Thus, it happens that those who have force on loan
from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.
—Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, 1939
What are the things that lead us so often to resort to force? Many of the urges to violence have always been a part of relationships between countries. The fascination with technology and superweapons, the influence of the arms industry, the ubiquity and power of the media, a lack of education, competition for resources, and nationalism and religious and ethnic hatreds are some of the well-known influences on war and violent conflict.
What is different now is that these urges are aided and abetted, and sometimes magnified, by the availability of new technologies. Time frames are shortened dramatically, weapons operate at greater distances, antagonists can remain anonymous, and the cost of some weapons no longer presents a barrier to entry. What might lead countries to break through the restraints that have held them in check to date? Ultimately, what might we do to keep those urges in check?
Fascination with technology and superweapons
In late nineteenth-century America, progress came to be measured by advances in technology. Historian Perry Miller was the first to note the sense of rapture that early American citizens sometimes demonstrated at the introduction of new technologies. People often responded as if seeing technological marvels was something of a spiritual experience. He found that technological advancements created in the public mind a sort of religious reverence. Miller referred to this as the “technological sublime.”1
David Nye, also a historian of technology, followed up on Miller’s concept of the technological sublime, describing the awe and trepidation that many Americans felt with the introduction of new technological advances of the time. Simply put, technologies evoke collective awe and amazement and inspire the imagination. Nye felt that this experience and the widespread belief in the notion of inevitable progress formed a distinctly American ideology of technology. He noted that in America technological achievements became measures of cultural value.2 He concluded that the almost-religious feelings evoked by technology, when combined with America’s view of its messianic destiny, created a kind of American nationalism, providing a shared set of experiences around which the national character could coalesce.3 Even the greatest human problems, Americans thought, could be solved by our technological genius.
The fascination of Americans with technology naturally extended to weapons. The philosopher Edmund Burke claimed that “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible … or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.”4 The public and our civilian and military leaders are seduced by technology and its progeny, superweapons. Unfortunately, such superweapons also seduce us into thinking we are invincible. One researcher noted that “innovation makes policy makers swoon and weapons developers salivate.”5
Countries and governments have always used the possibility of “superweapons” to awe and inspire their own populations and to frighten and deter their adversaries. The ancient Greeks had rudimentary flame throwers, the Chinese perfected the crossbow in the fifth century BC, Germany introduced guided missiles and cruise missiles in the Second World War, and, of course, the US had a brief monopoly on nuclear weapons.
In his book War Stars, professor H. Bruce Franklin describes the technology-worshipping culture of the nineteenth century as shaping the collective imagination of a future dominated by superweapons. He writes that the emerging faith in technological genius combined with the widespread view of America’s messianic destiny “engendered a cult of made-in-America superweapons and ecstatic visions of America defeating evil empires, waging wars to end all wars, and making the world safe for democracy. Looming above all, no matter who the imagined enemy, appear avatars of the superweapon in terribly modern and familiar shapes.”6 Americans have always been fascinated with weapons of mass destruction. Franklin notes that since the seventeenth century, many Americans have believed they lived on the brink of the apocalypse. The literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included a long list of books describing the future destruction of the country by better-armed foreign nations and the need for America to have fantastic new weapons to prevent it. A particularly relevant example is Stanley Waterloo’s 1898 book Armageddon: A Tale of Love, War, and Invention, in which the hero of the novel says, “To have a world at peace there must be massed in the controlling nations such power of destruction as may not even be questioned. So, we shall build our appliances of destruction, calling to our aid every discovery and achievement of science.”7 In the present day, we have some writers expressing the same sentiments. One conservative educator, appealing to the aforementioned apocalyptic fears, says, “The time is now for every American to demand a national policy of clear-cut military superiority. Every American is threatened. Every American has a stake in our own survival. We have passed from superiority to sufficiency to insufficiency. Irretrievability is just a short time away. Our nation must be summoned to this challenge and this is one challenge that must be met if America is to enter its third century as a free and powerful nation.”8 Note the sense of impending doom.
In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed a missile shield that would render Soviet ballistic missiles ineffective.9 Though it was widely viewed by scientists as a fantasy, dependent on technologies in very early stages of development and decades away from maturity, the public nonetheless believed it. Some missile defense zealots still believe that the Strategic Defense Initiative convinced the Soviet Union they could not prevail over the US and thus ended the Cold War.
