CT551--Week 12--Lecture notes



Technology and War


Much of the fear that many people feel regarding technology has to do with the military uses of technology. As Volti notes at the beginning of Chapter 14, Weapons and Their Consequences, "For most of human existence, the baser instincts of humanity were checked by the limitations of the weapons that could be used." Modern weaponry is infamous for its lack of limitations and the toll it takes on noncombatants. To be fair, we must note that in recent years there has been a great deal of effort, at least among more advanced nations, to develop and deploy "smart" weapons to strike more precisely at military targets (civilians may still die, but the toll is less).

Volti sketches the historical path and tells us that military technology has had a great deal to do with the basic shape of society--for instance, the stirrup, which made possible the mounted knight, in essence created the feudal order. And when that technology was superceded, the shape of society was forced to change. Thus the longbow helped make knights in armor nonviable, cannon did away with city walls, and firearms--which stressed the use of large numbers of low-skill soldiers (see Chapter 15)--made essential large armies and the centralized states that could muster and support them and as well encouraged routinized, hierarchical, regimented social structure (in older armies, warriors fought more independently, though we should note that the value of regimentation was recognized very early, as with the Roman legion). Disparities in weaponry made the Western world dominant--think of the Battle of Omdurman sketched on p. 266.

It is thus not unfair to say that the modern world is the result of military technology in many more ways than the fear of technology we have been discussing. In this connection, it is worth noting the past reactions to changes in military technology--people said "Oh, horrors!" to the catapult, the gun, the cannon, the... In each case, the fear faded with time. Perhaps the world would be more peaceful if it had not.


Some critics of military technology can sound as if they think weapons are developed to satisfy adolescent male urges to violence and sexual display (yes, spears, arrows, cannons, and rifles have all been called phallic symbols even though form does follow function rather obviously). As Volti notes in Chapter 15, How New Weapons Emerge, it isn't that simple. If your opponent has a short knife, you want a long knife. If your opponent has a gun, you want a more accurate, longer-range, bigger gun. If there's a fight, you want to be the one to survive or prevail. So does your opponent, so there is a back-and-forth of weapons development. This is the basic mechanism of the arms race.

Yet there is more. In the days when the warrior was highly skilled, the warrior had a certain amount of clout and was "spent" with care. Indeed, governments that ignored the wishes of the soldiers sometimes found themselves replaced. From the government's point of view, weapons (such as muskets) that require little skill to use--just a bit of regimented drill--and can be handed out at need are rather nice. Then there are no well-armed, well-trained citizens to dispute the government, soldiers can be "spent" profligately and replaced, and the only problem is the army itself. Some governments have reduced the size of the army greatly in peacetime, but this plays against the need for a standing army that can respond rapidly in an emergency. It is illuminating to consider modern armies, which consist of very highly skilled warriors who operate ships, fighters, tanks, and assorted smart weapons. Why aren't they a threat to their governments? Could it be that they can't take their weapons home with them? (Of course, many countries have suffered military coups.)

There is also the question of why weapons are not adopted when they could be. The U.S., England, and France failed to see the rapid-fire benefits of the machine gun; the early ones were big and heavy and looked more like artillery. Germany, however, recognized that a machine gun didn't need much skill to operate and offered a great way to defeat the more skilled armies of Western Europe in World War I. England also missed the boat on the tank, and the Germans didn't, which is how World War II got rolling. The basic problem seems to have been a matter of seeing new tech in old terms.

The combination of disposable (unskilled, interchangeable) soldiers and social revolutions was a dreadful one. Where war had previously been relatively restrained--there was even a code of honor--now there was no restraint. Wars of revolution and conquest raged from the time of the American Revolution through the Vietnam War. Our most recent wars (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gulf Wars I and II) have represented a return to restraint, partly because they were at least as much "police actions" as wars and partly because the modern highly skilled soldier is not seen as disposable.

When wars rage, the demand for weapons soars. Thus military needs had a great deal to do with driving the Industrial Revolution and creating the modern mass-production economy and all its problems. Is the military to blame for those problems? Well, no, for to a degree technology created the military, according to needs defined by society, which then demanded more technology. The Industrial Revolution spawned other benefits too, and by and large people are not about to give it up. The situation is both circular and complex, which makes it difficult to control military technologies. Historically, people have wanted to ban many new weapons but attempts to do so have had mixed results. The best results have been with weapons such as poison gas, which can do as much damage to their users as to their targets. Nuclear weapons are still with us, but they have not been used in nearly seventy years; when it became clear in the 1980s that if they ever were used, there would be no winners (nuclear winter was the issue, not fallout), the Cold War wound down and the Iron Curtain fell.

Many people would still like to ban nuclear weapons, but at present it seems unlikely that they will ever be used for the sort of mass exchange envisioned in the Cold War's MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) policy. We worry today about smaller exchanges, and we labor, as Volti notes, to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to new nations. Unfortunately, they do continue to spread.

Are there any new weapons that we would like to control? Some people worry about biowar--the use of plagues and toxins. Fortunately, there are at least in theory defenses against these weapons (drugs and vaccines) that can limit the damage they do. There is also the "poison gas" problem--they can attack their users--which may inhibit their use.

A more urgent problem involves terrorism, which mostly involves bombs but has also used nerve gas (sarin in Tokyo).  Since one common version (suicide bombing) embraces hazard to the user, there may be little hope of reason prevailing as it occasionally has in the past. Another urgent issue is cyberterrorism or cyberwar, which uses the tools of the information revolution to exploit modern dependence on information technology. In November 2009, the TV show "60 Minutes" reported that hackers have already caused massive power failures in Brazil and that the U.S. is vulnerable to similar attacks. Efforts to defend against such attacks are ongoing, which serves to reemphasize the idea of the ever-lasting arms race. In 2010, the news covered the Stuxnet worm, which may have been created by the U.S. or Israel to attack Iran's nuclear program. Computer viruses or worms built to attack a foe can, of course, spread beyond their target and atteck the country that designed them.


Questions for Discussion

1. One recent change in weaponry is associated with terrorism: Terrorists have become adept at fashioning powerful bombs that can be strapped around a waist or loaded into a car and delivered by "soldiers" willing to die for their cause. If the use of such weapons spreads, what will be the effect on society?

2. The U.S. Defense Department has developed a microwave "pain ray" for crowd control or "area denial." Read down far enough to see the discussion of "mission creep." Military technology often turns out to have civilian applications--but what nonmilitary applications would there be for a "pain ray"? And what effects might such applications have on society? See also http://raytheon.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=1206&pagetemplate=release .

3. I mentioned the cyber-attacks that caused power black-outs in Brazil. What other aspects of modern life are vulnerable to cyber-attack? (Consider this news story!)