Captain America vs. Ironman: Who’s the Better Soldier?

COMMENTARY: Volunteering our bodies for non-therapeutic enhancement and experimentation isn’t patriotic.

I will admit the question was loaded. I asked various Catholics, through my blog and social media, who was a better role model: Captain America or Ironman?

The answers weren’t surprising. The overwhelming choice was Captain America. Steve Rogers isn’t only a paragon of courage and patriotism, he’s an all-around nice guy, a champion for the weak and an example of self-sacrifice. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is a greedy narcissist whose philandering nearly everyone finds repugnant.

The question seemed outright ridiculous to some. Captain America was the obvious choice.

But being a role model doesn’t just hinge on personality traits. Captain America is a quietly subversive character. His origin is morally problematic. Rogers was an otherwise healthy soldier who was experimented on by his government — to make him a weapon of war. He was irrevocably changed by enhancements to his body.

The Catholic Church is very clear that genetic enhancements are unethical. Genetic engineering to cure or treat disease is good, but genetic engineering of a healthy person to make him stronger, faster or smarter is morally wrong. The “Charter for Health Care Workers” by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance states:

“In moral evaluation, a distinction must be made between strictly ‘therapeutic’ manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), and manipulation, ‘altering’ the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called ‘genetic surgery,’ will be considered desirable in principle, provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.”

The document continues:

“On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is ‘the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,’ which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, ‘are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore, they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future.’ ‘No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic; that is, its finality must be the natural development of the human being.’”

Captain America’s enhancements may not have been genetic in nature, but the goal of the experimentation he endured was certainly not “the natural development of the human being.”

It matters not that he volunteered for the good of his country. It was still wrong.

Tony Stark’s approach to national defense is dramatically different. Yes, Stark is a loathsome character, but instead of building a better soldier, he built a better suit: a suit that can be taken off at the end of the day, and at the end of a career. It is an approach that treats the soldier as a human being with respect “to his integrity and to his identity.”

When I pointed out the immorality of Captain America’s origins, Catholics vigorously defended their choice — disregarding the unethical experimentation in favor of the more virtuous character traits. I find their defense of Steve Rogers understandable. Both characters are flawed, and, taking all factors into account, the question certainly wades into muddy waters.

I did find it disconcerting, however, that Catholics were so willing to ignore the very clear moral issues surrounding Captain America simply because he is a God-fearing, patriotic, nice guy who sacrificed himself for his country. They were very happy to hold up Steve Rogers as a role model for their children.

One woman wrote, “Captain America was an American soldier who volunteered for an experiment that altered his destiny forever. ... Since I’m an Army mom, I have to go with Captain America.”

I doubt this woman would want her son to volunteer for experimentation by the U.S. Army that would drastically change him forever. She probably hasn’t thought it through. And therein lies the problem.

It may seem the discussion of Ironman vs. Captain America is less relevant than a debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In reality, however, a widespread discussion about building a better soldier vs. building a better suit is long overdue. It’s certainly no longer the stuff of comic books and blockbuster movies.

Last year, Army magazine published an in-depth piece on human enhancements titled “Supersoldiers: Can Science and Technology Deliver Better Performance?” The answer to that question is undoubtedly, Yes.

The article focuses on the myriad of ways the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, plans to make American soldiers stronger, faster, more focused and less prone to injury.

DARPA is trying to build a better suit: exoskeletons that allow wearers to have superhuman strength; gecko gloves that would enable a man to climb 25 feet of glass carrying as much as 50 pounds of equipment; and soft, lightweight suits that would assist soldiers traveling long distances on foot while carrying heavy loads — all are in the works.

DARPA is also interested in building a better soldier. The article discusses “ways to merge man and machine.” Some of these ideas are wearable technologies that elicit temporary effects: for example, helmets that emit ultrasound waves into the brain that would “alleviate fatigue, reduce stress, control pain, enhance cognition and possibly protect against traumatic brain injury.” All good things for a soldier in a battle situation.

But DARPA is looking into more invasive and possibly more permanent enhancements. The Army article asks the reader to imagine super-intelligent, super-durable and fearless soldiers made possible by brain implants, metabolic enhancements and pharmaceuticals.

In 2002, DARPA embarked on the Metabolically Dominant Soldier program, which was focused on eliminating the need for sleep and reducing the need for food. The project was largely abandoned with the advent of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but researchers are now able to dust off some of their old ideas and try again. Plans include research into “implantable interfaces” like “sensors, computers and controls implanted into teeth, under the skin, taken orally, or directly interfaced with neural tissue.”

DARPA says it currently doesn’t have any projects focused on pharmaceuticals or neural implants to enhance soldiers’ performance, but that hasn’t dampened dreams of creating supersoldiers. Three professors from Case Western and Cal Poly tackled the questions surrounding the ethics of soldier enhancements in a 2013 report entitled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics and Policy.”

They asked questions that should answer themselves: Should warriors be required to give informed consent before being enhanced? Should enhancements be permanent or not? Could permanent enhancements be used as incentives to join the military? What happens to enhanced soldiers when they return to civilian life? The authors give no concrete solutions to these disturbing questions, but such questions certainly call for an in-depth discussion.

Andrew Herr, president of Helicase LLC, a company that advises the U.S. military on human-performance optimization, thinks there is too much hesitation in research on human enhancements. Herr told Army magazine, “Broadly, there is reticence to do research on truly enhancing human performance ... more reticence than is called for.”

So what is wrong with creating supersoldiers instead of supersuits? A reader of a Catholic blog once commented that it would certainly be ethical to genetically enhance a soldier’s eyes to have night vision. But this approach, no matter how attractive, is not centered on “the natural development of the human being.” It treats the soldier as less than a whole person. He or she becomes simply a means to an end.

Instead of biologically enhancing the soldier’s eyes to see in the dark, why not, instead, provide him or her cutting-edge night-vision goggles that he or she can remove when service is complete? Doesn’t this achieve the goal while, at the same time, respecting the soldier’s personhood and bodily integrity? Can’t we have a strong, advanced military while also acknowledging that warriors will hopefully return to a life off of the battlefield?

I am reminded of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s reflection, “You must remember to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people.”

The Army piece reveals that the supersoldier pump is already primed. And with a generation of Americans growing up on the Captain America reboot thinking the way one serves one’s country can include volunteering to be experimented on, it may be a perfect storm ushering in an age of invasive human enhancements. These enhancements will not be contained to the military, however. They will certainly filter out into the civilian world, where specific biological upgrades will eventually be required for certain professions.

Catholics have a unique intellectual and faith tradition to resist the human-enhancement juggernaut. We must speak out in defense of the dignity of the soldier. We must remind our fellow Americans that to sacrifice the bodies of our fighting men and women on the altar of science and progress is not patriotism. It is, instead, one step deeper into a culture that loves things and uses people.

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist

in molecular biology.

She writes about bioethics

on her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.

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