In 1986, I and my fellow officers in the small Pentagon office of the Strategic Defense Initiative worked for days crafting a mere handful of words for President Reagan’s State of the Union speech in which he would announce the development of a hypersonic airplane that would move passengers around the world at enormous speeds. If successful, the project also had potential for use as an antisatellite weapon or weapon delivery vehicle, as confirmed by the Defense Science Board in 1992.10 However, former Lockheed Skunk Works legendary engineer Ben Rich would say that he doubted the system could be built in fifty years, much less the then-advertised three years, and that whoever had dreamed up the president’s speech should be canned!11
Then, as now, we have leaders boasting about their military capabilities in an attempt to deter adversaries. They become seduced by weapons technology. The danger of this seduction is that we will actually begin to believe our own boasting and think that all of what we know about war will be rendered obsolete by fantastic new weapons.12 Former Harvard president Drew Faust traced the seductiveness of war to its location on the “boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman,” saying it offers “the attraction of the extraordinary.”13 In the present day, consider nuclear weapons. It is well known that the scientists and engineers who built the first bombs were seduced by the “elegance” of the physics and were awestruck by the enormous power of the weapons, which aroused both excitement and existential dread.
The seduction metaphor is particularly relevant to technology and weapons. Seduction of an individual begins with the allure of something exciting and attractive that gives great satisfaction. The object of desire somehow promises immediate benefit and instant gratification. The dangers and possibilities of unknown consequences, of course, are too often overlooked in the “heat of the moment.” Negatives consequences are downplayed or ignored—or simply explained away.
In the mid-1970s, I commanded a US Army nuclear weapons depot in Europe whose mission was to store and perform maintenance on many hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons for use by NATO allies in the event the USSR decided to invade western Europe. It was my duty to release these weapons on properly authenticated command from the commander in chief. As a relatively young officer I was struck by the enormity of the mission and, in truth, proud to have been vested with such awesome responsibility. Deep in the back of my mind, however, was always the realization of the horror the weapons would create, and every notification of an incoming coded message from headquarters created a slight shiver of dread. I rationalized.
Three decades later, as a senior officer, I was granted rare access to the detailed engineering and inner workings of modern nuclear weapons. Like the inventors and early engineers, I was awe struck by the deep understanding of physics and the innovation and clever engineering employed in this new generation of devices. However, when you are standing inside the cavernous rooms of a deeply buried and highly secure weapon storage facility, the sight of seemingly endless rows and stacks of megaton-class thermonuclear warheads has a psychological impact that cannot be dismissed. Rationalization became infinitely more difficult.
A double-edged sword
Science fiction writers like H.G. Wells imagined fantastic, magical new weapons like particle beams and even atomic bombs. Little did these writers know that such types of weapons would become reality years later. British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”14 We should worry, however, that the possession of such magic can become a double-edged sword:
The wise old sorcerer and his young apprentice toiled away together all day, with the old man conjuring up spells for many people and many purposes. The young man watched and listened eagerly, thinking, “This doesn’t seem so hard; I have seen what theboss does and I can do it myself.” When the sorcerer departed his workshop, he left the apprentice with chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, the apprentice enchanted a broom to do the
work for him, using magic he thought he remembered adequately but did not. Soon there was a flood, and the apprentice realized he could not control the broom because he did not know how. When he tried to split the broom, it only doubled the rush of water.
Just when all seemed lost, the old sorcerer returned. He quickly broke the spell and lectured the apprentice, saying that only a master should invoke powerful spirits.
The unmistakable message of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is that humans can have command of awesome powers without any true mastery of those powers.15 Command is one thing, mastery quite another. Technology is like magic. In untrained hands or inadequately understood, it can get away from us and cause problems. Consider research on deadly pathogens, for example. Without detailed knowledge of how such pathogens propagate—and how to stop them—research on them is extremely dangerous, and once such pathogens escape, they may be uncontrollable.
When Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the gods, took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, telling him that he should marry Pandora, and he also sent Pandora a little box with the instructions never to open it. Very curious about what was in the box, Pandora stole the key from Epimetheus and opened the box. It was filled with all manner of ills and evils, which escaped into the world before Pandora could close it. Only hope remained inside.
The story of Pandora is a tale of excessive curiosity even in the face of warnings about the dangers of exploring things we are aware may hurt us.16Certainly, nuclear weapons were an evil released upon the world. Are we now opening Pandora’s box with a new generation of weapons that might escape our control? Once released into the wild, can they be put back into the box? Writing about the future of warfare, the author Henry Adams said, “I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Someday science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide, by blowing up the world.”17
Current writers on the dangers of artificial intelligence point to the fact that it is by its nature not understandable or predictable. Even our sorcerers may not be able to control it, much less our apprentices. Writers discussing nuclear weapons often lament the fact that the nuclear “genie is out of the bottle” and cannot be put back in, that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. The questions for us now are important. What are the “magic” technologies? Who understands them well enough to play the role of the sorcerer? How well trained are the apprentices? Are our apprentices ready and do they understand enough about how the technologies work to employ them properly? Can the sorcerer, in fact, stop the magic, or will it have an intelligence of its own? Can any of the potential bad side effects be put back in the box once released?
