War and Technology
February 27, 2009
Military technology often seems to be the dark side of innovation, the Mr. Hyde roaming the back alleys of civilization for opportunities to work his worst on society. Its foundational figure in Western civilization is the Greek Hephaestus (whose counterpart was the Roman “Vulcan”), the only god to have been lame and misshapen. But countless inventors and innovators, from Alfred Nobel to Robert Boyle, thought of weapons positively. They believed that they could banish the scourge of war, or at least restrain its excesses, if they could only invent the ultimate weapon, the instrument so horrible that no one would dare use it.
More than six decades into the nuclear age, there is growing evidence that the hydrogen bomb may prove to be the long-sought war-stopper. But should that be the case, it will run counter to the sorry record of prior human civilization, when each new instrument of war contributed to the carnage without altering the human nature Thucydides believed to be at the heart of war. Melvin Kranzberg, a co-founder of the Society for the History of Technology and the founding editor of its journal, Technology and Culture, was fond of observing that technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. Technology in essence is a process of manipulating the material world for human purposes. Whether it does good or ill depends not on the technology itself but on what humans choose to do with it.
Military machines and instruments can nonetheless be understood using the same concepts and categories that scholars apply to technology in general. Below I put forward four propositions about military technology, but the principles at work could be applied as easily in any realm of technological endeavor. They sometimes have a special relevance or poignancy when applied to war, but they say more about the nature of technology than they do about the nature of war.
In addition to their heuristic value, these concepts also have pedagogical utility. They can help demystify the arcane and often secretive world of military research and development and also clarify the impact on society of all complex technological systems. They offer students a set of conceptual tools for thinking about change in warfare over time and the role that technological innovation has played in that process.
My propositions are these: (1) technology, more than any other outside force, shapes warfare; and, conversely, war (not warfare) shapes technology. (2) Military technology is, however, not deterministic. Rather, (3) technology opens doors. And, finally, (4) these characteristics of military technology are easier to see in the modern period than previously, though they have always been at work.
Technology Shapes Warfare
Technology shapes warfare, not war. War is timeless and universal. It has afflicted virtually every state known to human history. Warfare is the conduct of war. It is the clash of arms or the maneuver of armed forces in the field. It entails what military professionals call operations, whether or not the opposing forces actually unleash their organized violence on one another. War is a condition in which a state might find itself; warfare is a physical activity conducted by armed forces in the context of war. Of course, many kinds of group violence, from gang fights to terrorism, might display some or all of the characteristics of warfare without rising to this definition of war, but more often than not these violent conflicts use instruments of war. To understand the technology of warfare is to understand the technology of most public violence.
Wording is also important in articulating exactly what impact technology has on warfare. A number of verbs suggest themselves. Technology defines, governs, or circumscribes warfare. It sets the stage for warfare. It is the instrumentality of warfare.
The most important verb describing the impact of technology on warfare is that it changes warfare. Technology has been the primary source of military innovation throughout history. It drives changes in warfare more than any other factor. Consider a simple thought experiment. Sun Tzu and Alexander the Great are brought back to life and assigned to lead coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008. These near contemporaries from the fourth century BCE would understand almost everything they would need to know. Alexander actually fought in Afghanistan, and Sun Tzu (if such a person really existed) fought in comparably mountainous terrain in China. Both were masters of strategy and tactics. What came to be called the “principles of war” are simply the tacit knowledge that all successful commanders throughout history have carried around in their bank of experience: an understanding of intelligence, surprise, maneuver, command and control, concentration of force, unity of command, terrain, etc. Even Clausewitz’s seminal contributions to military art and science—chance, violence, the “fog of war,” and “friction”—were concepts that Alexander and Sun Tzu knew by different names.
The only modern tool of command they would not know and could not readily assimilate would be the technology of war. Airplanes, missiles, tanks, drones, satellites, computers, GPS, and all the remaining panoply of the modern high-tech battlefield would be incomprehensible to them. A sergeant from their operations staff could exploit these resources more fully and effectively than either of our great captains. Sun Tzu and Alexander would be incompetent on the modern battlefield.
The point is even more obvious in humankind’s other two fields of battle—the sea and the air—to say nothing of space, perhaps the battlefield of the future. Naval warfare does not occur without ships, which, through most of human history, were the most complex of human technological artifacts. Of course the same is true of planes for air warfare, missiles for strategic warfare, and spacecraft for star wars. In each case, the vehicle defines the warfare. Horatio Nelson, perhaps the greatest naval commander of all time, would have been powerless to understand the strategy and tactics of World War II’s air warfare in the Pacific or submarine warfare in the Atlantic. The cat-and-mouse contest of Soviet and American attack submarines in the Cold War would have been even more incomprehensible to him. He might have gone back in time and intuited the essence of galley warfare, but he could not command in the age of steam, let alone the nuclear age, without a solid grounding in modern science and technology.
