Note: The technological progress which seeks to sanitize warfare just might be our undoing.
Private Joe Marker lay on the ground, wounded, too close to the enemy and too far from his comrades for rescue. His rifle lay on the ground just out of reach, his left leg ached and he dared not stop hugging the hole in his chest to reach for his weapon. His Little Dog robot scampered back to the lines, carrying his pack and spare ammunition away from the enemy’s grasping hands. Shells flew across the battlefield, and he could hear small arms fire, as well. The noxious odor of spent munitions nauseated him. He might be done for, and he knew it, because the blood was oozing out of his chest, seeping between his fingers, dripping onto the ground, spilling out his life. He tried not to moan, in spite of the pain, and he resisted the urge to lift his head and look around. If the enemy spotted him, they would finish him, or worse, capture and torture him.
The sound of rescue reached his ears in the form of rolling treads, spinning gyros and whining servo motors. He hoped that this was what his mind told him it must be, what his heart told him it had to be. All at once, the friendly teddy-bear face of the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, BEAR, bent down and gazed at his prone body. The robot’s pre-recorded voice assured him that he was being rescued. The BEAR maneuvered close to him on its system of wheels, tracks and joints. Metal arms capable of carrying up to five hundred pounds gently lifted him and held him low, close to the ground, cushioned on the rubberized casing of the robot arms that held him securely, while the BEAR carried him over the rough terrain, back to base camp and safety and medics. The whole time, a pre-recorded voice issued soothing reassurances that the robot was carrying him to safety and medical aid.
The military expected the same technology that had saved his life to win the war.
The BEAR had been available for several years, but not every unit had one. It could carry only one casualty at a time, but for that one soldier it was enough. The enemy had the habit of shooting BEARs, even though it violated the Conventions, since the loss of a robot cost the military more money than the loss of a soldier and made it necessary for personnel to risk their lives to do the same work. It also meant that fewer casualties could be rescued.
The factories were turning out new BEARs all the time, working extra shifts to supply the demand for more and better robots. The military maintained an open order, purchasing them as fast as they could be built. The war kept spreading across the globe, so the need for technology mushroomed. The military maintained that technology, not bodies, would win the war.
Marker, lying in his hospital bed, thanked God and the engineers who designed the BEAR for saving his life. He had a broken rib and a shattered in his leg, but he would live to fight again, walking or running into the battlefield on steel rods with a knee joint powered by tiny servo motors. He wondered what the BEAR would do if it found a wounded enemy. Would it rescue any casualty on the battlefield? Was it designed to recognize the uniforms of the opposing sides? Certainly the BEAR would never kill anyone; it had no weapons, since it was strictly a rescue vehicle. Its programming ensured that it did no harm to anyone, not even by bumping into people. If the BEAR found its way blocked by a person, it would stop and turn in another direction or wait until the way was clear. Inanimate objects, on the other hand, could be lifted and moved aside by the robot arms.
In between bouts of unconsciousness, he thought about his wife and kids, relived the battle and cried out to God and all the saints. He relived the nightmare of war, the scattered rifle fire and the screams of missiles, the order to charge and his sudden fall to the ground. He wasn’t sure whether his leg went out from under him before or after he felt the pressure in his chest, and he couldn’t be sure whether he blacked out from the pain or from the loss of blood. He knew only that he woke up to hear the sound of the blessed robot coming to rescue him.
Robots were more than capable of fighting, but regulations required every weapon to be controlled by a soldier, a man or woman. Even though the military had come to depend more on technology than on soldiers, they did not trust a robot to make the decision whether to kill. That political decision ensured that Joe Marker and men like him would have a job to do.
The enemy had no robots. The nomadic rebels scavenged their weapons whenever the opportunity arose, and they bought them when they could. Their populist movement seemed to have more bodies than guns, so they never bothered to retrieve their wounded or their dead. They had few vehicles, and many of them still rode horses or camels. Yet they had proved impossible to root out. Whenever victory was declared, another rag-tag group of fifty or a hundred of them would appear out of nowhere and take over a village or a town. They came out of the caves, forests and underground tunnels, fought and ran, then disappeared back into their hiding places.
Such an enemy was impossible to destroy, since more of them constantly appeared, recruited from the ranks of the civilian population, by propaganda or by force.
The robot medics, with the same teddy-bear faces as the rescue robots, hovered over Joe Marker and kept his body clean, warm and alive. Nanobots scavenged the infection from his wounds. After a lengthy recovery and a six-week furlough with his family, he was deployed to his next battle.
