Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Industrialization, War, and Politics: Trifecta of Doom

with 4 comments

I read a lot of history, especially military history. And I am convinced at this point that one truism about history is indeed true: “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” If anything it doesn’t go far enough, war and politics have been inextricably intertwined since the beginning. People with political ambitions routinely use war to gain power. They range from brilliant military minds like Julius Caesar, to shameless opportunists like Teddy Roosevelt. The one thing they all have in common is a perfect willingness to kill to get more political power. Pause for reflection.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t want to have a boss who was willing to kill to get what they wanted, let alone a political leader. And of course it’s entirely debatable on a case by case basis if such leaders do more good than harm. Still, for every “good” leader one can pull from the annals of history dozens of incompetent or evil leaders. Incompetence slips in there because being willing to use military accomplishments to gain political power doesn’t require any military skill whatsoever. Again, one can easily pull from the annals of history endless examples of military leaders who got their positions through politics … and performed catastrophically badly when called upon to actually lead armies and fleets in battle. In other words, this horrible intertwining does a disservice to both politicians and military leaders. Granted this is not an original observation, just something that fuels my lack of faith in human governing institutions in general.

In other words, studying history can be really depressing. Moving right along however, there’s a recent fly in this ointment that makes it a lot worse. Living in the lap of luxury and consumption (comparatively speaking historically,) modern people forget that throughout most of history the entire human race was fantastically poor compared to today. In most times and places the vast majority of people for all practical purposes slaved their lives away growing food, up until the late Middle Ages at the very least. And this widespread poverty had at least one very positive effect. It limited the race’s ability to wage war.

And these were very real limits. Typically throughout history an army was a few thousand men at most, a few tens of thousands on rare occaisions. Even then the majority of people who fought in wars were peasant conscripts who only served a few months a year, as they had to both plant and harvest the crops. Thus the armies that did exist were very much limited in both their mobility and their ability to wreak widespread destruction. Certainly cities and even civilizations were destroyed, but these were the exception. Today tiny handfuls of military persons can rain destruction down on people on the other side of the planet. And modern armies can number in the millions, something inconceivable even as late as the mid nineteenth century. The destruction wrought by modern armies makes was of the past look trivial in comparison. Millions dead, entire countries laid to waste. And the destructive power available to modern armies (not to mention insurgents and non-state actors) continues to grow.

So already I’m finding that I see little to be optimistic about in humanity’s future. And if these aspects of the human condition weren’t bad enough, modern propaganda is vastly more effective than the propaganda of old. Science applied to advertising has multiplied the power to do evil the same way science applied to warfare has done. And as a final icing on this cake of doom, scientists are once again raising alarm about the health of the planet’s ecosystem and the catastrophic effects human activity is having upon it.

We’re not really an intelligent species. Convince me otherwise.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s central to illustrating the post, isn’t being used for profit, and arguably is an historically important image. Credit and copyright: Some anonymous Russian photographer during World War Two. It’s an image taken during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, though to be fair it may be a staged image. It does show the destruction of the city though.)


Written by unitedcats

June 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Well you are wrong about privation limiting society’s ability or willingness to go to war. Sounds like a pretty awesome reason to fight, no? We don’t got a thing to eat… Lets go over this ridge, KILL those guys, and take their _______ u fill in the blank- food, land, supplies, gold, oil, manganese, FIGS, SNAILS… The list is endless. Cat, if ever their was a reason that had some validity, it would be privation of resources.
    And wrong about conscript armies in history… The reason being, they tend not to be motivated. Before Merius in Ancient Rome, you had to be a land owner and citizen to fight. He changed the rules (and killed the Republic) to if you fight, we will give you land. This changed the alliegence of the soldier from state to the particular general he fought for. But throughout history it has always been the noble classes of a society that paid for and fought wars. You know being a knight, with all that armor, horses, and footmen has been compared to modern ownership of a private jet?
    And ask the people of Carthage about limited widespread destruction… Or the Romans about the Vandal’s limited abilities… Or the Hun’s lack of ability… It wasn’t the exception, it was the GOAL…
    The desire for total war has always been there, it just took more elbow grease. From Hannibal’s destruction of a DOUBLE CONSULAR ARMY at Cannae in 218BC (where it took his men two days to slaughter the hamstrung Roman Soldiers-50,000 to 70,000 by modern estimates) to the Fire Raids over Tokyo which killed upwards of 50,000 to 100,000 in a single night, to the advent of nuclear weapons which can kill millions in a flash… Mankind has demonstrated one thing above all else- the ability to kill by more and more efficient means… And I’m with you about everything but the planet… Its doing fine. Like George Carlin once said “We’re the ones in trouble!”
    I gotta slow down on the Red Bull…


    June 15, 2012 at 6:59 am

  2. Excellent post–the book I’m currently in the middle of, Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, is a jarring examination of the madness of World War I, especially the wishful thinking on all sides, from the British and German generals whose tactics didn’t take into account the futility of massive charges of armies against entrenched positions with machine guns and barbed wire, to socialist war resisters in Britain who vainly hoped that working men would find class solidarity a stronger bond than xenophobic nationalism. It’s difficult to imagine that any nation would commit itself again to the sort of mass battlefield slaughter that Europe saw in that war…though probably that’s more a matter of changing tactics and technology, not any improvements in human wisdom. We’re still bloody-minded apes ideally adapted to living in small bands on the savanna (and to lifespans of about 30 years).


    June 15, 2012 at 8:57 am

  3. We are an intelligent species. We’re just not very bright.

    All you stated has me depressed at times too. Makes me wonder how we’ll ever pull out of this when the problem is we possess too much power and not enough wisdom in properly handling power. What a massive conundrum in this day and age.


    June 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm

  4. Doktor- its hard to imagine, but twenty odd years after WW1 they were at it again, utilizing most of the improvements developed between the wars (only the Germans used any nerve agents or poison gas in WW2, and not on the battlefield). You really think after our collective memory of such a disaster like WW2 has cleared– which it pretty much has– humankind isn’t ready for another conflagration? If so, you are more of an optimist than I am…
    Especially since mobilization- the one factor which took time and could possibly lead to a peaceful solution- has been reduced from weeks to days, and intercontinental ballistic missles travel at about 16,000mph. Bottom line– what was done in six years of WW2 could easily be done in about six hours today… We are improving every day!


    June 15, 2012 at 8:18 pm

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