Saturday, June 17, 2006

Latest column:


But I can see through it all, see into their very souls, and see there nothing but the souls of beasts.
--H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau

One of my favorite stories—if the meaning of the term “favorite” can be extended to include items so freakish and bizarre that they refuse to leave the memory—of 2005 was the report that, during the 1920s, Soviet scientists were actually working to create human-ape hybrids for use in the Red Army. "I want a new invincible human being,” Stalin is quoted commanding the scientists, “insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat."

Details of the program were few, but it was of course a complete failure: None of the (thank goodness) artificial inseminations of human sperm into female chimpanzees produced any fertilizations. To this day, no one has ever been able to successfully hybridize humans and apes: The Wikipedia entry on “Chumans,” or chimpanzee-human hybrids, is pretty definitive here. Nevertheless, I want to speculate a bit—because I can’t resist—on what it would mean, both in real-world and gaming/simulation terms, if the experiments were successful, and if the Red Army was able to deploy ape-man forces in World War Two. I’d add the additional speculation that they could somehow be bred in militarily significant numbers by then.

One would imagine that such units, in spite of Stalin’s insistence, would be of very low quality. (I keep thinking of the Wells novel, where the human-animal hybrids are always threatening to devolve back into animals). The prime virtue of such troops is less their hardiness than their disposability—essentially the same reason the American military is employing more and more robots these days. Very little would be required of ape-man soldiers, one would think, beyond absolute obedience, total ruthlessness, and rudimentary weapons skills. The presumed cruelty and animal viciousness of such creatures would no doubt have appealed to Stalin.

Arguably, the Soviet ape-man program was an outside-the-box response to the near-total failure of strategic and tactical imagination that was World War One (The Germans’ Blitzkrieg doctrine was an infinitely better response to the same problem.) The context for all warplanners in the 1920s was always The Great War, and in that conflict warfare meant nothing but the static meatgrinder of attriting trench warfare. Massive losses of manpower in the war were painful militarily, painful for morale, and even painful demographically. The creation of a military caste of subhumans would solve this problem instantly. It would be the famous Robert Minor Daily Worker cartoon come to life: Two generals admire a massive and muscular but headless figure standing before them while the caption reads: “At last, the perfect soldier!” (Ironically, the cartoon was intended as satiric criticism of capitalist warmongering)

Simulation counters for ape-man units would be, I contend, of similar low quality. Divisions would be the equivalent of 1/1 creatures in Magic the Gathering: Something to throw at your opponent to overwhelm him with quantity. Stalin’s famous quote—“Quantity has a quality all its own”—applies here. That other famous quote attributed to Stalin, “How many divisions has the Pope?” explains the psychology. Divisions were all that mattered to Stalin.

Large numbers or not, I would contend that morale would be even more of a problem, not less as Stalin hoped. Instinct, especially territoriality, would be an obstacle. You can’t breed instinct out of animals in only a few generations.

At any rate, these would be fearsome-looking soldiers, and not particularly small, either: “Movie” chimps are almost always babies: Adult male chimpanzees can reach five feet tall and 200 pounds. Hybridized with humans, they’d be slightly shorter than men, heavily built, and of course grotesquely, terrifyingly ugly: I could easily imagine negative morale effects on units facing these creatures for the first time. And this of course only applies to human/chimpanzee hybrids: Human/gorilla hybrids would only be more massive and more horrible.

But ultimately, the ape-men would be poor fighters in most WW2 environments. Based on established Soviet doctrine, the Red Army would use them primarily in large human-wave (or aemi-human wave, I should say) assaults, And we know how those work: Well-commanded and entrenched units would simply wipe them out. I think they would do very well individually as suicide-bomber tank-killers, in the same way that the Red Army used bomb-bearing dogs against German panzers. Suicide-bombing as a policy—I note in passing—is always a symptom of dehumanization. But overall, I think the ape-man units would constitute a fringe of cannon-fodder that wouldn’t be missed, and would be easily replaced.

That’s the funny thing about it: The Red Army’s standard use of many of its ordinary, regular, 100% human troops in the actual Second World War differed little from most of the hypothetical ways they would have used ape-men: The suicidal human-wave attacks, the insistence on cruelty and mercilessness, even the infamous Ilya Ehrenburg radio broadcasts in 1945 inciting the rape of German women as a policy: This is what you use animal troops for, not men. In the final analysis, the ape-man experiments are both a compelling metaphor, and a valuable insight into the psychology of totalitarianism:

The human-ape hybrids as envisioned by Stalin are in many ways the ideal citizens of the authoritarian state: “…insensitive to pain…indifferent about the quality of food they eat." Complaining is a symptom of freedom; even jailed prisoners complain. During the Stalin era, complaining about even the simplest things—the quality of government-supplied food, for example—was a criminal, often a capital, offence. It makes sense that Stalin would envision, with apparent great relish, a citizenry whose only needs were animal ones and which never, ever complained.

And if I can digress one more time, I’m also thinking that Stalin would have really, really hated simulation gaming. He would have considered it an indirect rebuke—a complaint, if you will—against the military and the government: So you’re saying that you could have commanded the army better than Comrade Stalin? Is that what you’re saying?

The ape-man, in short, is the totalitarian state’s criticism of the rest of us. It is very fortunate for us, all of us, that he never existed.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?