Martin van Creveld: War and Technology (Teaching Military History)





[Martin van Creveld is Professor, Institute of Arts and Letters, Hebrew University and author of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge, 2004). This essay is based on his address at FPRI’s History Institute for Teachers, “Teaching Military History: Why and How,” held at the First Division Museum in Wheaton, IL and co-sponsored by the Cantigny First Division Foundation. Core support for the History Institute is provided by The Annenberg Foundation; support for this weekend conference was provided by W. W. Keen Butcher, Robert L. Freedman, Bruce H. Hooper, and John M. Templeton, Jr. For the conference report, videotapes, and other papers, see www.fpri.org/education/teachingmilitaryhistory.]

War and technology have always been linked very closely. Indeed, without technology, there would probably have been no war. After all, without technology, if only in the form of sticks and stones, man’s ability to kill his own kind is extremely limited. He can hit—a purpose for which his arms are much better suited than those of any other animal—and bite, but he can hardly kill; he can choke, but doing so takes time, and few people are so strong that they could not be overpowered by a few others. Under such circumstances early human warfare might perhaps have resembled the kind of strife we witness among chimpanzees. There would no doubt have been fights over living space, access to resources such as food water, females, and precedence. Some fights might even have been motivated by the sheer fun of taking on an enemy and overcoming him. However, almost certainly there would have been no real war.

From the first day that technology was introduced to war, it has helped shape the latter. Flint-made daggers and spears, and leather or wickerwork shields, did quite as much to shape the tactics adopted by ancient societies as horses did during the middle ages and as tanks, aircraft, and various combat ships do today. They determined, for example, whether formations would be close or open, deep or shallow, rigid or lose. Other technologies determined how far different units comprising a single force could get away from each other without losing touch; thus playing a critical role in strategy. Technology also helped determine which kind of formations were most suitable for fighting which enemies in what kind of terrain, under what kind of circumstances, and so on.

The same is true of horses, chariots, mechanical artillery, and gunpowder. Of course we have far more, and better, technology than our ancestors did. But technology is becoming more expensive all the time, both absolutely and in comparison with manpower; this, indeed, is one reason why the number of the most powerful weapon systems in particular has been going down from 1945 on. However, technology is not playing any greater role in shaping war than it has done at any time in the past. To say so is a form of hubris that is not without importance to the American way of making war in particular.

Whereas weapons have always helped determine tactics, tactics in turn helped determine organization, operations, strategy, logistics, and command and control systems. All these were driven by the technology in use and, in turn, drove it along. Thus the relationship between the two—war and technology, doctrine and the hardware required for putting it into effect—is two-sided. For example, did the development of mechanical transport before 1914 permit the huge artillery pieces of World War I, or did the need to break through fortifications lead to the development of those pieces as well as the mechanical transport without which they would have been useless?

And yet the quest for technological superiority is eternal. From the first moment that Homo sapiens went to war, attempts were made to obtain victory by designing weapons that would be better than those of the enemy. Flint blades were replaced by copper ones. They in turn were replaced by bronze ones, which were replaced by iron ones, which were replaced by ones that were made of steel. Simple bows were replaced by long and composite ones, until finally firearms took over and did away with the bow altogether. Firearms in turn underwent a long, and near continuous, process of development that took them from the primitive devices of 1400 all the way to today's assault rifles, machine guns, and artillery. Armor, fortifications, and means of transportation all underwent similar development. Although here and there the collapse of a society led to a return to a simpler technology, the retreat was always temporary.

Finally, while the goal was always to win victory by means of technological superiority, some new and irresistible device, that goal was rarely attained. First, war is an imitative activity par excellence. To win, it is necessary to understand the enemy; to understand the enemy means learning from him and, to some extent, becoming like him. If only because any weapon used in war will inevitably fall into the hands of the enemy and be copied, technological superiority, even if achieved, rarely lasted for very long.

Second, war, conducted as it is against an enemy who is as intelligent, as resourceful, and as free to bring his will and resources to bear as oneself, is among, if not the, most complex of all human activities. The number of factors that help determine the outcome is huge. In particular it is necessary to mention morale, cohesion, and sheer fighting power; all three of which, being intangible, are very difficult to evaluate. Since technology is but one of the factors that shape war, technological superiority alone has seldom led to a decision. And the longer the war, the more true this is.

Nuclear Weapons and Their Impact on War
From the earliest times to 1945, technology drove war without changing its essence. Since the objective was always to achieve victory by smashing the enemy, it is scant wonder that war always tended to become more powerful. In terms of size, technology was one of the factors that permitted armed forces to grow from a few dozens tribal warriors into millions of modern soldiers. The distances over which operations could be conducted and the speed with which individuals, units, and machines moved about (which, however, is not the same as the speed with which offensives advanced) both increased dramatically. Starting with clubs and culminating in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, so did the range at which power was brought to bear against the enemy.

