The last few weeks have been busy ones for me with a lot of field work and testing various instruments (which is one reason for the long interval since my last posting). I’ve finally got a chance to catch up with housekeeping at my apartment and I’ve got to thinking about our obsession with keeping things sanitary.
The obvious part of this is well-known and widely commented on – we live in a society that’s averse to germs. Hence the plethora of disinfectants that saturate our society. We sanitize our hands, we grasp doorknobs through our sleeves, we disinfect our bathrooms, and on and on – “anti-microbial orange” is the color of the decade. At the same time, physicians have reported that rates of asthma, allergies, and auto-immune disease have been on the up-tick. There are those who suspect a linkage between these two trends.
Some have speculated that maybe we are keeping our environments too clean. The thinking is that our immune systems evolved in a germ- and parasite-laden environment and that they are under-employed in a more sterile environment. With so few germs and parasites to keep our immune systems busy, there are those who think that they can turn inward, causing allergies, asthma, and auto-immune disorders. In fact, some physicians have even tried treating some of these disorders by deliberately infecting their patients with small doses of parasites – with some degree of apparent success. Their thinking is that, by presenting the immune system with what it evolved to deal with, the immune system will stop attacking the body while it turns its attention to the invaders. Too much cleanliness might be a bad thing for bodies that evolved in what, today, would be considered filth and squalor.
But this level of antisepsis goes a little further – consider our wars for example. War has been a part of human culture likely for as long as our species has existed – it’s plausible to think that Homo sapiens became dominant over the Neanderthals via inter-species warfare. And for that whole time war has meant that soldiers on both sides were mired in the mud and the blood, hacking away at each other and (until the Geneva Conventions came about) committing all sorts of atrocities. Not only that, but in an era in which wars were fought between neighbors (e.g. France and Germany, Russia and Turkey) the general population was affected too because wars tended to be fought on home soil – everyone suffered during a war, everyone sacrificed during a war, and everyone was touched by the war. By comparison, America’s wars today are almost as sterile as are our home environments.
I am NOT trying to say that our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t suffered and sweated and bled and been killed – all of those things have obviously happened. But while our troops continue to pay the traditional price of war, our larger society certainly has not. Our wars are overseas for one thing, and the home front has yet to sacrifice for the war effort. But there’s more to it than that – we are also taking what steps we can to fight a war without involving any of our people at all. Perhaps the first step of this was our bombing the Balkans from on high – where we managed to drive the Serbs from Bosnia and Kosovo without the need for a single American boot on the ground. We did the same thing in Libya last year – providing air support for the rebels but keeping our troops safely out of harm’s way. Recently we’ve taken this even further, not only attacking from the air, but doing so from unmanned drones to boot. Carrying this trend to its logical extreme, at some point we may well be able to wage war without a single American being put in harm’s way – the only people at risk will be our opponents. Such a war would be waged in the mud and the blood on one side, and would be waged from air-conditioned trailers on the other.
OK – so what’s wrong with that? After all, isn’t this the whole idea of improving military technology? One of the ways to win a war is to kill more of the enemy than they kill of us (although this approach didn’t really work in Vietnam) – so if we can manage to kill the enemy without putting even a single American at risk, isn’t this simply the best way to wage a war? And don’t we have an ethical obligation to try to spare as many of our troops as we can?
As a former member of the military the answer to this part is simple – I had no desire to die in battle, and I had no desire for any other American servicemen and women to die in battle either. Of course we should strive to save as many lives as we can. But there’s a difference between trying to minimize our casualties on the battlefield and waging war antiseptically.
Consider a war waged entirely by drone strikes – where the only American casualties consist of eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome while the other side continues to put fighters in the field. In a situation such as this the stakes become one side’s youth (taking the field of battle has always been the province of young adults) versus the other side’s wallet – the ability to pay for drones and ordnance. In a situation such as this the stakes are wildly disparate.
One problem with this approach is that it makes war far too easy to wage – at least for our side. The cost of wars has always been reckoned as blood and treasure – the blood of our warriors and the treasure we dedicate to the war effort. When one side pays almost exclusively in treasure while the other has to pay in blood as well the stakes are unequal. Under such circumstances it becomes far too easy to go to war. When our lives aren’t at stake it becomes much easier to contemplate going to war, and both politicians and the public seem more willing to consider combat when the only lives at stake are those of the enemy. At this point I think it’s important to stress that I’m not suggesting some sort of medieval chivalry in which we all line up and give the enemy a fighting chance to kill us as easily as we can kill them. Rather, my concern is about us as a society when we are so intent on waging sanitary wars that we forget that war is inherently messy. Could it be that we find war easier to contemplate when American lives are not at risk?
But this concept of overly sanitized warfare goes beyond our recent wars and extends even into nuclear weapons testing. The main reason for moving nuclear weapons underground is because it is a “cleaner” way to test, absent the major environmental impact of atmospheric testing. But just as drone wars distance us from the dirty side of war, so too does underground nuclear testing distance us from the dirty side of nuclear weapons.
Consider – the “traditional” nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, Britain, and France) all conducted atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and have seen first-hand what nuclear detonations can do. We have seen video footage of mock forests, houses, apartment buildings, and so forth roasted and blown apart by thermal and blast waves and we have seen people sickened and killed by radioactive fallout – including those killed in Japan at the close of the Second World War. In short, we have come to realize that nuclear weapons are more than simply really big bombs because we have had direct and visceral experience with them.
But what about Pakistan, India, North Korea, and (presumably) Israel? None of these nations has tested (to the best of our knowledge) nuclear weapons in the atmosphere; only underground. They know that their weapons work, but this knowledge is remote and not direct. I would suggest that there’s a difference between seeing the effect of a nuclear weapon exploded at the Earth’s surface and seeing table of numbers and squiggles on a seismograph, and that the latter gives no feel for what a nuclear weapon can really unleash. To the leaders of those nations, to some extent nuclear explosives are just really big bombs – just as they were to us when we first used them. In 2000 I was in Japan for a scientific conference and I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, where I saw artifacts and photos from the Hiroshima bombing. I couldn’t help but wish that those who were trying to develop nuclear should see exactly what it was that they were trying to accomplish. I’m not sure that this would change their minds, but at least they would have a better idea of the horror that nuclear weapons can bring. In this case (and in keeping with the general theme of this posting), sanitizing nuclear weapons testing has taken from the new and nascent nuclear states the ability to truly understand what these weapons can do.
Not many people would argue in favor of, say, introducing parasites to our school lunches as a way to reduce asthma and allergies. Similarly, few would argue that we should try to make our wars as bloody as possible, or that we should return to the era of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. But at the same time we should recognize that the very “cleanliness” we strive for can have consequences of its own, not all of which are unalloyed good.