Saturday, June 17, 2006

More on numbers--sort of

The other day I watched a classic little 1977 video by Charles and Ray Eames. They focused an imaginary camera on a couple lying on the beach in Chicago and moved outward by a power of 10 every 10 seconds, so that the couple, the city, the Great Lakes, the earth, the solar system and the galaxy eventually grew smaller and disappeared. Then the camera reversed direction and went closer, until it reached into a proton inside the man's hand. (Then, of course, I had to watch the Simpsons parody of the same video.)

It seems that most of us, analysts or not, tend to focus on a problem at a particular power of 10 and never get closer or farther away. Lately I've been trying to expand my view by an order of magnitude or so to look at the meta-problem.

For instance, take the massacre in Haditha. Soldiers lost it and indiscriminately killed a bunch of Iraqi men, women, children, old folks in wheelchairs. Clearly a war crime, according to some analysts, and should be punished. Other analysts say, yeah, but it's sort of understandable. One of the soldiers had just been killed by a bomb, and undoubtedly one or another of those civilians had seen the bomb being planted. When you're fighting a guerrilla war, it's so hard to tell who's trying to kill you and who just wants to be left alone. The soldiers are under so much stress, and so forth. Maybe we need more soldiers, better armor, better generals, better Iraqis....

Let's look at the larger picture. Isn't there a problem with a situation in which soldiers are trained to treat a visible enemy one way and the rest of the people another way? War isn't like that anymore. Maybe we should analyze the limitations of war, the tradeoffs necessary when we choose a military solution to a conflict. Looking at the historical fallout from war, do we, on average, gain more than we lose? (And who do is included in that "we"--our country, our family, our ideology, the innocent victims of the war, our world?)

On the home front, what does it do to our society when we train a bunch of our young people to "kill, kill, kill!" as they learn in boot camp? What does it do to those young people? What about the ones who come home from war and can't get the horror of it out of their minds? It's a prescription for insanity when we spend years instilling values in our children--don't solve problems by hitting each other; it's wrong to kill--and then later on train them to do just the opposite of what they've learned from their mothers and teachers since early childhood.

Is there any way to conduct a war such that soldiers are trained killing machines in one set of circumstances and humanitarians in another, often indistinguishable, scenario? Personally, I find it hard to imagine. It's just asking too much of a human being.

(If you're just interested in the science and could care less about the politics, go here.)


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