Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Tools of War

Recent discussions of our current crop of wars, plus a session on drones on Talk of the Nation, got me thinking about the evolution of war in general.  Because it has evolved.  The warriors of ancient Athens and Sparta, the Roman Legions, would barely recognize what we consider "war."  As far back as we have records, up until, say, the sixteenth century, war was a hand to hand affair, with hand-held weapons and defenses - swords, knives, spears, clubs, and shields.

But also as far back as you look, humans have been trying to devise ways to kill each from a greater and greater distance - that is, from beyond arm's length. Primitive tribes, and prehistoric man, used spear throwers (atlatls) to give their spears more range, but more advanced peoples don't seem to have used them.  But it's obviously advantageous if you can kill Joe before Joe gets in stabbing range of you.

Early long-range weapons were mainly bows and slings, both of which go back about as far as we can research.  Bows are spectacular and showy, but slings were also popular - a Roman or a Greek slinger could kill his enemy with a rock as effectively as we now do with a bullet, and much more quietly.  I found a fascinating discussion of slingers on, the poster was describing a figure he had created of a Roman funditor, and the research that went into it.  The Greeks developed the catapult, a large mechanical sling, as early as 399 B.C.; and catapult design was also associated with crossbow design, both using mechanical means rather than human muscle to throw a projectile.

Bows, slings and catapults were it for killing beyond arm's length until Marco Polo's trip to China opened up the Silk Road, and brought gunpowder back.  I found a history of firearms on which suggests that the first matchlock guns were used in the 15th century.  Also in the 15th century, forts begin to be built in the shape of a 5 pointed star - they were easier to defend against cannon than the traditional square bailey.  Guns in the 15th through 18th centuries were dangerous but had limitations - they weren't very accurate, they were hard to load, and they only shot one ball at a time.  And black powder sometimes explodes when you don't want it to.  In the early periods, crossbows or longbows were much more accurate.

The 19th century saw mass-produced arms, and improvements in long-distance killing which outpaced the military tacticians who fought against them - that was why the American Civil War was so bloody, both sides were using tactics meant for smoothbore muskets, with a range of about 300 feet, but they were shooting rifled muskets which were accurate up to half a mile.  (While researching this post, I found a most interesting dissent from this standard conclusion:  Firearms and Tactics of the American Civil War: A Minority Opinion, by Dr. Howard G. Lanham, which I recommend to those interested in military history.)

Over the next century or so, the accuracy and range of the armaments continued to outpace the military tactics in use, until World War II when the Nazi tacticians really understood how to use the Panzer tanks and small fighter planes they had developed.  That's one of the reasons they were so hard to defeat.  And then there are the nuclear bombs.

Our latest development is armed drones, which may well make the romantic figure of the fighter pilot obsolete.  A man can pilot an armed drone in Afghanistan while sitting in a control room in Iowa.  This has to be the ultimate in long-range killing - you aren't even on the same continent.

What worries me about all this is the impact on the warrior using these remote weapons.  I have no personal experience of war, but my reading suggests a vast difference in the impact on the warrior between stabbing someone with a knife, sword or spear, at arm's length, and killing someone you may not even be able to see without a magnifying aiming scope - or a camera image on a screen.  It's clear why one would want to distance oneself; but if the distance makes the victim less real, less human, then it merely contributes to the endless cycle of wars that plague us.  Not to mention that the farther the warrior is from his target, the more likely he is to kill an innocent bystander, by sheer chance.

I don't mean to suggest that our soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan aren't fighting hand to hand; they are, of course.  Both sides in that conflict continue to use weapons that kill the enemy at as great a distance as they can manage.  The ubiquitous IED is the Afghan tribesman's effort at a distance-killing machine.

I have no real claim to be a military historian; I'm a widely read layman with a strong interest in military history as a subset of history in general.  But I wanted to write, and work through, some of my thoughts on the overall evolution of the ways we like to kill each other.  We become so involved in the politics of our wars that we lose sight of their effect on the people who fight them for us; and I believe that is a mistake.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Frost said "good fences make good neighbors"--though it may be that he meant that two neighbors repairing their New England stone fences, side by side, talking as they went, was a good way to be neighborly.

    Civilization has gone through a series of transformations facilitated by technological advancements, each of which seems to precede humankind's ability to consolidate their effects into our ethical practice. It's clear from the ongoing nuclear proliferation that we still haven't figured out the true price of using atomic energy. Building nuclear weaponry and nuclear power generation devices is still too risky, given our understanding of how to handle the consequences. Yet we keep monkeying with the stuff, thinking that we'll fix the problems as we go. Big mistake, as history shows.

    I have a feeling that overpopulation, eco-disaster and disease will settle all our disputes in due course. It's clear we've gone well beyond the natural holding-capacity of our planet. That equation stands.

    In the meantime, if we have any privilege as citizens of a nation--and nations are still the segments of control and power that still work in the world--we need to do our best to make our country prosper. Control population, reduce our exploitation of resource, keep our government free of capital (corporate) and religious interference.

    I'm not optimistic.