A very important effect of developing technology was to enable war to spread into environments that used to be inaccessible to it. From the land to rivers, lakes and coastal waters; from coastal waters into the sea; from the surface of the sea into the latter's depths; as well as into the air and, most recently, into outer space. Generally speaking, no sooner does technology open any environment to human activity than that environment becomes the theater of warlike operations, either actual or planned. At times, so rapid was the increase that five years made all the difference. For example, the armies of 1918 would have sliced through those of 1914 like a knife through butter. The armies of 1945 would have done the same to those of 1939, and those of 1950 to those of 1945.

For all that, technology did not change the nature of war. War remained what it had been since the time when the first band of cavemen, carrying sticks and stones, went out to attack its neighbor. Namely, a violent, two-sided activity governed by action and reaction, challenge and response; in the sense that it was used to advance or defend the interests of the group or organization that waged it, it also remained an instrument of politics. All this was as true in 2000 BCE, and presumably 50,000 BCE, as it was in 1945.

Next, a vast revolution took place, causing not only the methods by which war is waged but its very essence to change. Unlike most revolutions, this one can be dated not only to the day, but also to the hour. Over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945 was a beautiful summer day. At 9:15 am, out of a clear blue sky, there appeared a single bomber, the largest that had been built up to that time. The bomb doors opened, and a single bulky device dropped out. As the aircraft banked steeply away, the device fell, gathering speed. A few minutes later it exploded. A thousand suns shone, an estimated 75,000 people lay dead, and the nature of war had changed, presumably forever.

Until then, every new weapon that appeared on the scene had been met by a technological or tactical development that, to a large extent, neutralized it—or why else did technological progress continue? Now, for the first time, a weapon had been built against which there was no effective defense. As more and more nuclear weapons were built, and as more countries acquired them, the outcome, to speak with the greatest of all nuclear strategists, Thomas Schelling, was that the link between victory and survival was cut.

A few people, notably Bernard Brodie, then a young teacher at Columbia University, understood the nature of the change almost at once. Previously, though a victor might suffer losses as grievous as those suffered by King Pyrrhus in his proverbial triumph over the Romans in 279 BCE, he was at any rate assured that his forces and his country would survive. In a world where both sides had nuclear weapons, this no longer applied. Thus the very nature of war as an instrument in the hands of politics was put into question. Its nature as a two-sided activity consisting of action, counteraction, and counter-counteraction also underwent a decisive change. A nuclear war would surely see a first strike and possibly a second strike as well. However, given the magnitude of the destruction that would be inflicted, very few analysts ever tried to look into the possibility of a third strike. To the extent that they did so, they characterized it as “broken back warfare,” a term that speaks for itself.

Over six decades have passed since Hiroshima. During those decades, in every single region where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale war between the countries that possessed them has disappeared. Countless doctrines were written, and weapons and delivery vehicles deployed, to fight a nuclear war if it came; in the end, however, the balance of terror always prevailed. To the extent that war still took place, it only did so between, or against, third- and fourth-rate powers that did not have nuclear weapons.

Probably for the first time in history, developing technology had caused not just the way war was waged and fought but its nature, as well as its usefulness as an instrument of policy, to change. Nothing that came before, not even the horse or the wheel or gunpowder, and nothing that came after, not even missiles and satellites and computers, has had anything like a similar impact; compared with nuclear weapons, too, all other so-called weapons of mass destruction are as pigmies to giants. Nor, sixty-two years later, and in spite of the development of various of anti-ballistic missile defenses by various countries around the world, does it appear likely that the impact in question will be undone in the foreseeable future.

The American approach to military technology

Two developments probably explain the American love story with technology, and military technology in particular.

First there was the shortage of labor, especially skilled labor, in a vast, almost empty, continent. One solution, adopted mainly in the southern part of the country, was to import slaves; the other, increasingly adopted in its northern part from the last decades of the eighteenth century on, was technology. By the middle of the nineteenth century, American technology, including also the use of standardized production and interchangeable parts, begun to flood the world and “Yankee ingenuity” was becoming proverbial.

Certainly until 1939 or even 1945, American technology, including military technology, tended to be as good as that of others but no better. The weapons it produced, such as combat aircraft and tanks and artillery and ships and submarines, were characterized not so much by top of the line performance as by the methods by which they were produced, the scale on which they were produced, and the price at which they were produced. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, it was “Detroit” that won World War II for America; as one German officer allegedly put it, in an encounter between an American and German units, the Germans ran out of shells before the Americans ran out of tanks. One outcome was that, at the end of that war, theaters of war the world over were littered with surplus American equipment. Rather than transport it all home, which would have been exceedingly expensive, the Americans either sold it to their allies on the cheap or else simply left it to rust.