The more modern, or postmodern, the warfare becomes, the more the generalization holds true. Technology defines warfare. Air warfare was not even possible before the twentieth century, save for the vulnerable and inefficient reconnaissance balloons that were pioneered in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. In the twenty-first century, air warfare ranges from strategic bombing to close air support of ground troops to dog fights for air superiority to pilotless drones that carry the eyes and ears, and sometimes the ordnance, of operators hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The U.S. boasts a missile defense installation that can stop the unstoppable, an intercontinental ballistic missile. Space-faring nations flirt with anti-satellite weapons launched from earth and even the prospect of space-based weapons to fight one another and threaten the earth below. Air warfare differs from naval warfare, not because the strategy and tactics of conflict in those realms differs, but because planes differ from ships. And, of course, both differ from tanks and rockets and satellites. Each technology shapes, defines, circumscribes, and governs a new kind of warfare.
Nor is it just the evolution of weaponry that changes warfare. It is the distribution of the weaponry. Throughout history, states have usually fought one another in weapons symmetry. In the first Gulf War, for example, Saddam Hussein attempted to defeat a conventional, industrialized, mechanized American army with a conventional, industrialized, mechanized Iraqi army. The quality and quantity of the American technology prevailed. In the second Gulf War, however, the insurgents resorted to asymmetrical warfare, fighting the high-tech American arsenal with low-tech instruments of assassination, sabotage, and terror. Only when the United States adjusted its technology to meet the new threat did the enemy tactics lose their edge. Of course training, morale, numbers, will, and politics also contributed to the outcome in Iraq, but the nature of the technology set the stage for the struggle.
Technology Does Not Determine Warfare
However much technology may change warfare, it never determines warfare—neither how it will be conducted nor how it will turn out. Technology presides in warfare, but it does not rule.
The whole notion of “technological determinism” is a red herring. Humans can always resist the historical forces surrounding them. To believe in determinism is to believe in inevitability. This begs the question, “Why”? What historical force or law pushes events to some inescapable outcome? In hindsight, events may appear predetermined or inevitable, but nothing in human activity can be predicted with certainty.
Think about the instances in history when technology appeared to determine the nature and even the result of warfare. Chariots were perhaps the most dominant instrument of warfare before nuclear weapons. Indeed, historian William H. McNeill has called them the superweapon of their day. When they appeared in the Levant in the eighteenth century BCE, they swept all before them. From Egypt to Mesopotamia, states either adopted chariots or ceased to compete in interstate war. The chariot craze bred an international chariot aristocracy, the Maryannu, who sold their services to the highest bidder. States built up enormous chariots corps with attendant supply and maintenance trains, culminating in the battle of Kadesh in 1275 BCE, when the contending Egyptian and Hittite forces committed an estimated 5,000 chariots to a cataclysmic but ultimately indecisive day of battle. Western warfare through most of the second millennium BCE was chariot warfare. The chariot defined, drove, governed, circumscribed ground warfare.
And then it was gone. Within a century after the Armageddon at Kadesh, the chariot disappeared as the dominant technology of Levantine warfare. Just as there is no sure evidence of where the chariot came from and why it ruled, so is its fall from dominance a mystery. Robert Drews notes that it lost power in “The Catastrophe,” the wave of wars, raids, and forced migrations that swept the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE. William McNeill believes that the introduction of iron weapons at just this time gave infantry new power to stand up to chariots. Another possible explanation is state bankruptcy brought on by the arms race in chariots and the horses to pull them. Still another is a change in infantry tactics, perhaps coupled with McNeill’s iron weapons. In any case, the apparent determinism of the chariot evaporated.
Countless other examples through history of seemingly irresistible weapons leading to inevitable triumph have similarly risen and fallen in their turn, from gunpowder through the “Dreadnought revolution” and strategic bombing to the recent enthusiasm for the “revolution in military affairs,” a technological superiority that was to have given the U.S. unassailable military prowess.
The Open Door
A better conceptual model for the technology of war is “the open door.” This metaphor was introduced by medieval historian Lynn White, Jr., in his classic study Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962). Seeking to demonstrate that medieval society spawned its share of technological innovation, White presented a series of interrelated case studies. One revisited and refined the discredited claim by Heinrich Brunner that the appearance of the heavily armed and armored mounted knight on the battlefields of eighth-century Europe had bred feudalism. Brunner had imagined that Charles Martel first conceived the scheme of a feudal array and the social, political, and economic system to sustain it at or immediately following the battle of Poitiers in 732, when his posse of mounted warriors drove off Muslim raiders spilling into southern France from the Iberian Peninsula. But White showed that Martel had begun confiscating church property for distribution to a new class of mounted warriors before the battle of Poitiers. What, then, asked White, might have inspired Martel, if not his victory over the lightly armed and armored Muslim mounted warriors? White’s answer was the stirrup, an Asian innovation just making its first appearance in Europe about the time of Poitiers. White imagined that this technology allowed the heavily armed and armored mounted knight to lean into his lance and overwhelm mounted and unmounted warriors alike with irresistible force.
