Cover Story

It's not a video game

All the technological advances in warmaking haven't altered the central reality that war is horrible

Issue: "2000: The Millennium," July 31, 1999

In these last days of the bloodiest century man has known, some have suggested that the advent of modern, technologically advanced weapons, particularly those employing stealth technology and precision guided munitions, have fundamentally changed the face of battle. Now the advantage, especially presently to the United States, is so overwhelming, so powerful, that warfare has become lopsided. Massive destruction and enormous casualties can be inflicted on the enemy at extremely low cost in American lives. Indeed, the new standard of success in war as far as the American public is concerned, set in the skies over Serbia and Kosovo, is no loss of life while winning with overwhelming advantage. To use a sports metaphor, we are no longer interested in military contests that secure victory 109 to 107 in double overtime. No, 109 to 0 is just fine. Anything less, apparently, might get the coach fired. In the Gulf War, estimates of Iraqi losses range from as low as 9,000 upwards to 100,000, while the United States suffered 147 killed in action. While the estimates of Serbian losses in the war over Yugoslavia are still to be determined, the most striking news is that during the 79 days of the air war, the NATO coalition didn't lose anyone to combat action. The effects of technological advantages between combatants are as old as the battlefield. And the apparent lopsidedness afforded the possessors of the new technologies was often stunning. But if there is one lesson to be learned from the study of war during the last thousand years, it would be that no technological advantage lasted as long as the possessor hoped. Secret weapon: the longbow
Outnumbered by more than two to one, the English faced the French in 1346 at the battle of Crécy, early in the Hundred Years War. The French led their attack with infantrymen armed with crossbows. These crossbowmen from Genoa were considered to be the best in all of Europe. Developed just as the millennium began, the crossbow itself was considered by many historians as perhaps the most significant weapon introduced in medieval times. So deadly was the crossbow that Pope Innocent II prohibited its use; so overwhelming in its power and lethal in its application that the pope declared that the crossbow was "hateful to God and unfit for Christians." (That was, until later, when it was determined that the crossbow was just fine to use in killing Muslims.) It was with the crossbow that the French opened their attack. Regrettably for the French, their commanders weren't keeping up with the technological advances of their enemy. The English, under Edward III, had developed the longbow as a military weapon in preparation for their invasion of France. The longbow had greater range than the crossbow, so when Genoese crossbowmen let their arrows fly, they fell harmlessly short of the massed Englishmen. In response the English archers let fly a devastating volley of arrows. At a cost of 43 Englishmen and "a few dozen Welsh," the English decimated the French, killing over 11,000 of them. Throughout the millennium this story of advanced technology playing a central role in subduing the vanquished repeats itself. In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada with its 130 ships and over 30,000 men greatly outnumbered Queen Elizabeth's navy. With only 34 warships the English relied on technological advantages in ship design that gave them superior speed and maneuverability over the enemy. Armed with another key piece of advanced weaponry, the long-range naval cannon, the English navy could attack the Spanish decisively without having to rely on the accepted method of grappling the enemy ship alongside and boarding the enemy vessel for a final fight with naval infantry. On July 29 alone, the Spanish suffered over 8,000 casualties, their fleet all but destroyed. The British lost none of their ships and only 60 men. More destructive force, but less death?
These kinds of overwhelming results at sea, along with similar ones on land, contributed to the notion that was widely accepted well into the 1600s that gunpowder had, in fact, made war more civilized by limiting casualties. The great English poet and Anglican priest John Donne once wrote, "[T]hey have found out artillery, by which wars come to quicker ends than heretofore, and the great expense of blood is avoided; for the numbers of men slain now, since the invention of artillery, are much less than before, when the sword was the executioner." Later, the advent of the submarine, the machine gun, and the tank-each dependent on many scientific developments in metals, propulsion, and weapons-all represented technologies that, when first introduced onto the battlefield, gave an enormous advantage to the side that was able to exploit these new capabilities. Other subsystems and technologies had similar effects. The steam engine and its successor, the internal combustion engine, shaped every facet of warfare and ultimately allowed the development of the airplane. The lessons of the last thousand years stand out clearly as guideposts for the new millennium. Their policy implications are unmistakable. The central lesson is that technological advantages are never enduring. Either the enemy over time comes to possess the same technology, negating the superior position of the one combatant vis-à-vis the other, or some additional new scientific discovery negates, supplants, or otherwise overwhelms the capability of the first. Won't last forever
To assume a technological advantage will be exclusively yours in perpetuity is folly. As overpowering as the longbow was in the early part of the millennium, it has no place on the modern battlefield. Current technological advantages enjoyed by the United States must be guarded jealously, but at the same time the government and defense establishment must take the long view. America's advantage in stealth technology in the short term is, for the moment, overpowering, but we must assume that new technologies of detection will render current stealth aircraft unprotected at some future date. After all, the unassailable position of the United States as the only possessor of nuclear technology at the end of World War II lasted only until the USSR tested its first bomb in 1949. To cease looking for new emerging capabilities is to ignore the lessons of the past as well. The Airborne Laser (ABL)-a powerful laser mounted in a Boeing 747 airframe, capable of destroying targets like SCUD missiles from great distances-is an example of an emerging capability that represents a fundamentally new capability being brought to the battlefield. The other millennial lesson is not to make the mistake John Donne made and surmise that advanced capabilities have somehow made war less horrible because of the apparent decrease in the loss of life in combat brought about by new technologies. The gun camera footage piped into our living rooms by CNN from the latest air war over Yugoslavia demonstrates the danger. It is all too easy to become familiar with the videotaped image of a laser-guided bomb turning a black-and-white building into a puff of smoke. The action seems clean, straightforward, and since we don't actually see any people, the subconscious conclusion is that there aren't any present. We certainly are not advised that there were any people present. The danger is to see warfare as a video game and be seduced by the attractiveness of believing that you can secure foreign policy and national-security objectives with little to no cost in lives. It has become almost a big national video game. We must never forget that while it may look nearly antiseptic on TV, war (even from the air) is horrible-sometimes necessary, perhaps, but always destructive. Although we can't see the carnage though the images are flashed into our living rooms, the death and destruction are as real as can be. We should not make it seem less horrible, and we need to remember that more men, women, and children were killed in the wars of the 20th century than in any other 100 years since the Creation. We must be led by the imperative of Proverbs 20:18 as we face the new millennium and the certainty of conflict in a technologically changing world: "Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance."

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