The United States might be on the brink of high-tech war with Iraq. Again. A few days ago, sensors on an American F-16 fighter over Iraq detected the targeting radar of an enemy missile battery. In the F-16's cockpit, the pilot was probably alerted by a warning on his Heads-Up Display (HUD) - the deadly accuracy of smart weapons compelled him to target the radar source and preempt it with his own missile. Apart from the particular provocation, the scene was similar to the hundreds of aerial shots of smart bombs obliterating distant Iraqi sites we watched on TV in 1991.
Curious, I myself buckled into a similar fighter plane and punched up the HUD. A computer generated an array of green-lit screens and readouts on the cockpit glass. Pre-flight check completed, I received clearance for takeoff. Moments later, I was flying over a dark urban landscape. At 1,000 feet I nosed down, activated the plane's sensors, and scanned tiny vehicles moving across a bridge below. My data was relayed automatically to mission control. Instructions crackled over the intercom. I targeted a truck in my crosshairs, locked in the laser guidance system, selected the munitions package, and launched. I gazed greedily as a smart bomb dropped from my wing and streaked down. Direct hit. The truck flipped in a ball of flame. Now I was having fun. No death, no pain, just gratifying destruction.
The fighter I was flying is the AG-60 HAVOC, part of the arsenal of the G-Police. G-Police is a new release for PCs and for the Sony PlayStation, America's best-selling video-game system. While defense contractors make millions manufacturing smart weapons to maintain our access to oil in the Middle East, computer wizards in Silicon Valley make millions modeling virtual reality software to access the minds of our children.
Air Force Col. John Warden, architect of the Gulf War air campaign, has said that smart weapons revolutionized warfare more than the invention of the rifle. He means that battles can be fought more efficiently, but now the illusion is that we can win wars without killing people. Interactive video games that surpass even Gulf War television images threaten to revolutionize warfare further, by desensitizing tomorrow's policy makers completely to the consequences of fighting.
To be sure, high-tech weapons can save our soldiers' lives, and death is all too real for those who lost loved ones in Desert Storm. But the few members of the PlayStation generation aware of real war are, tragically, mostly inner-city youngsters who see their friends gunned down in the streets. That they will not, for lack of opportunity, influence our future military decision-making might be dangerous deprivation for a privileged society increasingly inclined to play war as a painless electronic pastime.
As new conflict looms with Iraq, new smart-bomb technology is on the way. Soon, satellites will let aircraft launch bombs from as far as 20 miles away from the target. Optical technology promises super-smart bombs that won't even need an assigned target; they go looking for one by themselves.
"Will the Gulf War be the likely prototype for the battlefields of tomorrow?" asked a recent episode of "Nova."
If you can't wait for the next crisis to find out, for now you can play G-Police in the comfort of your living room.
* Trevor Corson is a freelance political commentator based in Islesford, Me. He has worked in peace education in Quaker schools for 10 years.