White’s argument was widely and roundly attacked, especially by Marxist historians. Most of his critics accused him of technological determinism, of arguing that the stirrup produced feudalism. But White had gone out of his way to avoid any such claim. He called the stirrup a “catalyst.” It did not create feudalism out of whole cloth. Rather, when it was added to the complex soup of medieval society, feudalism precipitated out. Other societies with different ingredients and different chemistries would produce different residues. Technology does not determine outcomes, said White, it opens doors. People must decide if they want to pass through. The availability of the stirrup in Europe did not mean that Martel would adopt it to make the heavily armed and armored mounted knight the mainstay of an emergent military system.
The “open door” is a powerful conceptual tool for thinking about all technology, especially military technology. It adds what most accounts of technological innovation lack: human agency. Humans must decide if they are going to, or can, take up a given military innovation. And they must adapt it to their circumstances. Technology is a possibility, not an imperative. The varieties of technology—think, for example, of the different models of automobiles in the world—testify to the countless contexts in which people will apply the same fundamental innovation with differing results. In the years between the world wars, for example, the U.S. and Britain, geographically isolated from continental Europe, developed strategic bombers with which to project their military power, while the major continental powers concentrated on fighter aircraft to contend with each other for air superiority over the battlefields in their back yards.
What White did not discern was that human agency intervenes not once, but twice, at the moment of innovation. When discovering who chooses to walk through a door opened by technological innovation, it is equally important to understand who opened it for them. People invent and innovate. People open the door. Often there is a relationship between those who open the door and those who pass through it. In modern military experience we often think of that relationship as the military-industrial complex. This byproduct of the Cold War reminds us that the door can be swinging, even revolving. People who are anxious to pass through may hire agents to open the door for them. Likewise, those who figure out how to open doors may entice others to pass through. None of this makes the technology itself deterministic, but it can make the social system attending the door self-replicating and self-sustaining. In time, the participants may pass into realms that they would not otherwise have chosen to enter and that do not serve their interests. The reasons for their decisions, even the bad ones, however, lie not in the technology but in the personal, political, economic—in sum, contextual—forces already at work. The catalyst precipitates the consequences dictated by the ingredients and the chemistry.
This raises my fourth point.
Modern Military Technology Is Different
Modern military technology is not different in kind, but in degree. World War II was the first war in history in which the weapons in use at the end of the war differed significantly from those employed at the outset. The atomic bomb is the most obvious example, but the list of military technologies introduced between 1939 and 1945 includes as well jet aircraft, guided missiles, microwave radar, and the proximity fuse, to name just a few. Some military leaders concluded from this experience that industrial production had won the world wars but military innovation would win the next war. Especially in the U.S., the military establishment began to institutionalize research and development, adopting from industry a kind of planned obsolescence that would keep American armed forces a generation ahead of their potential foes. They created what President Dwight Eisenhower called in his farewell address a “military-industrial complex,” a perpetual arms race, not necessarily with any particular enemy, but with the status quo.
The introduction of systematic, institutionalized innovation makes modern military technology seem radically different from all that went before. That difference is simultaneously real and illusory. The reality stems from the accelerated pace of technological change in the modern world and an unprecedented mastery of energy and materials ranging across a dimensional scale from nanotechnology to floating cities like the modern aircraft carrier. The illusion arises from our growing inability to think of war in non-material terms. Modern commanders can hardly imagine how their predecessors thought about science and technology. A career officer in today’s armed forces expects the arsenal at his or her disposal to change constantly over the course of a career. Before the second half of the twentieth century, however, commanders fully expected to retire with the same instruments they took up in their apprenticeship. Personal arms might even pass from father to son. Some innovation intruded on this static picture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but nothing like the sustained hothouse environment of today’s military arsenals.
