Humans Do War Really Well, & That May Be Our Fatal Flaw

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The internet is a strange and mysterious place. The other day, I wrote a story about research conducted by 17 scientists who believe there is an urgent need to understand how social media is changing how we communicate with each other and what those changes may mean for the future of humanity. Joe Bak-Coleman is a co-author of that research paper, which concludes that social media, with its ability to rapidly disseminate false information, “may present one of the larger threats to human well-being.”

In today’s Bloomberg Green email, climate reporter Eric Roston says, “The development of digital communications has eroded or vaporized community protections developed over millennia to ensure at least a minimally healthy flow of information, which leads to healthy decision-making.”

He acknowledges that technology now allows people to communicate instantaneously across great distances. But he thinks we need to focus more of our attention on this question: “What happens when people can communicate instantaneously and across great distances?” The answer, in part, is that we wind up with a lunatic dressed in a loincloth and wearing buffalo horns on his head strolling through the halls of Congress and thinking what he is doing is perfectly normal.

Roston adds, “Despite the many joys and productive uses of digital communication, it routinely conveys so many falsehoods, so quickly, that many people are left either unable to see or unwilling to fix existential dilemmas, leaving humanity overall in a precarious condition.” Bak-Coleman and his colleagues go so far as to suggest, “Some business models may be fundamentally incompatible with a healthy society.”

A Word A Day

Every morning, my inbox is stuffed with emails from people who want to tell me about what happened over the past 24 hours. One of the services I subscribe to is called A Word A Day. I have always been fascinated with how languages develop and the cross-linkages that occur when they bump into each other. Every Sunday, AWAD publishes comments it gets from people about the words featured the previous week.

Last Sunday, I came across a submission by Mike Boddington. It was considerably longer than most and as I read through it, I was struck by his message and how it relates (at least in my mind) to the existential crisis staring us in the face as the Earth gets hotter seemingly with each passing day.

I have never met Mike Boddington nor heard his name. A little research (thanks, Google) reveals that he is someone who has devoted a significant amount of his life to helping the victims of landmines in Southeast Asia. He has founded nonprofit organizations whose mission is to promote anti-land mine treaties. And he has received the Member of the British Empire award, one of the highest honors the UK government can bestow upon a civilian.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I sent Mike an email in Laos, where he makes his home, and asked his permission to reprint his comment. 12 hours later, I got an email back in which he enthusiastically accepted my offer and so what follows are his thoughts from a lifetime of trying to repair the damage inflicted on innocent people as the result of humanity’s insatiable desire to wage war.

My reason for posting this here is to ask a simple question: If we invested as much time, money, and effort into making our celestial home a safe place for our species to thrive as we do into devising ways to kill and maim each other, isn’t there a chance we could find solutions to the existential threat of an overheating planet? We hear thunderous attacks on government spending when it comes to health care, day care, and self care but never a peep of protest as our defense budgets ratchet up year after year. Why is that?

Here is what Mike Boddington wrote in his AWAD comment:

I was involved for many years in repairing bodies that had been broken by landmines, in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. The experience has turned me into a pacifist. Earlier this year, I wrote this.

I came to Laos by way of Cambodia. Getting involved in the rehabilitation of landmine survivors in that country was harrowing — as it has proved in any country where I have met with the victims of those devices personally. What follows is from my experience in post-conflict countries — not in countries that are involved in active warfare.

Peter Kim, age 16. Credit: Mike Boddington. Image used with permission.

There has been war. It is over. Now we are in conflict-recovery mode. But the wounding and killing goes on — not amongst the combatants, the armed forces, but almost entirely amongst the civilian population. Not just the civilian population but very often the civilian population that was not even born at the time that the conflict was active. Those people had lost their limbs as a result of an encounter with an unexploded device of some sort. Here is a scenario for you, dear reader.

You are a farmer in a low-income country. For these purposes, understand that you live in a one-roomed bamboo hut with an earth floor and a grass-thatched roof. You have a wife and five children all below 10 years of age and the youngest is not yet two. You have rights over a small area of land upon which you can grow rice during the rainy season, which lasts four months. The rice that you harvest is just able to support your family through the year and you supplement this with fish that you catch in the nearby river. You also have a few chickens which produce eggs and meat, and you keep a pig which you fatten for slaughter for home use.

This lifestyle is timeless. Your ancestors have lived in much the same way as this for centuries. It is the way things are. You know everyone in your community, and they all know you. You know their forebears and their children. It is a village, a society. It is tightly knit; it hangs together as it always has done.

It is the beginning of the rains and you are preparing your land to plant rice. You have borrowed a buffalo and plough from a neighbour and you will return the favour by giving him some of the produce from your farm.