Lying back in his recliner chair at home, Marker watched the television news and talk shows with wonder and bewilderment. The anti-robot organizations were picketing the factories where the BEARs were manufactured, carrying signs with slogans like, “Make jobs, not war” and “Robots kill clean.” The spokespeople on the talk shows talked about how robots were sanitizing the war. One in particular, a Mrs. Roberta Robertson, caught his attention when she talked about how her son was rescued and healed by robots three times before the military finally sent him home. She reminded him of an old cartoon character, a woman with blue hair and a squeaky voice. She insisted that her son would be better off dead than the way he was now.
“They broke his mind and his spirit,” she said. “They wouldn’t let him go until they couldn’t fix his broken body one more time. He’s been traumatized by injuries that should have killed him the first time, and that would have been better than going back to the battlefield, to kill and be killed, over and over.”
The talk show host, a sympathetic-looking middle-aged man with a bad comb-over, maintained that robots should not be sanitizing the war, making it easier and cleaner for people to kill each other.
Another guest came on and talked about the control issues with robots. A balding man with wire-rimmed glasses, touting his new book, explained in layman’s terms the way the robots were programmed with manual overrides that didn’t always work. “In real-world testing,” the expert claimed, “robots failed to respond to the manual controls. They rolled over dummies that represented wounded soldiers, and the weight of a thousand-pound robot would have crushed a real human body.” He went on to state that some robots rescued inanimate objects, rolling right on past the dummies that represented wounded soldiers, in order to retrieve guns and ammunition. “Until these programming glitches are solved,” he warned, “we cannot trust the lives of our soldiers to robots.”
Joe Marker disagreed. He felt himself already to be half robot, with his artificial leg and a radio implanted in his ear for communication on the battlefield.
The talk show host offered some balance in the form of a thirty-second clip of a corporate executive explaining that those tests had led to improvements in the software that made the robots operate safely in real-world situations. Joe wished that they would show more of that side of the argument.
The furlough had given him time to think about his life, to regret joining the military and to wish never again to be sent into battle where he must maim and kill or be maimed and killed. He marched with his comrades because they were ordered to march, and the worst thing a soldier could do was to abandon his unit. As he neared the battlefield, he began looking forward to action. His training overruled his negative emotions and he was ready to fight again.
The main forces had been pinned down for a week, huddling in trenches behind their armored vehicles, most of which no longer moved because their wheels and tracks were clogged with sand and dust, or their steel plates had been penetrated by uranium-tipped armor-piercing rounds, their gas tanks blown up, or their engines torn to shreds. The “fresh” troops sent to relieve them, battle-weary veterans themselves, arrived with their own army of BEARs, cleaner robots and medics, ready to carry out the wounded to a mobile tent-hospital ten miles away from the gory field of battle. The commanders must have requisitioned every robot they had for this one mission, judging from the numbers. Many of the BEARs were version 2.0. The upgraded version of the BEAR came with its own little army of nanobots, machines so small that the soldiers couldn’t really see them. The tiny bots swarmed over and inside the BEAR, constantly cleaning sand and dust out of their host, and even making repairs when needed.
Private Joe Marker watched as the BEARs crossed the open battlefield ahead of the troops. A shell burst near one of the robots, shredding its rubber tracks and temporarily immobilizing the BEAR. The memory metal wheels popped out their own dents and became round again. The self-healing material of the tracks reformed itself, each scrap of rubber and each thread of steel reinforcing fiber curling itself, twisting and flipping, until it returned to its proper place. The nanobots cleaned off the dust and nitrates from the explosion and glued the shreds of the track together. All this took place so fast that Marker couldn’t really see it happening. He simply remembered it from the slow-motion sequences in the propaganda videos that he had watched at home with his wife.
The enemy lines were so far away that the arriving troops couldn’t see their encampment, but they did encounter shells landing within a hundred yards of their lines as they marched about a half a mile behind the small army of BEARs. Armored vehicles and heavy artillery rolled along their flank, pelting the enemy lines and offering some protection to the mass of troops who marched across barren sand, around shelled out craters, relentlessly trudging on toward danger, against all natural instinct. Drones flitted overhead, spotting the enemy installations and targeting them with laser beams to guide in the smart bombs.
Advancing technology had improved their weapons, their armor and their robots, but warfare still required personnel to maim, to kill and to die. Even so, the military still maintained that technology, not bodies, would win the war.
