21st Century Warfare Explained
Peter Warren Singer is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He is the youngest scholar named Senior Fellow in Brookings' 90-year history. In 2005, CNN named him to their "New Guard" List of the Next Generation of Newsmakers. Singer has also been recognized by the Financial Times as "Guru of the Week" for the thinker that most influenced the world that week and by Slate Magazine for "Quote of the Day." In his personal capacity, Singer served as coordinator of the Obama-08 campaigns' defense policy task force.
His first book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry pioneered the study of the new industry of private companies providing military services for hire, an issue that soon became important with the use and abuse of these companies in Iraq. His next book, Children at War explored the rise of another new force in modern warfare, child soldier groups. Dr. Singer's "fascinating" (New York Post) and "landmark" (Newsweek) work was the first book to comprehensively explore the compelling and tragic rise of child soldier groups and was recognized by the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book of the Year Award.
His third book, Wired for War looks at the implications of robotics and other new technologies for war, politics, ethics, and law in the 21st century. Described as: "An exhaustively researched book, enlivened by examples from popular culture" by the Associated Press and "awesome" by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, Wired for War made the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list in its first week of release. It has already been featured in the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot, as well as in presentations to audiences as diverse as the Air Force Institute of Technology to the National Student Leadership Conference.
Prior to his current position, Dr. Singer was the founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at Brookings. He has also worked for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, the Balkans Task Force in the U.S. Department of Defense, and the International Peace Academy. Singer received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Big Think: How has the military industrial complex affected modern warfare?
P.W. Singer: We have an assumption of war, and when we say the word war and warrior and we close our eyes and think about what images come to mind, it’s usually a man in a uniform. And that means there are a lot of assumptions behind that. If they’re in a uniform, they’re part of a military. They’re part of a military. They’re part of a nation’s states force, governmental force. They go to war because of politics. They’re motivated by patriotism. That’s our assumption.
When we look at war in the 21st century, it’s very different out there right now. It’s not just men. It’s, of course, women but it’s also children. One of my previous books was on child soldiers. There are more than 300,000 child soldiers out there. The organizations that people fight in are not just nation state militaries.
In many ways, the US military is kind of like the last of the Jedi. Look at who we are fighting against. It’s insurgent groups, terrorist groups. Then also, look at who’s fighting on our behalf, it’s the private military industry. This industry has grown by immensely, it’s in balance over the last 10 years. You’ve had private military firms active in over 50 different countries on every continent [but] Antarctica. And there are several hundreds of them operating in Iraq right now in terms of companies, in terms of numbers of personnel. By some counts, you have as much as 180,000 private military contractors on the ground there. That means there are more private military soldiers than public US military soldiers. And just like in the military, they do all sorts of tasks. We’ve got companies that handle logistics and supply trains like Halliburton’s. We’ve got companies that do training and advisory and technical services. And we have companies at the point end of the spear like Blackwater. That’s one that a lot of people are probably familiar with.
Now, the challenge of this is that we didn’t set up a structure for how we were going to figure out when and where it was appropriate to outsource, and then, what were the rules and regulations under which they would operate. And so, we’ve been getting, in many ways, the worst of both worlds. We haven’t been getting good business deals out of it because the government hasn’t been a smart client. You haven’t had enough competition. You haven’t had enough market fluidity. And then the flipside is, the legal structures have been very absent. And so, you’ve had this sort of vacuum in terms of not only which laws should apply but also a lack of will to apply them. And so, the result is that contractors have been integral to the operation on the ground in Iraq. You couldn’t have done it without them. But they’ve also been part of some of the most embarrassing incidents in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib or the Nisour Square shootings.
The author explains the influence of private military firms in the world today.
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- The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
- But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.
The calorie is the basic unit of measure of food — and it might be off.
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- Not all digestive systems are created equally; humans process foods at different rates under varying conditions.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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