A War at All Costs?

A War at All Costs? 150 150 IEEE Pulse

War between the two worlds Eminiar VII and Vendikar had gone on for 500 years with no cessation in sight. This war was conducted by computer simulation, so that a virtual hit on one planet was retaliated by a computer-generated strike on the other. This avoided the large-scale death and destruction normally suffered during real wartime. To compensate for a war of this surgical nature, a segment of the population of a virtually stricken planet had to be assigned to die in disintegration chambers once the planet was targeted. People dutifully reported to these chambers once their fates were assigned. This was the basis of the episode entitled A Taste of Armageddon of season one of the original Star Trek television series.
And then, along came the USS Enterprise spaceship, and, within the hour-long episode, Captain James Kirk and First Officer Spock managed to destroy the war-making computer on Eminiar VII. The loss of this computer would be perceived by the rulers of Vendikar as an act of aggression and would inevitably lead to physical retaliation against Eminar VII. Kirk and Spock justified their harsh actions because, by taking away the horrors of real war and making war more like a computer game, the two societies had little reason to end it. So, it had persisted for 500 years, and many people had dutifully sacrificed themselves.
War is a horrible thing, and should only be used as an option of last resort. When war does not involve horrendous consequences, it can devolve into a hygienically sanitary exercise, as it did on Eminiar VII and Vendikar.
This episode of Star Trek, first aired in 1966, was remarkably prescient. We have, for several years now, embarked on the path toward sanitary war. A military technician in the central part of the United States can push a button and launch a weapon to destroy with precision a target half a world away. There is no personal involvement by the person who pushes the button, no opportunity to see firsthand the killing and destruction he or she has caused to happen. The experience is nearly identical to playing a computer game, except that the target and the people nearby have been destroyed for real.
With the advent of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, war can become much more sanitary than it is today, for all but those who die as the targets of these weapons. This is the form of future war.
In her recent book (Kreps, 2018), Cornell University government professor Sarah Kreps argues that the major reason the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have persisted for so long is because they have been funded through debt rather than specific war taxes. The citizenry are distanced from the huge financial costs of the wars, and are almost unaware of their expense.
Beyond the costs, the U.S. military is now on an all-volunteer basis. Only those families and friends with loved ones serving in the military are closely aware of the dangers of war and threats of losses of life and limbs. Wars in the U.S. are nearing the sanitary conditions where the public does not feel the pains of conducting war.
The situation was much different 50 years and more ago, during the eras of citizen military. Almost every family in the U.S. was affected by wars in Europe and Asia. Loss of family members and friends was generally experienced by the public, and, as a consequence, there developed political pressure to end the wars as quickly as possible. Wars were hardly popular, even if seen as necessary sometimes. Wars like the ones in Korea and Vietnam were decidedly unpopular and antiwar demonstrations were common occurrences. These are not in evidence today, although the war in Afghanistan has lasted 17 years and counting, because it is easy to forget that we are still engaged in a foreign war.
There is a valor to war. Men and women who are placed in danger and prove themselves as brave are respected and honored. The honor of military service is given because those who serve are recognized as having personal qualities we consider laudatory. We extend these appreciations, too, to first-responders and others who serve in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. There is no valor to sanitary war.
Having been to war myself, I am very much opposed to war of any kind. I am especially opposed to sanitary war in all its forms. We need to keep personal involvement of everybody in wars, if for no other reason than to abhor this vehicle of last resort. Otherwise, like the citizens of Eminiar VII and Vendikar, we may transform the costs of war from acute to chronic injury.


  • Kreps, S., 2018, Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy, Oxford University Press, N.Y.