War, technology and society

War is a human universal; its practice cannot be linked to any single type of political organization or society. There never was a Garden of Eden; fighting between bands villages etc in preindustrial societies was more frequent than it is now. The myth of the noble savage is that – a myth. This may be considered a tragic conception of Homo sapiens but it seems the logical way to read the evidence. Obviously individual aggression is part of the story but there are other factors. The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was probably not pumped up in a hyper-aggressive state he was just obeying orders. War may be a constant in human history but it has mutated many times throughout history, reflecting changes in culture economics and society. I don’t know if there is one theory that can encompass tribal wars, the Mongol hordes, Panzer division and Shock and Awe. For the ancients conflict was seen as central to human existence and actually beneficial. Now we live in an age that has rejected war as a positive force but military conflict shows no sign of disappearing.

The role of technology is crucial in how war has evolved. During most of human history wars were fought with rudimentary weapons. But the state system has enabled the development of weapons of awesome power. In Europe the competition between fractious warring states meant that gunpowder, which in China had been used principally for ceremonial purposes, was put to a far more sinister use. Indeed the majority of the great civilisations China, Japan and the Islamic states, banned the use of gunpowder weapons until the eighteenth century. This destructive power would give Europe a decisive advantage when it colonised the world from 1492 onwards. In recent years the American army has enjoyed a huge technological advantage over all other nations. This though has not always been a recipe for success as recent events have shown.

So war has been an enormous driver of technological change. This leads to an uncomfortable reality reflected in the famous quote (see below) from The Third Man about the contributions of Switzerland and Italy to civilisation. War is undoubtedly a curse on humanity but without the Darwinian struggle we saw in Europe, we would we not have had so many inventions. This competition led to technological developments that may well not have occurred if we had been as peaceful as China or Japan. War then has had a transforming effect on society that goes beyond military inventions.

And this relationship continues today. I am thinking of an organisation, which although it is not particularly well-known, has done much to shape our modern world. I am referring to DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), created in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1958. Their two most famous inventions are probably the Internet and GPS. They have also done important work on prosthetics, machine translation and alternative energy sources. There have also been some more eccentric ideas as chronicled by Jon Ronson in The Men Who Stare at Goats – staring at goats until they drop dead, walking through walls and other such New Age/Hippy madness. The Flower People’s revolution ended up being hijacked and led to prisoners being tortured with Barney the Purple Dinosaur at Abu Ghraib

War has brought these benefits but the price we have paid has been terrible. Of course wishing it away will not make it happen.  The best we can hope for is that we will be able to minimise its impact.  We have progressed enormously in technological terms but we are still the same species. And now we have more deadly toys.

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