As the world’s largest democracy, India establishes the record for the largest number of votes cast every time it holds its general election. Elections in India are always celebrated like festivals, complete with their own rituals in the press, rhetoric by contestants, and excitement amongst the masses. There are many reasons as to why the coming election in India (due in April and May 2019) will be especially interesting and perhaps even peculiar.
Ordinary human soldiers simply do not cut it anymore. At least that’s the impression given by Hollywood’s obsession with “super soldiers” of superhero franchises (“Marvel” and “Justice League”) and robotic dystopian infamy (“Matrix” and “Blade Runner”). But how attainable are the abilities of mutant or enhanced humans in real life?
Research is progressing rapidly and super soldiers will certainly exist in the very near future, but not in the box office-storming form depicted by Hollywood. Firstly, there is no precisedefinition of a “super soldier” beyond the characterization of an individual whose capabilities exceed existing human aptitude. Secondly, current super soldier development–at least, what is known to the public–is much subtler and, regrettably, less sexy than media portrayals suggest. Scientists face constricting realities that their fictional counterparts overcome rather easily or simply fail to address. However, this hasn’t prevented a race among strategic competitors to operationalize said technology and gain military advantage.
With the publicization of advances in gene-editing technology, particularly in light of news that Chinese scientists have utilized CRISPR technology to create the world’s first genetically-modified babies, some alarmists fear that CRISPR will be applied to create genetically superior humans. Fortunately, such scientific abilities remain a ways out of reach. Additionally, there is little evidence of large-scale programs utilizing radiation or other nefarious means to grant individuals superhuman abilities through mutation. Instead, super soldier research falls under three main categories: enhancement, exosuits and augmentation.
The most common research undertaken towards creating super soldiers focuses on simple physical and cognitive performance enhancement. Scientists look to maximize soldier training and performance without drastic alterations to the human genome–similar to scientific training approaches used in professional sports to get the most out of athletes. As explored in a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the U.S. military is demonstrably sleep-deprived and provided with insufficient nutrients. Resulting lapsesin cognitive performance (reactionary sharpness and decision-making ability in moments of intense stress) and physical performance (exhaustion and capacity to carry their heavy body armor) impair combat effectiveness. To supplement the selection of stimulants already widely distributed by American military branches as mentioned by the CNAS report, researchers are experimenting with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, which helps neurons conveying brain signals faster. Soldiers will be able to react more quickly and maintain their focus for longer, which has the potential to drastically increase troop survivability rate.
Exosuits and Exoskeletons
Another branch of super soldier technology focuses on enhancing troop capabilities through wearable suits or exoskeletons, which are removable and do not alter the abilities of the users themselves. Both Russia and the United States have created competing prototypes of Hollywood-like exosuits with advanced armaments and combat capabilities, but they are immensely heavy and require extreme amounts of power to operate. With battery lives lasting no more than a few hours at present and weight beyond what soldiers can carry, their combat effectiveness is extremely limited.
Far from armored weapons systems designed to turn users into human arsenals à la Marvel’s “Iron Man” or Tom Cruise’s mech suit in “Edge of Tomorrow,” the modern generation of exoskeletons are designed primarily to increase soldier endurance and survivability rates through mobility. According to another CNAS report, “Exoskeletons with more modest goals, such as lower-body exoskeletons that are designed simply to increase mobility, reduce energy expenditure and reduce musculoskeletal injuries, may show more promise in the near-term.” These “soft skeleton” exosuits are light and require little power to operate. Fitted on top or even under a soldier’s uniform, they aid mobility by assisting leg joints without hindering natural movement, using biomechanics and even artificial intelligence to synch with a soldier’s unique gait. Several defense labs and companies, including Lockheed Martin and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, are currently under contract to develop soft exosuits for the U.S. government.
A third method of infusing humans with superhuman abilities is “augmentation,” perhaps the most questionable and sinister-seeming field of application. While it seeks to push the limits of human capability similarly to physical and cognitive enhancements, augmentation differs because its effects on humans are potentially permanent. Because of the strong ethical and strategic implications, government research into augmentation is likely to be secretive, blurring the line between rumor and reality.