Even the terms “science” and “technology” are modern, both coined in the nineteenth century. Before these conceptual categories took hold of the modern consciousness, premodern commanders thought of their armies and navies in terms of men (human capital) and material (arms and armor, forts and roads, food and ammunition). Improvements in any of these areas were made not by scientists and engineers, but by craftsmen with little formal schooling. “Engineers” in the premodern world were individuals who built and operated “engines” of war, i.e., ballistae and catapults. There was high-quality steel long before its composition was revealed by crystallography in the 1920s, but it was produced by artisans who passed their techniques from generation to generation through apprenticeship, not by industrialists whose staffs of scientists prescribed formulas that would produce steel of requisite characteristics. A handful of premodern geniuses, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, mastered art and engineering to imagine weapons that were centuries ahead of their time. Mechanics operated machines of war. Sailors were always mechanics operating the most complex machines of their age, be it the galley of classical Mediterranean warfare or the fully-rigged, side-gunned sailing ship of the line in the early modern world. Architects designed and erected fortifications, probably the most influential military technology before gunpowder. These marvels of what we would now call civil engineering—the Great Wall of China, the walls of Constantinople, the Roman limes—shaped countless conflicts throughout history and sometimes ensured that conflicts never happened. Other premodern builders oversaw civil works with equally important military implications, such as the Roman road network, or Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine, or the earthen ramp at Masada.
The material resources that these premodern materialists delivered to their armies and navies were not seen as the result of abstract enterprises like science and technology. The producers of these wonders were simply practicing what Lewis Mumford called “technics,” from the Greek techne. It is related to episteme in something like the relationship between modern technology and science. One was about doing, the other about knowing. One was learned in apprenticeship, the other was gained by the study of knowledge accumulated in a canon. But just as modern technology is more complex and independent than “applied science,” so is technics more subtle than simply craft knowledge. It is perhaps more helpful to think of premodern producers of military instruments as “improvers,” the generic term that Robert Friedel applies to all those people in the last millennium of Western history who have manipulated the material world in search of better ways to do whatever it is that people choose to do.
In short, the tools of war have been evolving slowly throughout the course of human history, but only in the modern world has there been an institutionalized and rationalized mechanism for continuously and systematically innovating military technology. Some tantalizing hints from the ancient and classical world place our modern world in bold relief. One anonymous author from classical Greece offered the opinion that the only real utility for third-order equations was to compute the trajectory of ballistae. In this instance, at least, military technology really was applied science. Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse in the early fourth century BCE, recruited knowers and doers from around the Mediterranean to work in his arsenal to develop new machines of war, perhaps the first instance of a research and development laboratory. A Syrian engineer by the name of Kallinikos delivered “Greek fire” to the Byzantines in hopes that they would use it to defeat the Muslims. The Byzantines made of this the only truly secret weapon of the ancient and medieval world. “Secret weapons” as we now think of them were an invention of early modern Europe.
Kallinikos provides a fitting ending for this account. When he is mentioned at all in history books, he usually appears as a kind of “deux ex machine,” an unknown and unknowable historical actor who delivers a war-changing weapon that in turns changes the course of history. Such representations give rise to the belief that “technological determinism” is at work. But in all such instances, it is well to think of a door. Who opened it and who passed through? Who was Kallinikos? How did he come by this formula, and why did he offer it to the Byzantines? Why did the Byzantines take up his new weapon? And why did they treat it as a state secret? “Technological determinism” is a distraction, a rhetorical device that diverts attention from the real historical questions that surround the relationship between war and technology. That relationship is defining, subtle, and evolving. Now, more than ever, it drives innovation in warfare.
- ▲ John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- ▲ One the historicity of Sun Tzu, see Sunzi, Ralph Sawyer, and Mei-chűn Sawyer, The Art of War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
- ▲ Robert O’Connell, Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 8-9 et passim.
- ▲ Alex Roland, “Was the Nuclear Arms Race Deterministic?” paper prepared for the 50th Anniversary Workshop of the Society for the History of Technology, Washington, DC, 18 Oct. 2007.
- ▲ William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 104–106
- ▲ See Arthur Cotterell, Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine (London: Pimlico, 2004), 67–68, 86; R. T. O’Calligan, “ New Light on the Maryannu as ‘Chariot Warrior,’” Jahrbuch fűr kleinasiatische Forschung 1 (1950-51): 309–24
- ▲ Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C. (Princeton University Press, 1993), 209–14, and passim.
- ▲ McNeill, Rise of the West, 117–18
- ▲ George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
- ▲ Donald A. MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).
- ▲ And not just military technology. As Alfred North Whitehead observed many years ago, “the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the means of invention.” Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press,  1953), 96
- ▲ Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1932).
- ▲ Robert Friedel, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007)
- ▲ J. G. Landels, Engineering in the Ancient World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 99–132.
- ▲ Brian Caven, Dionysius: War-lord of Sicily (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 90-97
- ▲ J. Haldon and M. Byrne, “A Possible Solution to the Problem of Greek Fire,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 70 (1977): 91–99.
- ▲ Pamela Long and Alex Roland, “Military Secrecy in Antiquity and Early Medieval Europe: A Critical Reassessment,” History of Technology 11 (1994): 259–90.