There are other negative effects of our dependence on a continued supply of new technologies. In the latest version of the Global Trends reports, the director of national intelligence concludes that the rate of technological progress is creating new opportunities but also causing discontinuities and aggravating divisions between winners and losers. Automation and artificial intelligence, they say, will change industries faster than economies can adjust, displacing workers and inhibiting development in the poorest countries.18 The same report notes that the risk of future conflict will increase because of, among other things, the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies. Such disruption will become easier and more common, with technology to create weapons of mass destruction becoming more accessible to more groups, many with little knowledge and few compunctions about their use. We have already seen armed drones deployed by nonstate actors in conflicts in Ukraine and recently in an attack on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia. Bioweapons capabilities continue to proliferate. Relatively fast and inexpensive genetic manipulation and virus-editing techniques are readily available to a growing number of laboratories and individuals around the world.19 Technology, it seems, is abetting many of the worst human behaviors and creating some of its biggest dangers.
Technology gone mad
The industrialization of warfare so evident in the massive killing and destruction of World War I and the unprecedented involvement of scientists and engineers so evident in the advanced weapons of World War II, including the atomic bomb, caused many writers and philosophers to raise questions about the moral responsibilities of engineers and scientists. In the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the philosopher Jacob Bronowski wrote that “because we know how gunpowder works, we sigh for the days before atomic bombs. But massacre is not prevented by gunpowder. … Massacre is prevented by the scientist’s ethic … that the end for which we work exists and is judged only by the means which we use to reach it.”20
In accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, philosopher and former member of the French Resistance Albert Camus said, “My generation’s task … consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, and technology gone mad … where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation has had to reestablish a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.”21
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin approached the fascination with technology somewhat obliquely, cautioning against a too-slavish obedience to the wonders of technological solutions.22 He worried that “the vision of some future perfection, as in the minds of technocrats in our own time,” would be used to justify barbarous behavior by rulers against their own people. Berlin felt that some leaders had been convinced, on the basis of the experiences of large-scale administrative states, the advanced mechanization and industrialization of everything in society, and the limitless potential of science, that they could devise a system of governing in which all values must be compatible and that, in the end, there is some grand solution that will incorporate them all. He was including in his argument those for whom technology played an outsized role in their visions of a perfect future. This had led, Berlin believed, to heinous, oppressive regimes. Writing in 1958, Berlin clearly had in mind the excesses of the Nazi regime and Stalinist Russia.
In Germany, Goethe’s Faust was loved by scientists as well as the general public well into the twentieth century and was considered by most Germans to be a canonical text. Faust inspired German scientists to search for a “single, coherent, picture of the world encompassing all phenomena, constants, laws, and concepts.”23 As Albert Speer, armaments minister of the Third Reich, said just before his execution, “Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country.”24
The global arms industry
Among other things, the excessive militarism and the proclivity toward war in many countries are fueled by the ready availability of modern weapons. The global arms industry anxiously awaits a continuous flow of new-technology weapons and plays a large and central role in ensuring a continuous supply of such weapons. They invite a resort to armed conflict.
You enter the sprawling compound, often near a civilian or military airport, and are immediately awed by the displays of gleaming or camouflage-painted advanced military aircraft, mobile rocket launchers, and transportable radar systems, too large to fit inside a building. Private security guards stand watch over themulti-million-dollar equipment but are genial and invite onlookers and potential buyers to examine the merchandise. Upon entering the convention center or other large venue, you are immediately struck by the large number and variety of vendors and pieces of military hardware and the spare-no-expense nature of the event.
You are greeted and offered giveaways, like pens or flashlights with corporate logos, to get you to stop and view a display. Companies offering their products include large international defense firms and smaller second- and third-tier suppliers. Huge systems are there alongside little things like night vision devices, new combat uniforms, small arms, and even military rations. Sometimes referred to as defense industry trade shows, these events are, in fact, arms bazaars.
The global arms industry promises awesome new power for national leaders. Its never-ending warnings about adversary capability growth encourage an arms race and raise the possibility of use of such large stocks of weapons. Now with the return of so-called great power competition, the manufacture and sale of not only new, dual-use technologies but also big-ticket items are more lucrative than ever.
The defense industry and Silicon Valley companies have an outsized influence on policy and economic contributions to national economies. They will send representatives and lobbyists to Congress to meet with lawmakers in classified sessions to tell them of the systems on which foreign companies and governments are working. In 2018, the defense industry employed over seven hundred lobbyists and spent $126 million on lobbying.25 Lobbyists will urgently warn that we’re back to great power competition, that we’re in danger of falling behind, and that we have to be ready to fight and win a major war with Russia and China. The idea of peer-competitor conflicts benefits the defense industry, implying the need for and encouraging the purchase of big, expensive weapons.
