Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Weapons

There is a common trend among fiction where the plot involved is in the creation of a new weapon or else exploit some discovery for a military purpose even if it is not directly used as a weapon.  Depending on the nature of the story, this can either be portrayed as an expression of the will and ingenuity of the human race in the fact of adversity, or it can be portrayed as our baser, more savage instincts leading us down a path of violence.  The more common interpretation, at least recently, is the latter.  A lot of us seem to have this opinion that anything related to weapons or the military is sinful, evil or at least unwise.  A lot of fiction ends with some hero or group there of using the prototype of a weapon to end a threat, but insuring that the weapon itself is lost as well.


For a recent example, look to the Marvel Film Universe's treatment of the Iron Man technology.  At the beginning of Iron Man, Tony Stark is given a wake up call when he discovers that his weapons have ended up in the hands of terrorists.  His immediate response is to decide to stop making weapons.  The story makes clear that the weapons reached the hands of the wrong people because of the greed and ambition of an evil man, but the attitude that Stark takes towards weapons from that point on makes implicit the suggestion that researching weapons is wrong and should not be done.  This is drawn out further in the second movie when Stark refuses to allow the United States to look at his armor, even refusing to term it a weapon.  This stance is mollified here somewhat when Stark lets Rhodes "beat" him and take one of his prototypes to the military.

When you get to the Avengers, the situation is a bit more blatant.  There is a huge outcry among the various heroes when they discover that SHIELD is looking to use the Tesseract to create weapons itself.  Despite the fact that they're possibly facing an alien invasion, they decry the very idea of developing weapons as bad.  This is especially hypocritical coming from Thor, whose civilization is far advanced of that of Earth and carries a weapon, Mjolnir, that is far more technologically advanced than what SHIELD is looking to create.

We tend to blame weapons for violence.  There is a tendency to believe that the existence of an option for violence will cause people to leap to that option and ignore all others.  Currently, this viewpoint in real life circles around guns and WMDs.

On WMDs, I agree with this position.  The ratio of the scale of WMDs vs the scale of our population is unacceptably high.  But even in this case the matter is two sided.  Assuming we reach the stars, nuclear weapons have a good potential for demolition type use similar to the way we use TNT and the like now.  The components of chemical weapons have other uses and it is necessary to produce diseases in order to produce and stockpile their cures against future outbreaks.  Also, if we ever reach a interstellar civilization, then such weapons would no longer have the scale necessary to threaten the species as a whole and would be downgraded to just another weapon.

As to guns, they are very much the lead example of this viewpoint that weapons are, in and of themselves bad.  The problem with guns is that they are very easy for even an untrained person to use and they can kill from a distance.  We point to the high correlation of gun ownership and gun deaths in America as proof that guns cause deaths, as in the existence of the gun itself causes the death.

There is some very clear logic to this point.  The nature of the gun makes it easier for people to act on brief, emotional impulses.  They are very clearly enablers of violence.  That is what they were designed to be.  Let's look at the characteristics that make this so.  First, guns require less training to be dangerous than many other weapons.  While an untrained gunman will likely miss much more often than they hit, they'll still it at a higher rate than an untrained archer.

As compared to other weapons that can be lethal in untrained hands guns either do not require the wielder to put themselves in nearly as much danger from retaliation, as close combat weapons do, and are not single use items, the way grenades are.  They don't require much preparation the way poisons and such things do.  Many guns are easily concealed in a pocket, with only a small percentage of the population trained to recognize such a bulge.

The physical distance also produces an existential, empathic distance as well.  On a matter of physical difficulty, killing is rather easy.  We have a number of weak points that can be exploited to kill us instantly.  A human infant has enough strength to kill an adult human if they hit the right point of the body.  However, we are a social species that normally has a high degree of empathy.  We do not normally think about killing our fellow humans, not seriously.  We consider the intellectual problems of murder on a day to day basis when we enjoy murder mysteries, crime dramas and the like.  We consider killing each other outside of murder as well when you take into account war movies and actual war.  But we rarely ever get even close to the point of actually making the decision to end another person's life.  The gun allows us to keep our distance from the other person, which reduces the influence of our empathy and makes a last-minute change of heart less likely.