Joe Marker’s unit made it to the trenches with no casualties. The small cleaner robots, CRs, were still working at the filth and garbage that had been building up while the main force was pinned down. These machines, which resembled tank-style vacuum cleaners, were little self-contained factories filled with nanobots capable of tearing things apart down to the molecular level and sorting the materials, and even rearranging them into new compounds. It was amazing to watch them take stinking filth and recycle it into usable resources -- plastic, metal, oil, paper, wood and even food emerged from the rubble, arranged in neat and orderly stacks, cans and boxes. Joe was beginning to believe the government propaganda about how technology was going to win the war. His sergeant still insisted that the war would be won on blood and guts, and that was also true. They settled into the trenches and waited for the artillery to soften up the enemy.
The order to charge eventually came, as it always did, and the soldiers dutifully marched double time toward their doom. Joe ran the first fifty yards, then dropped to the ground and belly crawled toward the nearest enemy fox hole. Machine gun fire rattled over his head, so he hunkered down and held still, face down in the dirt. He hated the taste of dirt.
The BEAR announced its arrival with the sounds of rolling treads, spinning gyros and whining servo motors. Joe figured that some lucky or unlucky, depending upon how you looked at it, soldier must be waiting nearby to be carried away from the battle to safety and medical attention. A mortar shell whistled overhead and landed some distance away, with a thud. It must have been a dud. Soon the bots would find it and recycle all of its parts.
Contrary to all common sense, Joe felt the arms of a BEAR lifting him up from his hunkered down position, while the pre-recorded voice assured him that he was being carried to safety and medical aid.
“But I am not wounded!” he protested.
The BEAR continued rolling along with Joe firmly grasped in its steel arms.
He reached for the manual override button and pressed it firmly, but the robot ignored his command to stop. He pressed the button again and again, but it had no effect on the BEAR.
The recording kept on playing, deaf to his objections. He was being carried to safety and medical aid, and there was nothing he could do about it. Just the same, he kicked and screamed and struggled to break loose from the robot arms.
By the time the commanders realized what was happening, it was too late. The cleaner robots had spread out over the field of battle and recycled all of the ordinance. The enemy had no live ammunition, either. The CRs continued recycling the big guns into stacks of sheet metal and boxes of neatly sorted screws and rivets, gauges, hoses, belts and other parts. The BEARs loaded the transport trucks with struggling, unwounded troops and went back to get more bodies out of harm’s way. Medic robots prevented them from jumping out of the trucks. The CRs, close behind, dismantled the soldiers’ rifles and broke them down into their component parts. Medic robots drove the trucks away, toward the base camp ten miles from the battlefield.
Joe Marker and the others protested the whole time, but there was nothing they could do.
Joe paced around the hospital cafeteria on stocking feet, his shoes having been confiscated by the medic robots. He felt the need to keep moving, to work off nervous energy and blow off steam. More troops arrived in a constant flow, filling the entire building with confused, angry, disarmed soldiers who demanded to know why they were brought to the hospital, when they were not even wounded. As the minutes and hours went by, the place became too crowded for pacing, so Joe sat down and tried to eat a plate of food. The hospital had been designed to handle as many as twenty percent casualties, but the BEARs were bringing all of them, a hundred percent, even the highest ranking officers. The robots stood blocking all of the doors, so he couldn’t even leave the cafeteria, let alone the building. The noise of hundreds of men talking beat at his ears, so he couldn’t make out what anybody was saying, or even what he was thinking.
The room quieted when a full bird Colonel entered the room, stood by the far wall and shouted, “Attention!”
All the men saluted and listened to the strangest speech they had ever heard. The robots lacked voices and could not speak, so they could only infer what had happened by the actions that had been observed. Apparently, through a glitch in their programming, the robots had interpreted their mission to save lives as a mission to stop the battle. Every weapon had been rendered useless and every combatant had been removed from the field. This meant both sides, so they had also rounded up the many rebels that had not managed to escape. The hospital was filled with enemy soldiers, and the men were ordered not to approach them. The robots would not allow any sort of confrontation, not even a bare-fisted fight. They had already tried it.
So, Joe thought, the military was right: technology won the war.
* * *
Copyright 2007,2010 Tessa B. Dick
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with the express permission of the author
This story first appeared in "Quachi and Other Storeis and Poems," an anthology by Tessa Dick. If you'd like to purchase a copy, you can do so here http://www.amazon.com/Quachi-Stories-Tessa-B-Dick/dp/1434893707/ref=sr_1...
and of course her own website is available here http://tessadick.blogspot.com/