Total global military expenditure rose to $1.9 trillion in 2019, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The represents an increase of 3.6 percent from 2018 and was the largest annual growth in spending since 2010. Military expenditures by the United States grew by 5.3 percent to a total of $732 billion in 2019 and accounted for 38 percent of global military spending. China was the second-largest military spender in the world, withexpenditures of $261 billion, a 5.1 percent increase compared with 2018. The US remained by far the largest spender in the world, with a military budget larger than those of the next seven countries combined. In 2019 Russia was the fourth-largest spender in the world and increased its military expenditure by 4.5 percent to $65.1 billion. At 3.9 percent of its GDP, Russia’s military spending burden was among the highest in Europe. Data from 2018 showed that globally, aerospace and defense industry profits climbed 9 percent as defense spending continued to rise across the globe.26 Defense firms in the US reported a 6 percent increase in profits, while European firms reported a whopping 21 percent increase.27 Of consequence, in 2016 the CEOs of nine of the top ten US defense firms each made between $15 and $20 million.28
Profiteering got so bad during World War I that a congressional inquiry into the behavior of the arms industry confirmed that private weapons firms had “fomented war scares, bribed government officials, and circulated false, inflammatory reports on various nations’ military strength, to stimulate arms spending.”29 While there is no suggestion here of such scurrilous behavior today, President Dwight Eisenhower’s often-quoted exhortation, in his farewell speech to the nation, to guard against the influence of the “military-industrial complex” remains appropriate. Eisenhower was highly critical of the aerospace industry and the military for their unending demand for more weapons. He was reportedly angered by the industry press advocating for more weapons to meet an ever-bigger and better Soviet threat that they had “conjured up” and was outraged by the air force officers, industry lobbyists, trade associations, and congressmen shamelessly promoting arms purchases.30Andrew Bacevich says, “Judged 50 years later, Ike’s frightening prophecy actually understates the scope of the modern system—and the dangers of the perpetual march to war it has put us on.”31
As Jonathan Caverley points out, the link between heavily capitalized militaries and increasingly aggressive behavior is strong, with an increase in any measure of capitalization resulting in an increased probability of aggression.32 In a somewhat arcane but interesting calculation, he concludes from the historical data that a one-standard deviation increase in average defense spending results in a fourfold increase in the risk of military aggression.33 Research, development, acquisition, and sale of weapons at home and around the world have become significant elements of the American economy, causing politicians to be very cautious about standing in the way of military adventures.34 Multiple studies have shown that politicians frequently manipulate defense spending for political gain and that corporate actors have a powerful influence on such spending.35 In a new take on the classic saying that to a hammer everything looks like a nail, commentator Dennis Wille said, “If all you’ve got is a defense strategy looking at weapons, how are you not going to get there?”
While we may be tempted to think this worry about huge arms budgets and large militaries is a modern-war concern, scholars and statesmen have worried about just this phenomenon for centuries. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, European manufacturers sold firearms all over the world. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of major arms conglomerates like Krupp in Germany, Schneider-Creusot in France, and Vickers in Britain.36 The eighteenth century philosopher Imanuel Kant noted the dangers. In his 1795 masterpiece “Perpetual Peace,” he warned that “wars would grow increasingly violent and periods of peace would become more burdened by rearmament and by hostile policies that would lead to further conflict.”37 Even the Vatican criticized the rush to arms. An 1870 document, the Postulata of Vatican Council I, said that the very size of national military establishments created an “intolerable burden” on society and created a propensity to make them pay for themselves through conquest, leading to wars the church should not treat as just wars.38 In 1898, Tsar Nicholas II wrote that “massive systems of armament are transforming the armed peace of our days into a crushing burden. If the incessant building of arms is allowed to continue it will inevitably lead to the cataclysm which it is desired to avert.”39 In the twenty years prior to World War I, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Austria- Hungary began building up their military power. Spending on arms increased dramatically and accompanied a parallel dramatic increase in nationalism in which each country felt that the best way to reveal its superiority was to create a stronger military. In World War II, the mere existence of the atomic bomb is thought by some to have been a key factor in the decision to actually use it.
General George C. Marshall, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, was a proponent both of a necessary military strength and of peace. He argued in his acceptance speech that the maintenance of large armies was not a good basis for policy and that a large military, however necessary, was too limited a foundation on which to build a long-enduring peace.40 Marshall also held that massive imbalances in weapons and military power were dangerous and destabilizing and implied the need for attempts at arms control. Such self-restraint from dominance seeking by developed countries has obviously not occurred and is not now occurring with the new generation of weapons and technologies.
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