As you plough your land, ready for the rains, the unthinkable happens. The plough strikes an explosive device left over from some long-past conflict, and it detonates and turns the steel ploughshare and some of its wood frame into shrapnel which joins the shattered casing of the device to smash both of your legs and embed themselves in your stomach and chest. They likewise render the buffalo’s rear legs non-operational.

Alerted by the sound, villagers come running. They find you on the ground with red mush where your lower legs should be and blood pouring from numerous wounds in your upper legs and torso. The buffalo is bellowing in pain and wallowing on the ground, unable, despite continuous attempts, to stand on its lacerated rear legs.

I can show you actual photographs of victims, but you would not be able to tolerate seeing them. If you insist, Google landmine injuries or landmine wounds. Also see Getty Images.

Here are some further facts. Medical skills in the village are severely limited — effectively non-existent. There is a clinic 12 km away. It has almost no medicines at all, and it is generally unstaffed. If the staff are there, they have skills to deal with the commonest ailments but not with traumatic wounds of this nature. The nearest district hospital is a further 10 km from the clinic. It does not have any orthopaedic surgery skills. It may have saline drip solution; it will certainly not have blood or plasma. It may have painkillers.

The nearest hospital qualified to deal with this emergency is the provincial hospital which is 67 km distant. There are no ambulances. The most probable journey from the village to the provincial hospital is in a two-wheeled, unsprung trailer pulled by a two-wheeled tractor or tok-tok. There is no such conveyance in your village and someone has to go by bicycle to the neighbouring village, 5 km distant, to recruit one.

The owner is dubious. He wants to know how badly injured you are. If you die en route to the hospital, your ghost will haunt his tok-tok and trailer for all eternity. You are in luck! He decides to come and collect you, but he needs to know that you can pay. For your family, it will mean selling the pig.

The pig is trussed and loaded onto the trailer — the tok-tok owner will sell it for the best price he can get in the provincial capital to secure the hire charge. Maximum speed 20 km per hour — once you are rescued from the field and brought to the village, the tok-tok will take four or five hours to get to the provincial hospital.

Except that he is not aware that the local medical centre is unable to handle this wound and goes there first. He is not aware that the district hospital is incapable of treating you at all, so he goes there next. It takes not four hours but seven hours to get you to the provincial hospital. You can be grateful that the last 25% of the journey you fall into unconsciousness for loss of blood.

During that journey, your life will depend upon anyone in your village having at least minimal understanding of how to stem the flow of blood. The future of your shattered limbs will depend upon whether or not the villagers use a tourniquet. If they do, the limb below the tourniquet will probably all have to be amputated.

You may have passed out at the site of the explosion. You will come to, possibly in the village, possibly on the journey to the hospital. You will be in excruciating pain and will have no other choice but to bear it until you arrive at the hospital. Even there, there may be no anaesthetic or painkillers. In the hospital, your legs will have to be amputated — at what level will depend upon the damage done by the blast and the treatment that you have received from your helpers. The amputation may be done without the benefit of anaesthetic.

It is possible that the surgeon who operates upon you will not really understand his vital role in the process between explosion and a rehabilitating survivor. He may not know that, for you to be able to walk again, at all, you will need a pad of healthy muscle beneath the sawn-off bone in your legs. That pad is vital to receive a prosthesis. If the surgeon simply cuts off your legs from one side to the other, going straight through the bone on the way, then you will need what is called rectification surgery, which will further shorten your legs, but will allow those all-important pads of muscle to be placed underneath the bones, to act as cushions between your stumps and the prostheses.

After any traumatic wound, the body reacts in various ways. The damaged flesh will initially swell. As the wound heals, scar tissue will be produced. Both will tend to be bigger than the original tissue and it will take many months for that swelling and scarring to subside. Until the wound has completely healed, no prosthesis can be manufactured and applied. Well, it can, but it will need to be replaced very soon and there are not sufficient resources in countries like this one to provide more than one prosthesis.

And you have no money to pay for that sort of luxury. During your period of initial recovery, the muscles in your residual limbs — your stumps — will shrink from lack of use. Once you have your prostheses and start to exercise, those muscles will start to grow again. During these early days, following all these processes, you are continually battling with ill-fitting devices.

If you survive, you will spend three weeks in the hospital. Your wife will have to find money to pay for the operation and your accommodation. She has already sacrificed the pig to pay for the tok-tok. She has to borrow the money from a moneylender to pay all the hospital charges, $375. The moneylender charges 2% interest, per month, compound. You are lucky: it could be much more than that. You will be out of action for at least six months — possibly more than a year. You are unable to perform any economic activity of benefit to your family and you are deeply in debt.

