Monday, January 30, 2006


Technology and war

On Page 97 of The Origins of War Prevention, a history of the British peace movement from 1730 to the outbreak of the Crimean War, Martin Ceadel makes the good point that technological progress has often been a double-edged sword in debates about war.

On the one hand, peace advocates have long pointed to the technological trappings of "globalization" as evidence that the world is becoming more interdependent and therefore more pacific. Early nineteenth-century pacifists like Elihu Burritt pointed to ocean steamships, telegraphs, and railroads as indisputable evidence that war was on its way out. On the other hand, defenders of war pointed to the same innovations as proof of the need for greater military preparedness. Steamships and railroads gave enemy nations a dangerous material advantage, which could only be reduced by turning these new technologies into the service of war. Ceadel offers a quotation from Richard Cobden, the advocate of trade and international arbitration, that captures this irony succinctly:
There is so much cant about the tendency of railways, steam-boats, and electric telegraphs, to unite France and England in bonds of peace uttered by those who are heard, in almost the same breath, advocating greater preparations against war and invasion, that I feel some hesitation in joining such a discordant chorus.
I suspect some future historian will find our own paeans to the Internet as a harbinger of globalization similarly "discordant." Here you have a person who argues that computers and laptops are drawing the globe into one world. There you have a person who argues that these same technologies place us in more danger because they can be used so easily by terrorists. The Internet would like to make the world to sing in perfect harmony ... except that it's also the place where pictures of hostages are posted and terrorist attacks are planned.

As a result, the very things that are supposed to be bringing us closer together--say, airplanes and cell phones--also function in political discourse as justifications for greater militarization and state consolidation, since now that any terrorist can use a plane or a cell phone as a weapon, we must supposedly devise new means of combat and arm ourselves for a new kind of war. Cobden was right, I think, to be suspicious of the claim that technological innovation tips the scales between war and peace one way or the other, even though (ironically) he certainly helped contribute to our contemporary sense that free trade and the shrinking of distances between countries are inherently liberalizing and pacifying forces.

Collective Improvisation:
Interesting! I come across the same dichotomy frequently in my own research on the threat of the bomber in the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, aircraft made the world smaller, and so would promote understanding and harmony, perhaps even bring about a world federation; on the other, they could swiftly bring death and destruction, and were to be feared precisely because they made the world smaller: England was no longer an island, as the saying went.

Strangely enough, the paradox was starkest in the case of civil aviation - because even if all the world's air forces were banned, civilian airliners and air transports could (it was thought) be quickly converted into bombers by some devious country, which could then use them to attack or blackmail its disarmed neighbours. This issue was one reason why there was no general limitation of air forces between the World Wars.

Much earlier, Cobden's contemporary Tennyson suggested an awareness of the dilemma in "Locksley Hall", where he juxtaposes "the heavens fill[ing] with commerce, argosies of magic sails" with "the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue", leading to "the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world".

So yeah, anyway, I'm with you and Cobden!

Posted by Anonymous Brett on 1/31/2006 03:01:00 AM : Permalink  

Very interesting, Brett. It does seem to be a recurrent paradox, at least since the early nineteenth century. I wonder whether one could find examples earlier than that.

One of Ceadel's arguments is that the early nineteenth century was the first time that people began to move away from what he calls the most influential theory of international relations in world history: "fatalism," or the idea that war is an inevitable and even desirable way of resolving international conflicts. Perhaps it wasn't until fatalism was weakened by Enlightenment critiques of the Wars of Religion that the question of whether ships and new technologies could double as weapons even became an issue: pre-19c Westerners would have seen ships as vehicles of commerce and vehicles of war without experiencing any cognitive dissonance. Perhaps our dissonance is a peculiar inheritance of the early nineteenth century.

Thanks also for the Tennyson reference!

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 1/31/2006 10:41:00 AM : Permalink  

I suspect some future historian will find our own paeans to the Internet as a harbinger of globalization similarly "discordant."

You might want to have a look at John Gray (not that one, this one), who makes much this case here, as well as, in various ways, in his last several books. The arguments include observations about the various uses of technology and also a case that universalizing worldviews (i.e., how the world will be one) actually splinter their audience.

Posted by Anonymous Eric Rauchway on 2/06/2006 08:58:00 AM : Permalink  

So above, when I said "here", what I meant was, here.

Posted by Anonymous Eric Rauchway on 2/06/2006 12:52:00 PM : Permalink  

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter