Biomedical Enhancements in the Military

May 17, 2011 by Rebecca Choi

One of the more interesting lectures at the Human Enhancement Symposium was given by Dr. Mehlman. The topic of the lecture was biomedically enhanced warfighters. In 2003, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced the “Enhanced Human Performance Program” of its Bio-Revolution program. DARPA continues to fund dozens of human augmentation projects to ensure that the U.S. military retains a technological edge over its adversaries. Interestingly, the military prefers the euphemistic term optimization to describe these enhancement projects. Why the focus on the military?  Those in the military are more likely to undergo or have access to experimental enhancements before (and if) they become available to the civilian population. Dr. Mehlman even points out that these enhancements could even become enlistment privilege. If this happens, the issue becomes: Should enhancements be removed when soldiers are discharged? This, however, is besides the point.

The issue that concerns Dr. Mehlman is that soldiers could be forced to undergo experimental enhancements without informed consent. In a document entitled “Performance Maintenance During Continuous Flight Operations,” pilots are encouraged/required to use dexedrine or “go pills” to help them perform their duties for extended periods of time without rest. The use of government-issued amphetamines has been linked to friendly fire incidents and erroneous attacks on civilians. Clearly, the welfare of the warfighter is not the paramount concern for the military and it could be argued that these soldiers lose some rights as they gain the right to kill. Dr. Mehlman, however, stresses that it is crucial to ensure that the rights of soldiers are subordinated to military necessity only if the risks undertaken are for legitimate military ends; the same goes for the public health model. Ideally, the burdens would be outweighed by the benefits and adverse risks would be minimized. In other words, the enhancements should be reversible or temporary. Dr. Mehlman also recommends that enhancements that decrease moral judgment be avoided and that risks/benefits be distributed as fairly as possible. Also, he advises that oversight be provided by an independent group of experts.

Military commanders’ coercion of soldiers to get enhancements/treatments is problematic. In the Gulf War, the U.S. military gave soldiers nerve agent PB (pyridostigmine bromide) and various pesticides (DEET and Permethrin) – a highly toxic combination. These chemical agents were ostensibly given to the soldiers in conjunction with vaccines for anthrax and botulism to protect them but instead worsened the health of the soldiers and may have contributed to what is known as Gulf War Syndrome. If true, the military commanders’ coercion of soldiers to get these pretreatments was egregious but it is not the only issue. Another problem crops up if soldiers are too willing to consent to enhancements that could result in negative side effects (increased aggression and decreased empathy) and unintended collateral damage. This is true for all enhancements in general.