And getting deeper — that loan from the moneylender is gathering interest with every passing month — $375 becomes $382.50 after one month, $390.15 after two, and so on. Where are you going to find the money even to pay the interest? When you have recovered, as far as may be, your ability to carry out your function as the main provider for your family will be significantly constrained. And just remember this: when you had the accident, you were preparing your land for planting.

By the time you get out of hospital and rehabilitation, the rains have long gone, all your neighbours got on with the planting, tending and harvesting their rice. What happened to your land? If you are incredibly lucky, your community will have got together and finished the ploughing, planted the rice, tended it and harvested it. If not … Back in the village, at the time of the accident, your wife was immensely overwrought. Her husband has just experienced the most appalling accident and she needs to be with him.

What to do about the children. She has to be with them. Because the village is a tightly-knit community, it is probable that relatives and neighbours will rally round and take care of the kids, one of which has not yet reached two. It is fortunate that the youngest has been weaned, otherwise the mother would have had to take her along to the hospital in the tok-tok trailer with her hugely afflicted husband and the trussed pig.

Can you imagine that experience for such a young person? You, her father, her tower of strength, laid low with your body mangled and bleeding, stretched out on the bed of the trailer, your life ebbing away, continually moaning, crying, screaming during the journey. She would be traumatized for the rest of her life. The buffalo was slaughtered in the field, butchered and the villagers shared in the bounty. That buffalo is to your account.

Add to the pig and the loan from the moneylender, another $150 that you owe for that buffalo. Now, that was you, in that predicament. In these sorts of societies, people have no choices. When they wake up in the morning, there is but one route through the day. Nature and the universe might forgive them on odd occasions when malaria comes along and two or three days must be taken away from the daily routine. But the tolerance is very limited.

If you cannot perform your duties for a week, then the chances are that you and your family will die. It is that tight. And it is that tight today for, possibly, three billion people on this earth — that was the total population of the world in 1960, when I was already 19 years old! No matter the Millennium Development Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals.

Be aware that, at the time of writing, the total population of this world is almost 8 billion. A big proportion of that number live very close to the edge. Small deviations in their lives and ecologies can push them and their loved ones over the edge and into the abyss.

Every hour of every day something like the above happens somewhere in the world. Every hour. Every day. Innocent people encounter an unexploded device, left behind by conflict, a conflict in which they were not involved. This hour today, as you read this, it was your turn. Tough.

In the foregoing, I have touched upon a small proportion — a very small proportion — of the horror and misery that war brings. Here’s the deal. War is barbaric. FDR wrote a message to national leaders, at the start of WWII, using the expression “this form of inhuman barbarism” in referring to bombing civilians. Those pursuing war, promoting war, generating war are barbarians.

Just think about this: there are people who work for organisations like:

United Technologies: (now merged with Raytheon) 240,000 employees
Raytheon: 195,000 employees
Boeing: 141,000 employees
Lockheed Martin: 110,000 employees
General Dynamics: 104,000 employees
Northrup Grumman: 95,000 employees
BAE Systems: 86,000 employees
Harris Corp: 48,000 employees
Huntingdon Ingalls: 45,000 employees

In those companies, that are over one million people working. Not all of them work on defence contracts. Imagine this. You live in a comfortable home with a beautiful garden. Your kids go to a good educational institution. Your wife or husband has an excellent job or spends their time doing good works.

You are a designer. You design arms. Things that go bang. Kill people. Or you manufacture the arms that other people have designed. Or you have some sort of managerial control of an outfit that makes armaments.

You go home to your wife and kids each night and say “Hi, honey, great day at work.” Over the other side of the world, a man ploughing his field is blown up. Possibly ten, twenty, thirty, forty years after the conflict. The devastating impact on him and his dependents is incalculable.

You had a hand in it. Are you OK with that? You earned a good salary: your company earned a profit. What’s wrong with all you folk? Can’t find a career option that doesn’t involve killing people?

The Internet Giveth & The Internet Taketh Away

Thanks to the internet, I now have a new friend in Vientiane, Laos, a country I have never visited. Thanks to the internet, I now have a much deeper appreciation for physical, financial, and emotional horrors visited on countless numbers of innocent people by humanity’s perpetual fascination with warfare and weaponry. Thanks to the internet, I also have a neighbor who prominently displays a “Trump 2020 Stop The Bullshit” flag on his property and gets angry when I ask him to take it down when my grandchildren come to visit.

The internet is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for evil or for good. A screwdriver is a wonderful device that makes it possible for us to make all sorts of interesting things. It is also a deadly weapon if jammed through someone’s eyeball into their brain.

It is a crime to use that screwdriver to kill or maim someone. Perhaps we are in need of similar restraints on the improper use of the internet?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5408 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley