"The database program takes a really long time to load, so ..."
This is perhaps understating it a bit, but there are a few problems with war. There are the human costs, obviously. And the environmental damage. The havoc it wreaks on economies. It, uh ... often leads to folk music. But aside from those obvious issues, there are a whole bunch of consequences you've never even considered. Today's modern soldiers have to contend with things you never did when playing with G.I. Joes in your bedroom. Things like ...
Bills still need to be paid when a soldier goes on deployment, even if organizing the details of your personal and financial life are somewhat complicated when you're dodging bullets several oceans away. To help soldiers deal with these problems, a variety of laws have been passed which shield them from legal hassles. For example, before foreclosing on or repossessing the property of soldiers on active duty, financial institutions are required to obtain a court order. And yet, in a blow to their otherwise-pristine image, it turns out that sometimes financial institutions can't be bothered.
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Last year, Wells Fargo was placed under investigation for not adhering to military lending laws when it was reported to have repossessed at least two cars from active-duty soldiers without a court order. Santander was reportedly doing the same thing, paying $9 million in fines for repossessing over 1,000 vehicles over a five-year period. This included at least one incident in which they reportedly took a soldier's car in the middle of the night after finding out he was at basic training.
It gets more depressing. Banks wrongfully foreclosed on the property of over 700 military personnel in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. One disabled veteran had his house taken away two months before his return from Iraq, removing one of the vital elements of a homecoming before it could even occur.
"This seems like the kind of thing a database could solve," you might reasonably say. And indeed, the government has thought of that already and set up such a database, so that banks can see who is eligible for the protections which come with being active-duty personnel. They just don't bother to check it.
Remember the agony of holding it in as a schoolkid while the teacher played chicken with your prepubescent bladder? Well, imagine that feeling, except you're a fighter pilot thousands of feet in the air, and your only option is to hang on indefinitely, piss your pants, or crash.
There are systems in place, of course, but the "piddle packs" typically provided to pilots are awkward and messy to use. Keep in mind that this is all being done in a very small space. Unharnessing, disrobing, aiming, and all that are nearly impossible when you also have a plane to fly. On cold and long-haul flights, when pilots are padded up beyond recognition, it's generally not even possible. So they simply go in their suits. Pilots have been known to try to avoid this deadly dance by intentionally dehydrating themselves before flight, though that makes them more susceptible to the damaging G-forces of which their planes are capable.
Technology has come to the rescue, sort of, in the form of the Advanced Mission Extender Device (AMXD), an in-flight urination system composed of cups, hoses, and fun.
That's the male unit there with the, uh, glory hole. Women get something that looks a bit like a sanitary pad fighting a robot.
So not exactly the most comfortable things available. Still, the pilots who try it seem to dramatically prefer it to the earlier method of crashing their million-dollar aircraft while wearing piss-soaked pants.
Joint Base Balad, based just outside of Baghdad, was the second-largest U.S. operating base during the peak of the Iraq war. And it stank. That's not some kind of metaphor, the stench of war or something. We're not getting that fancy-pants here. It was the literal, poisonous, noxious waft of burning garbage.
All the garbage.
The stench and smoke were coming from Balad's open-air garbage pit, where anything that could be thrown out was, and then for good measure, burned in hellfire. From feces to batteries to carcasses, everything was drowned in jet fuel and set alight, a process used to dispose of trash in military bases across Iraq. You don't have to be a toxicologist to guess what the result of this was. (If you are a toxicologist, you've probably fainted by now anyway.) It was a huge soup of toxins floating through the air -- heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and arsenic, to name but a few.
If that's not enough, it looks like they built one of these burn pits on top of a former chemical weapons facility, which probably didn't help matters. The health risks posed by these toxins range from respiratory disease to elevated blood pressure to cancer, though for now, it's been difficult to establish direct links between these pits and symptoms that have appeared in soldiers. After all, they get exposed to a lot of unpleasant things in the course of their duties. Still, something to keep in mind the next time you're grousing about lugging your own garbage cans to the curb.
The whole point of robotic warfare is that it puts fewer human lives in danger. But while these cold, lifeless machines don't experience physical pain, there's nothing stopping the soldiers that work with them from suffering emotional pain when the things get broken.
Soldiers have admitted to forming emotional bonds with the bomb disposal bots they work with, treating them more like comrades than tools. They give the bots promotions, take them fishing, and even hold funerals for the poor things when they get blown up. Affectionate names are commonplace, and bots are sometimes named after family members or significant others, which makes it extra difficult when one gets blown apart by an IED.
