Michael Bellesiles: The Limits of Technology

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Bellesiles, writing in an op ed syndicated by the History News Service (HNS) (Nov. 10, 2003):

The United States began its war against Iraq with a campaign of "shock and awe." An overwhelming demonstration of American airpower was designed to persuade the Iraqis to throw down their arms and surrender even while rising in revolt againAst Saddam Hussein. Sadly, that expectation has been thwarted, as the war drags on and Americans and Iraqis continue to die.

The term "shock and awe" is in keeping with a long-standing Anglo-American faith in technological quick fixes. Military techno-hype has frequently fed expectations of a "clean" victory. But we have found that the latest technology does not always shorten wars.

As early as 1609, John Smith, a leader of colonial Virginia, told his troops that if they just discharged their muskets, "the very smoake will bee sufficient to affright them." Unfortunately, Smith was wrong. Virginia's Indians developed tactics to circumvent the colonists' technological advantages. Smith returned to England, proclaiming his mission accomplished; but the Virginia Indian wars lasted for decades.

In the American Revolution, Britain's Captain Patrick Ferguson believed his ingenious breech-loading rifle would guarantee victory. His confidence cost Ferguson his life in the South Carolina forests at King's Mountain, where American "peasants" carrying old-fashioned weapons wiped out his forces.

Modern weaponry is far more destructive and would seem able to convince any opponent to avoid fighting. The American Richard Gatling employed such reasoning in the nineteenth century, predicting that his rapid-fire gun would put an end to war, as no one could advance in the face of such overwhelming firepower.

But Gatling, like many later innovators, underestimated the willingness of people to give their lives in even the most bloody conflicts.

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