Brave New Soldier?

They're known as "go pills," and the US military should seriously consider putting a stop to them.

In the Gulf War, most Air Force pilots took these amphetamines in hopes of combating fatigue on long missions - despite warnings of possible side effects, such as addiction, depression, and aggression. Between sorties, pilots were offered sedatives, dubbed "no-go pills," to induce sleep.

As it turns out, two American pilots facing possible court-martial for mistakenly bombing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year were also "go-pill" users. Four Canadians were killed, the first battlefield losses for their country since the Korean War. If convicted, the pilots could get up to 64 years in prison.

In a hearing this week, lawyers for the two men used the defense that the use of the pills - issued by the Air Force - may have impaired the pilots' judgment. Military authorities argue the pilots simply disobeyed proper military procedure, including an order to "hold fire."

One of the pilots, Maj. Harry Schmidt, dropped a 500-pound bomb after spotting tracer fire from the ground that he claims indicated a possible attack. But it turned out the Canadian soldiers were simply engaging in a nighttime military exercise.

If the stimulants are shown to have had a role in this tragedy, it should alert the US to reconsider the use of medicine for mental and physical enhancement of soldiers' performance.

Military reliance on stimulants has a long history. It goes back at least 60 years, and if you count coffee, further than that. Today, pilots are regularly issued these pills, and take them if they feel they need them.

This chemical approach to creating better warriors also has a purpose far more revolutionary than keeping airmen like Major Schmidt awake and focused (the major, with his buddy, was working a 20-hour day on that tragic sortie).

According to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military sees a bright future in chemically enhanced soldiers. One goal is "continuous assisted performance" of combatants for up to seven days.

A DARPA document states, "In short, the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a 21st-century revolution in military affairs that results in operational dominance across the whole range of potential US military employments."

This drive to engineer a type of human that can perform like a machine may be medically possible, but it's rushing ahead without much public debate about the ethical or health questions it poses.

The pilots' trial shows the danger of letting the Pentagon go further in this "brave new world" of medical tinkering.

Just as human cloning raises questions of bizarre possibilities about new types of human life, so must the Pentagon realize the danger of drug enhancement in possibly harming soldiers and many innocents.

Perhaps the high-profile case of these two American pilots can serve to remind the military that it is best to stick with technological improvements of their equipment, rather than of their soldiers.

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