Increased ease, increased personal safety, ease of preparation, ease of concealment and emotional distance all make the gun a weapon of convenience.  Very much an enabler.  And the US, with the highest guns per capita in the world, does have the highest rate of gun fatalities.  However, Canada, with similar numbers of guns and very similar culture have much lower gun fatalities.  Also, if you look at murders as a whole, not just shootings, the United States is very, very far down the list of countries and their murder rates.  Also, while the average murder rate in 2011 internationally was 6.9, the US was at 4.8  Take away guns and impulse murders seem to simply get more brutal because the impulse weapon tends to be more physical.  Also with premeditated murders, the lack of guns will just lead to someone finding another way to make the kill.  So while taking guns might make impulse kills more difficult, it still doesn't take away murder.

What all this logic does is ignore the fact that while the characteristics of the gun make it a great enabler, it still does not remove the element of choice from the person using the gun.  It is still the person's responsibility, not the guns.  The gun reduces risk and effort while not reducing the perceived reward, but, barring accidental shootings, for a person to be killed by a gun still requires someone to make the choice to fire.

That still leaves us with the fact that guns are designed to kill which immediately labels them in the bad category.

However, the concept of a weapon as being bad in and of itself still has problems when you consider the overall impact of weapons on civilization's development.

The human body in and of itself is a well-designed war machine.  Our level of endurance is very high compared to many other species.  Like most primates, pound for pound we're also stronger than a lot of animals, such as sharks and horses.  We have decent to good reflexes.  The sophistication of our vision is highly underrated and our hands can do serious damage even on just instinct.  All of that is not taking into account our intellects and language skills.  Those last two especially take this single well-developed war machine and multiply it's capabilities tremendously.  However, coming back down to one on on confrontations, size counts for a lot.

While humans might be proportionately stronger than many large animals, the sheer size of those animals makes it difficult to even hurt them through their muscle and fat.  Other animals don't need to worry about the fact that we can outlast them, because they don't need that long to kill us.  Proportional strength is of minimal help when the physics behind sheer size are against us.

But our intelligence and cooperation dealt with that.  Let's look specifically at humans vs humans since that is more important to the subject of weapons as being good or bad.

There is a lot of variation in size within our species.  Our adults range in size from people around four feet tall weighing maybe eighty pounds all the way up to people who are seven feet tall and weigh almost three hundred pounds without being overweight.  Actually, the shortest human on modern record was 1' 9.5" and the tallest was 8'11".  Looking closer to the average, compare the ability of a large but athletic, two-hundred twenty pound man against a slightly above average one-hundred eight pound man.  It is also quite likely that the larger man will have significantly more reach and be more tolerant of damage.

Their physical weapons are incredibly unequal even though the larger man isn't large enough to truly be considered an outlier.  The smaller man will need a higher degree of skill to match with the larger man, not accounting for chance of course.  Unlike humans against animals, intellect does not come into it, bigger does not mean stupider in human beings.  Also, the same standard deviation's worth of human intelligence involves a much smaller variance than physical differences.  Assuming skill and experience is equal, and not accounting for immeasurables such as will and chance, the larger man wins.

Now take the same thoughts and apply that to an average sized man and an average sized woman.  Looking at the average heights for all Americans for women and men, so 5'9" and 5'4", respectively.  Now, pulling the high end of weight for the woman, and the low end of average male weights for those heights.  Also assuming medium build and roughly similar levels of physical condition.  Then the weights are are as follows: 138 lbs to the woman and 148 lbs to the man and a height difference of 5".  Ten pounds and five inches of height are a significant advantage, especially given the differences in musculature between men and women even without high levels of exercise.  The average man will tend to overpower the average woman regularly.  Which is why poison has been linked to murders by women far more often than men.