By that time, the U.S. had convinced itself that, in any future war, it would fight outnumbered. The idea was confirmed during the early years of the Cold War and in Korea, when Chinese “human wave” attacks could only be stopped by superior U.S. firepower; however, as NATO got organized it lost much of its force even in Europe. As to war in other parts of the world, the opposite was the case. Counting its allies, in Vietnam, in Gulf War I, in Serbia, and in Gulf War II, the U.S. actually enjoyed numerical superiority. Still, the notion that the U.S. was inferior in manpower—or, if it was not inferior in manpower, could not afford as many casualties as its opponents—persisted; to compensate, the U.S. would rely on the superior technology at its disposal. The idea was voiced by several secretaries of defense, including Robert McNamara, James Schlesinger, and Harold Brown. Its strongest advocate was probably Donald Rumsfeld during the heady days of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. He even set up an Office of Transformation to look after it; though just what it did was never quite clear.

Relying on superior technology, however, had its disadvantages. The more advanced the technology, the more complex it was and the greater the difficulties involved in its development. These difficulties, in turn, translated themselves into time and money. In theory, costs could be kept down by spreading development costs over large number of weapons and weapon systems. In practice, very often such was the cost of development that Congress, horrified, cut down the number of weapons in order to avoid even larger budget shortfalls than those that actually occurred. As a result, the order of battle tended to shrink and shrink. Most problematic of all, when it came to fighting (as opposed to deterring) nuclear-armed opponents, such as the Soviet Union and China, the new weapons were essentially useless.

As to non-nuclear countries, in theory, the highly sophisticated weapons now being produced and deployed gave the U.S. an overwhelming advantage over them. In practice, the populations of quite a number of such countries were still able to challenge the U.S. They did so by engaging in what has been variously called guerrilla, or Low Intensity Conflict, or non-trinitarian warfare, or terrorism, or asymmetric warfare, or insurgency, or whatever. All these forms of conflict have in common that they rely on stealth and unfold in immensely complex environments. Either natural ones, made up of mountains, jungles, or swamps; or artificial ones, made up of human beings, their dwellings, their means of production, their transport arteries, and their communications. Already World War II, in the form of the German counter-partisan operations in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, had shown that, in such complex environments, the most modern, most sophisticated technology does not work nearly as well as in simpler ones. It was a lesson that the U.S., to its very great cost, has simply refused to learn.

Looking back, the outcome of the approach that put technology at the heart of military affairs and exaggerated what it could do is only too clear. Since 1945, the U.S. has engaged in four major wars. Out of these, one, Korea, ended in a draw. One, the First Gulf War, ended in victory. One, Vietnam, ended in defeat; the fourth, the Second Gulf War, is very likely to end in the same way. Clearly technology has not provided a formula for victory in war against nuclear states, either. To the contrary, all it has done is to render such wars unthinkable. It has also failed to provide such a formula in war against terrorists, guerrillas, or whatever they are called. At best it has enabled the U.S. to vanquish one or two opponents, such as Serbia, which were so small, weak, and remote as to raise the question why they had to be fought at all. That is not a very good outcome for something on which oceans of money have been spent.

Conclusion
To sum up, technology has always driven war, and been driven by it; however, contrary to the common wisdom, there is no sign that its role in shaping war has either increased or diminished. While the quest for technological superiority, the silver bullet as it is sometimes known, is as old as war itself, technology is but one of the factors that shape war and determines its outcome. As a result, victories due solely to technological superiority have been rare; and such superiority, even if it was achieved, usually did not last for very long. On the whole, the effect of technology has tended to increase, or help increase, the size of war, the power and speed with which it is waged, and the range at which it is waged. It has also expanded the environments in which it was waged. For millennia, however, it was incapable of changing either the nature of war or the purpose that it served.

With the advent of nuclear technology, things changed. Provided enough bombs are available, war in its old sense, consisting of action, counteraction, an counter-counteraction, has probably become impossible; if not for all time to come, at any rate as far into the future as we can look at present. Provided both belligerents are nuclear armed, the purpose it serves has also become extremely problematic. The second of these factors explains why, since 1945, wars waged between powerful countries have become exceedingly rare. Technological superiority could only be used, if it could be used at all, against non-nuclear, weak opponents.

The U.S., however, has consistently refused to learn this lesson. Whereas initially the American love affair with technology led to large numbers of fairly good weapons, after 1945 things changed. Holding on to the idea that it would fight outnumbered long after that idea ceased to be true, the U.S. has persisted in sinking fortunes into new weapons and weapons systems. The results, as the list of victories and defeats shows, have been mixed at best.

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