Nations as Machines for War

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British machine gun unit in World War I: repetitive mass shootings

W.J. Astore

Back in 1992, when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I put together a statement of intent and a bibliography.  My statement was titled, “Economic Mobilization and National Strategies in Great Britain and France during the Great War.”  As it turns out, I decided not to pursue a military subject, turning instead to science and religion, an area I examined when I pursued my master’s degree.  I was reminded of all this as I looked through old documents this weekend in pursuit of references for a friend.

Anyway, here’s my statement from 1992 about World War I as a killing machine:

The Great War was a struggle waged by modern industrial juggernauts.  The Western Front witnessed organized destruction on a scale heretofore thought impossible. Staggered by the costs of modern war, all combatants mobilized their economies, with varying degrees of success.

All countries in 1914 expected a short war and lacked plans for economic mobilization. Confronted by a stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism, Britain and France drastically modified their economies. In Britain, the “Shells Scandal” provoked a cabinet crisis and the establishment of a new ministry of munitions, headed by David Lloyd George.  Riding roughshod over the army’s traditional procurement practices, Lloyd George worked production miracles. Fed by massive imports of coal and metal from England, France embarked on an industrial program characterized by massive improvisation. Together, Britain and France formed an industrial alliance that proved to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy”.

My dissertation will examine the efforts of Britain and France to gear their economies for war. I will focus on cooperation between the two countries. Since the Great War was primarily an industrial war, events in the economic sphere largely determined national strategies. My dissertation will also examine how economic concerns drove military strategy and operations on the Western Front.

As a preliminary thesis, I hold that the “industrial miracle” of Britain and France led to an overvaluing of machines at the soldiers’ expense. For Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others like him, the new artillery with its massive stockpile of shells was a deus ex machina, a winning god of war. In his hands, soldiers became little more than power units, trained automatons who at the Somme in 1916 only needed to walk across no-man’s land and occupy the enemy’s trenches.

Overwhelmed by the conditions of modern warfare, British and French commanders placed too much faith in machines. Far from underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield, they saw it as a panacea. Triumphs of production were frittered away in battle due to inadequate training and insufficient attention to tactical performance.  Worst of all, as commanders consumed vast quantities of munitions, they seemed to become hardened to an expenditure of lives on a similar, but infinitely more horrendous, scale.

Furthermore, as economic means were mobilized, sacrifices incurred by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends and incite national will. Total economic warfare led to heightened political demands, eliminating chances for compromise; an incited populace could only be calmed by total victory. War was not politics by other means; it was industrial production by any means. This was not at the bequest of a “merchants of death” cartel; it was the natural outcome of a crisis which turned nations into machines for war.

In a sense, modern war became equivalent to modern industrialism, and vice-versa. Lewis Mumford suggests that “The army is in fact the ideal form toward which a purely mechanical system of industry must tend.” The individual soldier was reduced to a power unit and trained to be an automaton.  Mass production and mass conscription had much in common, Mumford notes.  “Quantity production must rely for its success upon quantity consumption; and nothing ensures replacement like organized destruction.”

The Great War witnessed a crisis of morale, and at the root of this crisis was the realization that military power had grown uncontrollable, and this was directly attributable to weapons technology. What disturbed so many was the futility of their efforts: the decidedly unheroic deaths awaiting them.  As historian Paul Kennedy observed, victory went to the side whose combination of both military-naval and financial-industrial-technological resources was the greatest.

Extreme military effort drove countries to pursue extreme political gains.  Nations became machines for war and little else.

Looking back, I can see why I didn’t pursue this.  I wasn’t interested in economic mobilization; what really interested me was how warfare had changed, how nations became war machines, how it altered the politics of nations and the mindset of peoples.  In a way, fascism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was the logical outcome of near-total war mobilization in World War I.

Consider the United States today.  The U.S. dominates the world’s trade in weaponry.  The U.S. spends enormous sums of money on its military.  The U.S. is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events.  The U.S. is even planning on revamping its world-destroying nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years.  All of this is considered “normal” in what Americans still consider as the world’s leading democracy.

Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy?  How did we come to see more and more weapons — even WMD — as the guarantor of peace and freedom?  How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state?  What does it say about us as a nation?

 

Seminary Rules for Students while on Vacation

W.J. Astore

Many years ago, I came across a brief (four-page) pamphlet of rules for seminarians while on vacation.  I found it in an old book while doing research on Catholic reactions to science in the 19th century.  The pamphlet refers to students at St. Charles College of the Petit Seminaire (minor seminary) of St. Sulpice.  St. Charles opened in 1848 in Maryland but was largely destroyed by fire in 1911.

