched.  Did I misunderstand that detail?

        But the other event was the sentencing, in Russia, of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, who played their loud guitars in a church, sang an anti-Putin song, and got two years in prison because they had “crudely undermined the social order.” The romantic in me says that rock music might have such power, but the realist in me says that this is just another genuine example of a government disallowing dissent.

        It will be interesting to see what comes of Wikileaks, and the self-described hacker warriors who are fighting the “war over the future of our societies.”  Something tells me that even if Assange himself is contained by one means or another, he will become representative of a form of subversion that will be with us for some time.  Will they simply be an irritant to North American and European diplomats, or will they actually empower people who today cannot express themselves?

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          Nuclear Proliferation Begins with Peace

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            I’m at the end of my second full day in the United Kingdom’s National Archives, and I fell asleep three times at my research desk… still suffering a bit from the jet lag.  But it is not (I swear!) from lack of interest in the files I am reading.  It’s true that I get a little restless in there.  That’s especially so because I’m between book projects at the moment, still needing to make edits on Arming Mother Nature but waiting for my editor’s comments.  And I haven’t yet fully committed to the subject of the next one.  So my eyes are easily drawn away in several directions at once, from nuclear proliferation, to agricultural genetics, and to animal experimentation in weapons laboratories.

            I’m in the UK for the “Cold War, Blue Planet” symposium at the University of Manchester, so I thought I’d spend a few days in Kew getting a little legwork done for the next project.  But the only legwork I’ve really done is a jetlagged five-mile run along the Thames (which, on the footpath in Kew, is gorgeous at 530am, and remarkably quiet before the planes start landing at Heathrow).

            For many years I’ve been working on nuclear topics but I have almost always avoided nuclear weapons themselves.  It may sound strange, but to any budding Ph.D. dissertator out there, it probably doesn’t sound odd.  Like them, I have wanted to explore off the beaten path, in the belief that doing so offers the best chance to make genuine contributions to scholarship.  Nukes came into my first book as a form of propulsion in submarines, or as a way to make the U.S. Navy’s fleet part of the deterrence force.  Nukes came into my second book as a source of radioactive waste in the oceans.  And in my most recent book, they come in mainly because of the post-nuclear war consequences or as triggers for massive environment-altering events.

            But now … I don’t think I can avoid nuclear weapons any longer.  I thought I was going to write another off-path nuclear book on the agricultural applications of atomic energy.  And I will, but the book may turn out to be about a much bigger problem.  Namely the connection between promoting peaceful applications in the developing world, and the immense international problems that come from having competent nuclear trained scientists everywhere on the planet, whether they work on projects mainly for war, or mainly for peace.

            Today I was looking through documents on Iraq’s nuclear program circa 1980, before one of its neighbors (guess who?) bombed the primary facility at Osirak.  Even then, Saddam Hussein claimed that the country’s programs were just peaceful. Iraq was building a research reactor, with France’s help, which was a natural and peaceful thing to do.  But it required highly enriched (i.e. “weapons grade”) uranium.  And from Italy it ordered technology for reprocessing, which meant that it could make plutonium.

            Obvious red flags? Yes, for some, but for others the amounts were too small to seem worthwhile.  It would take years before Iraq could make enough plutonium with that technology, and in any event they were subjected to IAEA inspectors, having signed on as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  So, not a big deal (Israel felt differently).

            Behind closed doors, Western diplomats pointed out that even if Iraq had no actual weapons project, it made sense for Saddam to build a peaceful program so that it would have a ready-made labor force of scientists and engineers if it ever wanted a bomb program in the future. And Europeans had the technology, the know-how, and the willingness to sell…. Especially to Iraq, which could supply oil in return.

            In this case, the most generous view of Iraq’s program circa 1980—and by that I mean a program that fit precisely within the vision established with the creation of the IAEA in 1957—had the country following the rules, building a research community, and finding ways to apply nuclear technology into peaceful domains.  But that knowledge, that manpower, that community… might come in handy one day.

