TCS Daily

Digital Soldiers

By James Pinkerton - April 4, 2002 12:00 AM

ALBERT, France -- Last week I reported from Chicago, from the Comdex computer show, on the prospect of wearable computers playing a significant role for infantry in the modern battlefield (see "Killer Fashion"). This week, I'm in France, reporting in retrospect on infantry in the pre-modern battlefield. Specifically, I'm here at the Musée des Abris -- the Museum of the Trenches -- that commemorates the not-so-quiet Western Front of World War One. A trip here inspires revulsion against all war, but since some wars are justified, a visit also inspires determination to deploy the best available technology on behalf of just causes, to maximize the odds of victory and to minimize the numbers of losses.

The British and French had no choice but to fight the Kaiser's Germany in 1914; after all, the Germans attacked. But if the Allies had the "why" figured out, they failed on the "how." Indeed, the "how" -- the way they fought the war -- was so badly mishandled that it fed back and poisoned the "why" -- their original justifiable purpose. The result of such bad military leadership was a generation of pacifist, even defeatist, Anglo-French policies that left the two democracies hideously ill-prepared for the Nazi onslaught two decades later.

Indeed, the nadir of 20th century military thinking was the Battle of the Somme, fought just a few miles from here. We can think about that futile fight as a stark example of the failure of yet another kind of feedback, of the military's inability to learn from what was happening and to develop new responses to new information.

After brief battles of maneuver in the summer of 1914, the Great War became a trench war. The key factor was the unanticipated and unappreciated superiority of defense to offense; new inventions -- the machine gun, fast-firing artillery and mortars, barbed wire -- made attack by foot suicidal. This was obvious to many observers, but not to the various general staffs, sitting comfortably behind the lines, never venturing to the front to see for themselves the basic realities of life and death their men faced.

The most obtuse generals were the British, notably Sir Douglas Haig, supreme commander after 1915. In the words of historian Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory, "In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention" -- that is, the ability to learn from feedback, to think creatively about overcoming the superiority of defense -- "Haig had none." Instead, Fussell continues, "He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant." And so "He was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting."

And that's what happened in 1916. For a full week at the end of June, 1537 British guns fired 1.5 million shells at the German lines. And at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, whistles blew up and down the British lines, ordering 110,000 Tommies "over the top." Officers, expecting an easy romp across what they were assured would be annihilated German positions, kicked soccer balls into No Man's Land, intending to make a game of decisive victory. Instead, they discovered that high explosives not only failed to cut paths through thickets of barbed wire, they also mashed solid ground into glutinous muck. Moreover, the German defenses were still intact. The enemy had learned to dig deep into the ground, into relative safety, and so when the British advanced, they returned to their firing positions and mowed them down. On that first day of the Somme, 21,000 were killed.

Bizarrely, Haig was promoted to Field Marshall the following year and remained in command of British forces through the end of the war. And yet Haig's most enduring legacy, Fussell observes, is to be remembered as the iconic symbol of Col. Blimp-like buffoonery, as the blood-reckless general who "established the paradigm" of the "unredeemable defectiveness" of military thinking.

But even as top leadership proved unable to learn from the data feeding back to them, others were learning, reacting, researching, and developing. New offensive technology was introduced during the war, including the airplane, the tank, and the flamethrower. None of these innovations made combat more pleasant, but in the hands of the good guys, they could make victory more speedy, and peace more sure.

Of course, since bad guys could generate such innovations, too, the good guys needed to work all the harder -- no final victories in the amoral quest for military advantage. Indeed, military establishments in open societies face a special burden, because the feedback system of public opinion puts pressure on governments to minimize casualties, even in popular wars.

The United States military in the last century hasn't been perfect, but it has been eager for feedback, to respond to challenges with additional dollops of technology. At its best, the Pentagon has been able to look ahead to the next war.

Hence wearable computing. American ground forces proved effective in the last decade, from the Persian Gulf to Haiti to Afghanistan, using lots of high-tech gadgetry, but without wearable computing. Given that record of success, one might suppose that the United States military would rest on its laurels.

Happily, that's not happening. Proving that bad examples, such as Douglas Haig, are a continuing spur to innovation, the Pentagon is displaying the "wit and invention" so absent in this part of France nine decades ago.

One small yet critical factor determining a ground warrior's ability to fight anywhere, anytime, against anything is the ability to keep both hands free, unencumbered by bulky laptops or even smaller personal digital assistants. This combat reality pushes the concept of the "Digital Soldier" in the direction pioneered by Xybernaut. Frederick A. Peterson III, a senior vice president, said in an interview:

Virtually every military establishment in the world is assiduously engaged in research and definition of the "Future Soldier." Billions of dollars have been spent on government efforts to apply new command, control, communications, computing, intelligence-gathering, personal security, and operationally effective technologies into a practical system which can be worn by the combatant to enhance his combat power ratio and achieve tactical superiority over his adversary.

Xybernaut wearable computers are being tested at the Army's Smart Sensor Web Program and Dismounted Battlespace Battlelab at Fort Benning, Ga.; after all, if we don't look ahead, our foes will. But will this specific technology prove effective? It's too soon to know exactly, although the "wired battlefield" of tomorrow is as much of a certainty as the wired workplace of today.

And one more thing is certain. The introduction of wearable computing, linked to information-rich grids, such as the Internet, will guarantee the instantaneous flow of feedback to decision makers. As retired Army major general Paul Vallely said at Chicago Comdex, "Wearable computers will help make it so that even the president, sitting in the White House, can see the battlefield in real time."

Such transparency, from warfront to homefront, won't guarantee victory, of course, but it should guarantee that Somme-like disasters remain in the tragic European past, and never figure in the American future.

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