People born larger will naturally run over the rest of the population unless that population acts against them.  Which is where the empathic nature of our species works against us, we are slow to turn against bad members of our own species.  We make excuses for them.  One has to hope that the larger person is a decent individual, and in case they're not, you need another larger person to counter them.

That's all without weapons.  Now give the smaller person a club, like maybe the bone of a large animal they've picked up.  Assume maybe a 2 ft bone.  At this point the differences in reach have been compensated for, the leverage the bone provides allows them to apply significantly more power than without it.  This simple bone evens out the differences between the 220 lb man and the 180 lb man wonderfully, and even seems to tip the scales against the larger man.

Upgrade to knives, spears, swords and so on and you consecutively reduce the importance of physical size and condition in determining the effectiveness of a person attempting to overwhelm someone else.  This does not just help the smaller people, but it now allows more options for the larger people.  They are less likely to be railroaded into an occupation like soldier or something else likely to require violence or danger since physical size is no longer as necessary to be effective at that job.  The weapons also help even out the differences between women and men.

However, all of these weapons still depend heavily on the physical condition of the person in the confrontation.  To be a truly good gunman, a person has to be in good physical condition like any other soldier position, but a person in average or even poor physical condition can still be an effective shooter.  A gun almost completely levels the playing field between people in conflict.  The physical differences that still matter are ones that result from exercise and conditioning.  Size and height are much less of a factor once a gun becomes involved.  Tools free up more options for a wider variety of people and weapons are tools.

You can teach mental capabilities to the majority of the population, but you can't teach size and strength.  You can develop it, but at a certain point you will hit a roadblock that maybe the person next to you will not have.  Physical bodies are unequally finite.  As such, without tools and weapons, people with the physical capability are relegated to the physical jobs, because, again, you can't teach that ability to someone else.  Add the tools and weapons and maybe your giant can choose to become a lawyer or artist or some such thing.

To make the significance of this more clear, going to go back to the superhero fiction.  Quite regularly in superhero comics, you have one or more organizations trying to develop technologies allowing them to face superhumans in a fight effectively.  Assuming the superhumans are the good guys, the nature of these organizations range from shady to downright bigoted.  The general assumption in most of these stories is that if the weapons are successfully developed then they will be used to eliminate all the superhumans will be killed in a genocidal action similar to many real life incidents ranging from the Khmer Rouge, Ruwandan genocide, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust and so on.  However, look at the situation if the weapons are not developed.

Sans weapons allowing a normal human to match with a superhuman, then the superhuman will always be needed to fight other superhumans.  Given the populations of superhumans in most of these stories, this means that pretty much anybody born with a superpower like super strength or pyrokinesis will generally have one option in their life: battling other supers whether they want to or not.

Before weapons and other such effort minimizing tools, large people would be directed into jobs requiring violence or high physical strength.  Likewise, without weapons and armor able to match superhumans, the superhumans are doomed to an existence of battle and conflict.

This extends to other such technology.  One of the most standout cases of stupidity in Marvel comics: Rogue and the Genoshan mutant-nullification collars.  Rogue's main angst is the fact that her powers limit her human contact, which is a very important thing to humans and causes her a lot of headache ranging to trauma.  And yet no one has ever thought to take the Genoshan collars and modify them allowing the wearer to turn them off and on as they need their powers or need them off.  A short list of people capable of making that modification includes Forge, Beast, Reed Richards and Peter Parker.  That's a simple mod to a mass-produced item that would ease the lot of life for a large segment of the mutant population.

Things like the Iron Man tech getting mass produced would end up having superhuman abilities and powers be marked as an interesting anomaly rather than the same degree of fear, even when in a situation where the equalizing weapons are absent.  In real life, think of how often you've been talking in the same room with some much larger than you without realizing the fact that said person could probably rip to pieces if they wanted to.  No, the existence of weapons has driven our thoughts to perceiving that as less of an issue for most of us.  The large man is no longer immediately a figure of terror.  Instead it is just an interesting anomaly, at least until they get angry.

In any case, you can't take weapons from people.  We're born with weapons.  But you can equalize the arsenal.

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