            Is it more realistic to build bombs when you have an existing expert labor pool?  Is it too optimistic to expect less lead time for make weapons-grade fuel when your scientists already know the basics? I’ll give you three guesses :)

            On the docket for tomorrow:  Iran and the CENTO research laboratory.  Pre-1979, Iran was quite the place to go for nuclear research, American-style.   Some of this was in agriculture.  But not all of it.


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              My O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture on nuclear technology is now online

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                Back in November, I wasn’t sure if anyone would mind that I used Wikileaks for historical research.  Some might have called it unpatriotic.  But I should have expected that no one seemed to mind (or care?).  I did it because I was about to give a lecture on the promotion of nuclear technology, and found that typing in “IAEA” into the keyword-searchable databases of Wikileaks yielded some interesting results.  It was like being a fly on the wall for discussions among people who were dealing with the decades-long legacy of America’s attempt to promote nuclear technology in the developing world.  It was perfect material with which to open a lecture.  And since that also will be the subject of my next book project (after Arming Mother Nature comes out, of course), how could I resist using it?

                My concerns proved unwarranted, at least thus far.  I mention my trepidation because, before boarding my flight back in November, I received an email warning me to think carefully about whether I wanted to bring radioactive materials to Florida from Oregon.  (note to careful readers: I did not do any such thing).  The person had heard about my upcoming lecture and had begun to panic about my starting cancer in the local population.  (again: I did nothing of the kind).

                I was getting on a plane all right, but with far less interesting carry-ons, unless you count my iPad.

                The truth was that I was invited in November to give the annual John O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture, in Boca Raton Florida, hosted by the Department of History at Florida Atlantic University.  I enjoyed every moment I was there.  I met so many wonderful folks that it was hard to leave, and I learned a great deal about the research interests of the faculty member for whom the lecture is named.  It was a privilege to meet John O’Sullivan’s wife and grown son.  John O’Sullivan clearly left his mark on the community, and I was honored to be a part of it by giving the memorial lecture.

                My lecture was titled “The Nuclear Promise: Global Consequences of an American Dream.”

                I mention all this because Florida Atlantic University has published my lecture as a PDF pamphlet.  It contains information about the lecture series, about O’Sullivan, and of course my lecture.  Enjoy!


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                  Let’s Get Realpolitik about the Global Environment

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                    As we head into the London summer Olympics of 2012, we can pause to reflect upon  what happened four years ago in Beijing, as one of the world’s largest-scale polluters cleaned up its capital for the moment when all eyes were upon it.  It seems like we will see countless flashbacks of that memorable opening ceremony (I don’t envy the Brits having to top that), but behind that facade is a country with unfinished business.  And a reminder that the rest of the world, especially the United States, has its own dirty laundry that has been piling up, languishing in years of indecision about global environmental politics.  And we are in election season again.  Shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, I wrote a reflection piece for the blog of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), suggesting that we get (in italics) Real about the global environment.  My subtle use of italics did not serve me well, as the main point was that we get Realpolitik, not simply to say “let’s get real, people.”  I pointed out that we’d been using G. W. Bush as a bogeyman, and we needed to adopt a pragmatic, even (gasp!)  Nixon-esque strategy of linkage if we hoped to make headway on limiting greenhouse gases.

                    I was reminded of this when I attended a fascinating talk by Amy Below on role theory in global environmental politics, particularly in relation to the Kyoto Protocol.

                    As far as I can see, most of what I said then still holds today.