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There’s no date on the pamphlet.  I was researching in books mainly from the 1850s and 1860s, so perhaps this is the best estimate for when this pamphlet was printed.  It’s a fragile and interesting piece of Catholic history, so I thought I’d post the text here for other researchers, and for people who might be curious about the rules Catholic seminarians were expected to follow when they left the seminary on “vacation.”  The text below shows a life of discipline that didn’t end when the student left the seminary; indeed, in the “wilderness” of real life, seminarians were warned to be on their guard as well as on their best behavior.

Manner of Spending the Vacation for the Students of St. Charles’ College, Petit Séminaire of St. Sulpice.

Daily Exercises.

Morning.

  1. Have a fixed hour of rising, never later than six o’clock; Morning Prayer; Meditation for a quarter of an hour at least, from some edifying book.
  2. Mass, if possible, every day.
  3. During the forenoon, the Little Hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin.
  4. An hour or two of serious Study, according to the advice of your director.

Afternoon.

  1. Read a Chapter of the New Testament before dinner, and make the Particular examen on the Virtue which you have proposed to yourself to acquire. Never be ashamed to say Grace before and after meals.
  2. Vespers and Complins. Pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, if the Church is not too distant.
  3. Recite Matins and Lauds either in the Church or whilst taking a walk; Beads; Spiritual Reading.
  4. Evening Prayers and Examination of Conscience. Retire to bed, as much as possible, at a fixed hour; and prepare the subject of meditation for the following day.

Weekly Exercises.

  1. Receive the Sacraments as often as in the Seminary. Their assistance is much more needed in the world. Have the same zeal for communion as when in the Seminary.
  2. On Sundays and Festivals assist in surplice with gravity and piety at the office of the Parish. If your services are required to serve Mass, do so in a pious and edifying manner. Do not speak in the sacristy without necessity; and then in a few words, and with a low voice.
  3. Show great respect for your Parish Priest; great deference for his salutary admonitions; and entire willingness to assist him, should he require your services. Seek the society of Ecclesiastics.

What is to be Observed.

Towards God.

The Religious duties prescribed above, in the Daily and Weekly Exercises. Habitual recourse to the Blessed Virgin, as Special Protectress of the Vacation. Fidelity to the laws of the Church.

Towards the Neighbor.

Towards All—Charity; Condescension; Politeness.

Towards Parents—Docility; Forwardness to oblige them; the most affectionate Respect.

Towards Brothers, Sisters, and Relatives—Be among them as an angel of peace.

Towards Strangers—Discretion; Reserve; Circumspection with the young; Avoid too great familiarity. If you can, do something for the poor.

Towards Oneself.

Modesty; Simplicity; Avoid every appearance of haughtiness. In moments of difficulty have recourse to God and to the Blessed Virgin. Keep a strict guard over yourself, especially in the company of persons of a different sex. Moderate your curiosity. Avoid noisy conversation, loud laughter, and every thing contrary to clerical modesty. Before setting out on a journey say the “Itinerarium.”

What is to be Avoided.

  1. Be on your guard against Human Respect, and even sometimes against the improper counsels of your relatives. Hence you should show yourself from the beginning of the vacation to be such as God requires, and as you have promised to be.
  2. Avoid Idleness, the source of temptation and dangerous to all, but particularly to youth. In the beginning and at the end of the vacation, abstain from serious studies; those days should be spent in exercises of piety.
  3. Be not discouraged after a first fault. Should you neglect any of your duties, resolve to do better; and apply with new zeal to fulfill them. Should you be so unhappy as to fall into sin, go and confess immediately.
  4. Avoid—with extreme caution—bad company, dangerous reading, worldly entertainments and parties in which one is exposed to see, hear, or do what might wound conscience.
  5. Be resolute in refusing to be treated with better fare than is usual in the family, or with other attentions always out of place, which parents think themselves bound to show a son who is an ecclesiastic. Avoid spending some days at the home of a fellow seminarian, whose parents might be inconvenienced by your stay.
  6. Avoid, as well as in private as in public, all vanity and worldliness in dress, gesture, gait or conversation.

Review these rules occasionally by way of spiritual reading.

J.M.J. (Jesus, Mary, Joseph)

The Pentagon’s $733 Billion “Floor”

$1.6 trillion to “modernize” this triad?  Doesn’t sound like a “peace dividend” or “new world order” to me

W.J. Astore

In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.

Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?

Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years.  America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it.  Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?

Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that  addressed military spending in critical terms.  Here’s an excerpt:

The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.

The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.

These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget.  It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.

Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial.  I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.

But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America.  Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).

Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one.  He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex.  Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.

In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing.  And so it goes.

Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg.  As he puts it:

“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”