In at least one case, a soldier has had tears in his eyes when he delivered his disposal bot to the mechanic for repairs, insisting that it get fixed and refusing any offer of a new one. There are even reports of soldiers risking their lives to save these things -- which, so we're clear, were created so that no one would need to risk their lives sometimes. As crazy as that might sound, remember that these people are going through extremely stressful situations with these machines at their sides. It'd be hard not to bond with something, even something inanimate, in that situation.
The good news is that researchers are trying to make this problem much, much worse by making robots even more anthropomorphic. If soldiers will risk their lives for a wheeled box, imagine what they might do to save something with a wagging tail.
Case in point: A new mine-clearing robot was being developed which was boldly designed to clear mines by stepping directly on them. Because it was built like a centipede, it could survive the destruction of many of its limbs, and continue to navigate the minefield after each hit. During a test demonstration of the centi-bot, the colonel overseeing the test asked for it to be shut down. Watching the mangled machine drag itself through the mines was too much for him. He thought the test was inhumane, even though the subject was an unfeeling mechanical insect.
You're certainly familiar with meth. It ravages rural towns, drives award-winning television shows, and once got a couple of your car windows broken. But did you know that it also wins wars? Indeed, rather than freedom, patriotism, or even plain bloodlust, it's been meth that has served as the driving force behind warfare in the 20th century.
Soldiers have been using drugs since forever, but meth really hit the big time in World War II. During the invasion of Poland, the Nazis were giving their own version of meth to their troops to stave off fatigue and create a sense of euphoria. And in an unsightly blemish on their otherwise outstanding human rights record, the Third Reich apparently did this with little regard for the soldiers' health. Many became addicted and would write home to their families, begging them to send more. But we can't only blame the Nazis; British and American troops were on it too.
And then there's the Vietnam War. This has been called one of the original "pharmacological wars," due to the massive amounts of psychoactive substances that were being prescribed to troops. "Pep pills" were some of the most notable examples -- amphetamines given to soldiers to keep them going during long-range recon missions. There were strict guidelines for this, of course, but not strict enough for anybody to bother following them. After all, the people handing out the meth were probably on meth. Between 1966 and 1969, 225 million pills were distributed, and they were twice as strong as the ones that were used in the Second World War.
Along with improving the endurance and dancing ability of the troops, the substances also had the benefit of reducing the mental toll of combat -- at least temporarily. The rate of mental breakdown was a tenth what it was in World War II, a reduction largely credited to the sedatives and neuroleptics administered. These were never going to be anything more than Band-Aid solutions however -- Band-Aids which were violently ripped off when these soldiers returned to the U.S., contributing greatly to the unprecedented levels of PTSD post-Vietnam.
So that's sad. But at least now that we know the long-term damaging effects of meth, the government no longer- ha ha no, kidding. It's still given to troops all the time.
As we've discussed before, soldiers have long had a tendency to take souvenirs home from their deployments -- fun things to place on the mantelpiece like swords, or bullet casings, or human skulls. Well, they're still at it, though the latest generation of soldiers has put a modern twist on this classic (and very illegal) hobby.
Sometime after the fall of Saddam Hussein, items from his palaces began turning up on eBay -- rugs and swords and other trinkets originally brought back by U.S. personnel or security contractors. This wasn't in any way legal, and we think it actually borders on a war crime, but the soldiers involved say it wasn't difficult or even really discouraged. Some were even told they could bring up to ten items home.
Sure, plundering palaces post-invasion may seem a little shady, but trinkets are relatively minor on the scale of potential war trophies. For instance, some soldiers make trophies out of dead bodies. It isn't uncommon for troops to keep pictures of themselves posing alongside corpses and various severed body parts. Some soldiers have been known to create compilations of these macabre moments and pass them around on thumb drives like a baseball card album.
But again, even that is kind of minor in the grand scheme of war trophies, which is a scale that runs from "taking home a bullet casing" to "making jewelry out of body parts." Like this unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan, who were convicted of killing civilians and cutting off their fingers to keep as souvenirs. In retrospect, it suddenly makes way more sense why the higher-ups were willing to turn a blind eye to a bunch of stolen swords and rugs.
That particular incident is an anomaly, to be sure, but when you're feeding people meth and burning garbage, making them pee on themselves, repossessing their homes, and encouraging them to dehumanize the enemy, you're rolling the dice on the edge of that anomaly pretty much every day.
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