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                      Japan Forum: Fukushima and the Motifs of Nuclear History

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                        IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano

                        How do we tell the story of Fukushima?  The finger-pointing frenzy that occurred in the wake of the crisis is extremely useful for historians.  As people tried to blame each other, they enlisted a range of understandings–and misunderstandings–about the history of nuclear issues.  As historians, we need to be conscious of the power of the stories we tell and to reflect critically on them. Otherwise we put ourselves in the position of reinforcing past narratives that were contrived in the first place to deflect blame, avoid responsibility, and frustrate accountability. I wrote an essay about this in Environmental History, in a special “Japan Forum.”  My essay presents motifs—recurrent themes—that implicitly assign or abrogate responsibility for harm. They are the Risk Society Motif, the Nuclear Watchdog Motif, and the Nuclear Fear Motif. All three reemerged in light of the Fukushima disaster.  Read the full article (for free) in either full text or PDF.

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                          The Long Cold Nuclear Winter

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                            Reviewing a book by one’s own mentor, especially when that mentor has recently passed on, can be a difficult enterprise. And yet Larry Badash’s final book, published the year before his death, is worth the task. For those who knew him, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale appears as an expression of a life’s work in scholarship. While it is not schizophrenic, it is filled with the split allegiances to scientific objectivity and humanistic moral principles that characterized his attitudes toward the history of science. Because I met Badash when I was 19 years old, while taking his “Atomic Age” course in college, I have taken up his final book on the subject with a relish and respect few others could match. I owe him an immense intellectual debt, and my views expressed here should be read with that in mind. (This is an essay review of Lawrence Badash, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale (MIT Press, 2009). Read the full review in Metascience)

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                              The Nuclear Promise

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                                In November I traveled to Boca Raton, Florida, to give the annual John O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture at Florida Atlantic University. John O’Sullivan was a scholar of the twentieth century, and was deeply concerned with nuclear issues. I was honored to be asked to talk to a packed auditorium of locals wanting to learn how to connect the tragic events of Fukushima, Japan, to the decisions they make in their daily lives.

                                The title of the lecture was “The Nuclear Promise: Global Consequences of An American Dream.”

                                I chose to focus on the promotion of nuclear solutions all over the world, in some unexpected ways. I started out by referencing some Wikileaks documents–very controversial!–that suggest that the United States has tried and failed to shut down aspects of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s global programs for years. The reason is that because the IAEA is needed to help enforce nuclear nonproliferation agreements, the agency has a long leash on its other projects. The ones I focused on were the attempts in the 1960s to develop atomic energy applications in agriculture. It’s part of my current book project, The Nuclear Promise. I’m really at the beginning of that project, having done a lot of research at the archives of the IAEA in Vienna, as well as the World Health Organization in Geneva, and Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. I’m looking forward to seeing how all the ideas come together.

                                It was a wonderful trip, and the folks at Florida Atlantic University were excellent hosts. They do great work there!

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                                  NATO and Environmentalism

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                                    Did you know that Richard Nixon tried to turn NATO into an environmental organization?  It was pretty baffling for the allies, who took the alliance seriously as a military organization, and also took seriously their scientific bodies devoted to environmental issues.  But Nixon had a different agenda, to link environmental issues to American foreign policy and alliance politics.  This little-known story is the subject of my article in Environmental History, issue 15:1 (2010).

                                    Environmentalism for the Atlantic Alliance: NATO’s Experiment with the ‘Challenges of Modern Society’

                                    by Jacob Darwin Hamblin

                                    As new environmental programs, organizations, and laws proliferated in the late 1960s and 1970s, U.S. President Richard Nixon began using environmental cooperation as part of his foreign policy. But his decision to pair global environmental action with the most powerful military alliance in history—NATO—puzzled nearly everyone, including the NATO allies. Recently
                                    scholars have pointed out the role of the Nixon administration in inaugurating “environmental diplomacy,” raising the status of environmental accords and winning approbation for global environmental leadership. But most studies have glossed over the role of NATO as Nixon’s principal vehicle for East-West cooperation, and have neglected entirely the views, resistance, and downright hostility of the allies to the American style of environmental leadership. In presenting these views, this essay provides a counterweight to existing studies on global environmental action in the years leading up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The essay shows how Nixon’s use of NATO deepened political animosities between East and West, and between North and South, hastening the bloc-to-bloc politicization of global environmental issues.

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