Political figures and military analysts are lining up on talk shows to caution Americans that this will be a different kind of war, protracted, costly, secretive. But recent military confrontations have taught Americans to expect conflicts primarily waged by machines -- wars without real sacrifice. This war began with dreadful, although geographically localized, civilian sacrifice. But those greenish nighttime pictures are already pouring out of Kabul and Kandahar, along with the precision-bomb photos, and satellite shots of training camps and military outposts. Most Americans are convinced that technology -- GPS targeting systems, thermal imaging, new intelligence retrieval systems, pilotless drone reconnaisance aircraft, high-altitude bombers, special forces equipped with goggles than can see into caves -- will carry the day for us. Will it? What can technology really do for us in this new war?
Both the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, from Desert Storm to Kosovo, advanced the idea of conflict with little civilian loss and few casualties of our own. But thousands of American civilians are already dead in this conflict, greater civilian losses than in any war in U.S. history. Still, the military analysts, network pundits and Pentagon officials are going to great lengths to point out that Taliban and fundamentalist fighters are skilled and determined, that this conflict will be long and difficult, that our expectations should be kept realistic. And bin Laden is a surprisingly agile enemy. He not only grasps America's most vulnerable points, he understands "spinning," using video-imagery and satellite transmission to get his side of the story out. This is something Saddam never began to grasp.
But are our expectations realistic? Are we once again overrating our own technology, and underestimating less sophisticated cultures and populations? Most Americans have been prepared for years to place enormous faith in a range of new technologies that are supposed to make us the most powerful military force in world history. Sophisticated technologies devastated the Iraqi military in Desert Storm. While their results were more controversial in the Kosovo action, there remained little American loss of life. The bloody action in Somolia showed us yet again that technology is not effective if it can't be used for political or military reasons. And Panama and Grenada resembled police actions more than military conflicts.
In this new war, though, it seems clear that American forces will be involved in some sort of ground fighting on Afghanistan's murderous terrain, and that would mean a battle more reminiscent of Vietnam than Kuwait.
What can technology do for us? Can GPS targeting systems really place bombs that accurately? Can intelligence analysts in the U.S. instantly track raw data without leaving their offices? Can civilian populations really be protected? Can thermal imaging and satellite surveillance see into caves or track small units in mountainous terrains? Can government computers follow money around the world? Will our soldiers' tech-equipped vehicles, equipment and weapons give them an edge over the the Russians, who were chewed to bits in their conflict with Afghanistan guerrillas, but whose equipment was comparatively primitive? Have we actually developed a new mix of tech-supported human and machine warfare that is deadly, flexible and effective?
From reading the papers and watching the generals on TV, we see confidence from the military that the answers to most of these questions is yes. But the people reading this have a much better than average grasp of these tech issues. Do you agree? What can tech do for us -- or not do -- in this supposedly new era?