In attempting to imbue soldiers with traits unattainable to humans, scientists turn to the animal world rather than science-fiction. Unclassified research fromU.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) includes experiments on an anesthetic vaccine to reduce pain sensitivity completely at the site of a wound and studies on marine mammals like dolphins and whales, who never fully sleep, to understand how to reduce human sleep dependency. Instead, one side of a whale’s brain sleeps at a time, with the other carrying out basic functions such as allowing the whale to surface for air. Labs have also attempted to replicate a goose’s ability to fly 5 days without eating through hemoglobin adjustment and a sea lion’s control over its blood flow to prevent altitude sickness when changing depths.
Global “Super Soldier” Competition
The major contenders for strategic supremacy in terms of super soldier development are the United States, China and Russia. While they attempt to publicly one-up each other throughflashyexhibitions of exoskeleton progression, the real competition likely occurs in secret labs as researchers advance projects classified for both their strategic importance and ethical ambiguity. The U.S. government’s accountability to its citizens and relative transparency is a great disadvantage in this area. Among the major powers, the United States has the largest accumulation of scientific and military innovation ability; Russia doesn’t have the volume or quality of research institutions to match the United States as it once did and China still lags in terms of original military innovation. Yet, Russia and China benefit from less institutional restrictions on boundary-pushing experimentation. Far less information on super soldier development is made publicly available by the Russians or Chinese. Military competition places the United States in a tough spot from a game theory perspective: if they suspect that rivals will pursue domination in “super soldier” development through unethical means and high levels of spending, can the United States afford not todo the same? In true “arms race” fashion, competition ratchets up as each actor perceives the same uncertainty, logically opting to accelerate super soldier research.
Even in an era where military calculus appears dominated by precision drone strikes, cyber warfare and nuclear detente, individual soldiers remain indispensable. Unmanned, long-distance warfighting has enabled humans to bring about World War III in a matter of minutes; ground troops provide a more measured, less-escalatory solution to armed conflicts. For this reason, militaries will continue to maximize the abilities of their soldiers through modern technological means. Yet–as research has demonstrated–creating super soldiers requires far more than a secret serum or quick blast of radiation. Movie buffs rejoice; the defense industry won’t be putting action flicks out of business just yet.
It is 6 o’clock in the evening on the 14th of June in Cape Town. The sun begins to descend over the South Atlantic Ocean and an evening fog spills off the edges of Table Mountain like smoke over a cauldron’s brim. Most of the city’s inhabitants are huddled around a television somewhere anticipating the first whistle which will kick off the 21st FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Excitement is ample as only eight years before, this moment belonged to South Africa. Meanwhile, in the parking lot of a small school soccer turf, the doors of a white suburban SUV fling open and eight young boys scramble out, barely managing to shut the doors as they race to the field with loosely tied cleats. The coach, Sbusiso Cebekhulu–Sibu for short–follows with a mesh bag of soccer balls hanging over his shoulder. This is his team– at least for the week.
Sbusiso has just made the nearly one hour drive from one of the city’s largest townships –Khayelitsha– where twice a week he picks up some of the local kids to coach them in his favorite sport. He has been playing soccer since childhood and hopes to extend this passion to as many young South Africans as he can. “I have just over 200 boys,” he laughs watching the eight boys do their warm ups. “I don’t train them all at the same time. Under 10s and under 13s. Whoever fits in the car.”
24 years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town, as with most South African cities, is still plagued with racialized social and economic inequalities. The greatest visible evidence of remaining injustices lies in the bird’s eye view of the city. In Cape Town, the wealthy and the poor often live only minutes apart. Townships were originally formed as means of systematic racial segregation. Around Johannesburg, early townships first “housed” men from the villages looking for work in the mines, and in Cape Town they served as controlled living spaces for a cheap and controlled labor supply to white settlers in the city. Tribe separations defined in the colonial era, factored in with tensions of poverty and lack of community development, have set the circumstances for continued problems associated with life in townships today.
Sibu’s concern lies in the future of the children growing up bearing the burdens of this colonial legacy. “People move from the villages to the townships to move closer to the city, but in townships there is crowding, people living in squatter settlements. The conditions are unhealthy. There is no space. They cannot perform cultural rituals that define Africans. The kids fall apart. No dancing or singing that used to be entertainment for our grandparents. Their parents are not hands on. They can’t be. They have to go to work, even the commute takes so much time. There is a lack of quality time.”
According to Sbusiso, parental guidance and general mentorship is largely lacking in these circumstances. He explains, “90% of parents in the townships work in the city which is 30 km from the townships. Bad traffic congestion and public transport makes the workday longer. If work starts at 8 a.m., you have to leave the house at 5:30 a.m. You arrive, you work until 5 p.m. Those are normal hours. From 5 o’clock there is lots of traffic. You have to get into queues for the bus. You arrive home at 7:30 p.m. Your child goes to school and they go and come back without your presence. Who monitors that child? What about homework, what about safety? My point I want to raise is that parents in townships are irresponsible. But it is not their choice. The system forces them into it. They have to commit to work and sacrifice parental guidance. The kids basically raise themselves. They smoke, they start practicing how to rob people. Young girls get raped and become pregnant.”
It is well established that children growing up in poverty are at much higher risk for mental health issues. In Cape Town, this is largely a racialized problem. A recent study determined that “black children appeared the most disadvantaged across almost all poverty indicators,” including measures of access to basic amenities, educational advancement, and parental presence and employment status. Importantly, the hope for improvement on existing inequalities is threatened by mechanisms harmful to adolescent development such as exposure to violence, food insecurity, and substance abuse, as well as lack of employment opportunities.
Sibusiso, with three children of his own, hopes to work against this problem through sport. “I used to dream of being a professional soccer player. That didn’t happen, but I’ve learned that sport can teach you a lot about life and discipline. Working with your team builds you morally and teaches you responsibility. So, I came up with this academy. I was inspired by the fact that there were people before me, that took me from the streets in the townships. They trained me and helped me find my talent and skill for soccer. They never got anything for it. Now, I am trying to build an academy to make a difference in underserved communities, by educating the boys and introducing them to sport the right way. My other biggest worry is that if we don’t look after these boys, the 10-year-olds, the 13-year-olds, they might turn to gangsterism. They might be the ones robbing you in five years. They are vulnerable, they are all over the streets. But, within them you can see soccer as something they love, something that unites them. Importantly, I can teach them important values through sport, it’s possible.
The history of South Africa is inextricably tied to many problems the country faces today. As legacies of creeping imperialism morph into modern unprecedented levels of globalization, unique challenges of both eras harrow societies around the world. However, the immense direct value of local action and impact must not be forgotten. Sbusiso reflects on his positionality in this project: “Apartheid and racism took place for more that 100 years. We are only 24 years into democracy. We can’t just compare the two eras and say democracy is not right. We need to give ourselves a chance. There is change within 24 years that we can be proud of. I saw a problem. That’s why I have a soccer academy. I’m doing something about it so that in 10 or 15 years time my academy will be helping thousands of boys. I hope this can be an example for others.”
In the foreground of the iconic profile of the mountain referred to as “Lion’s Head,” Sibu blows the whistle to mark the end of the scrimmage. The boys, sweat-drenched and panting, still have enough energy to debate their favorite teams in the 2018 World Cup. Underlying the dedication to this group lies a philosophy to which only contextualized translation can seek to do justice. Sibu reveals “There is a quote from Desmond Tutu, a political leader that helped South Africa go through the democratic era. He says: ‘Ubuntu, Ubuntu, nabatu.’ A person is a person through other people. Working together as a society, we can achieve something. That is the spirit you find in the townships. Ubuntu is humanity. I don’t expect any money from this soccer project; I am just trying to give back and help expand this project… get materials for the boys. It’s all part of this philosophy. We must love one another for us to understand one another.” Even the simplest acts, like planning soccer drills and seeking out a practice space for the group, are the kinds of impactful local actions that feed the greater movement towards establishing equality in South Africa. After all, the playing field cannot be leveled if there is no field to play on.