Nations as Machines for War

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?


9 thoughts on “Nations as Machines for War

  1. What does it say about us as a nation?

    It seems pretty clear that more and more it reveals that we as a nation have no moral compass and neither the desire nor ability to react to or interact with others who share this planet with us in any meaningful way other than to just try to beat them up.

    I think humankind doesn’t suffer bullies forever. History teaches that time does wear human endeavors thin eventually. We are not exempt.


  2. The nation(s) with the most weaponry always win? Not so in Vietnam nor in the many encounters we started in the Middle East. The peasant in the jungle and the tribesman in the hills and desert proved and are proving otherwise.


    1. How true! But World War I was a symmetrical war, a huge contest of mass and materiel, mainly on the Western Front. In that theater of operations, tactics didn’t matter as much. Witness the great German offensive of 1918: new tactics, same result. The Germans exhausted themselves as the Yanks and tanks arrived in ever larger numbers.


      1. They also, at least according to my understanding, maintained a million or so soldiers occupying the newly-conquered territories in the east, despite the need for those soldiers to finally take Paris. But for the elites, those vast estates in the east they all dreamed about were as vital a war aim as victory in the West.

        High Command also apparently made crucial mistakes in shifting the focus of the offensive around time and again rather than sticking with one or two axis of advance. Possibly because of the limited resources – German tactics allowed them to survive in the West despite the weight of Franco-British numbers (always nice to be able to rely on the colonies for manpower), and scared the Allied generals quite badly in 1918. They spent most of the war (Verdun being a huge and costly exception) in the West on the defensive, and launched the attacks in 1918 when they did precisely because they knew American reinforcements were coming.

        We Anglo-Saxons tell the history of World War 1 based on the experiences of our people, and remember it as a mindless mutual annihilation (as on the Somme). But I wonder how much of that framing is due to atrocious lack of creativity and competence on the part of the military and political leadership of the time.


  3. I’ve been reading a fascinating book, “Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth” that seeks to discover how an upright citizen can become oblivious to horror made possible by his work, continuing to do it with a will even when there can be no denying what is happening as a result. Though Hitler had a mad vision/obsession from the start (revealed in Mein Kampf), Speer and many other Germans did not. The author interviews a great number of people who interacted with Speer through his work for Hitler, his twenty years in prison and his free years until his death. The details reveal the workings of the Third Reich far more than anything else I’ve read about it, but the point to make here is that power is something people enjoy and certain people crave without limit even though the craving may not be felt until the power is gained.

    The difficulty humanity faces again and again regardless of the state of technology, is that those most likely to rise to the height of power are the very ones that are most likely addicted to it and willing to do anything, to sacrifice anything (and certainly to sacrifice the lives of others) to keep going higher. Thus do empire rise one after another with the leaders basking in power and the public enjoying it vicariously even with all the historical evidence of it ending in tears.

    Lust for power is the tiger within us, only necessary to be in control of a few, that we cannot help but ride. Technology now puts a lid on this with the promise of total destruction, a kind of leash that holds us back with Hiroshima the proof there is no going forward with what has been inevitable until now: war and conquest. So it is power/emotion vs reason, and I would not bet on reason. Over reach will have its way, though I am open to and would like to hear any argument that says I am wrong.


    1. Speer has always fascinated me. Had I grown up in Germany in that time, I’d probably survived by doing what he did – focus on the business, ignore the morality.

      I know that the recent trend in historiography of the Second World War has de-emphasized German sources, but I still find his autobiography (Inside the Third Reich) to be an incredibly powerful window both into the structure of the regime and the role of simple human personality traits in enabling the worst evils.

      In particular, I found it both interesting and relevant to see how events progressed, step-by-step, from 1933 to 1945, despite most of the power players involved spending more time fighting their own little empire-building struggles within the Nazi bureaucracy than anything else. They all focused on their petty agendas, battling for access to der Fuhrer, personally disconnected from the disasters they were creating right up until the Soviets were at the gates of Berlin.

      Sounds like D.C. to me, honestly. The inevitable result of too much power concentrated in too few hands.


      1. CB & AT: What’s an old guy to do with you youngin’s? Albert Speer? The last time I saw his name in print was 10 years ago, during the financial meltdown of Dubai. A humorous financial reporter titled his article: ‘Albert Speer meets Walt Disney on the shores of Arabié”.
        OK, Truth in Disclosure: I bought & read his ‘Inside the Third Reich’, maybe written in jail, 1970. That’s when I was a frustrated wanna’ be architect. Though I have 6 on Mies Van Der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, Bauhaus members. Speer had it shut down, under Hitler’s orders, probably why I bought the book.
        He’s an interesting character, no doubt, though never built anything of consequence. Many of us feel he was insanely jealous of the other 2, who left Nazi Germany and produced ‘International Style’ classics, still with us today. The interesting thing is the 2 were more in spirit with the ‘New Germany’ than Speer was: new, logical, elegant in a simple way.
        Speer was trying to reform Berlin into a new Rome. He concocted a blasphemous plaster model of the ‘New Berlin’ in a basement, which Hitler adored. But that’s as far as it got: As allied bombs destroyed the ‘Old Berlin’, the ‘New’ one was never to be.
        We can thank Eisenhower, and the Soviets!, for not allowing Speer’s monstrosity to ever be.


    2. CB – Re: your above statement “…those most likely to rise to the height of power are the very ones that are most likely addicted to it and willing to do anything, to sacrifice anything (and certainly to sacrifice the lives of others) to keep going higher.“
      I for one really have to agree with you on that. I can’t help but think of the quip about the position of POTUS where some cynic said (paraphrasing) ‘I wouldn’t vote for anyone crazy enough to run for POTUS’. There’s more truth than not in that idea. With all the stressful negatives attached to the job, I would suggest that it attracts a high proportion of psychologically ‘troubled’ applicants.


  4. This comment was posted at by “liveload” in response to my article.
    liveload • 13 hours ago
    “Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy?”

    In the truest sense, if the majority, one way or another, consistently vote for war; then that’s what happens.

    “How did we come to see more and more weapons – even WMD – as the guarantor of peace and freedom?”

    To gain a better sense of how this happened, one must look at the modern history of marketing. They were meant, for their purveyors, to be a long term cash cow and a means to intimidate (initially the Soviets).

    “How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state?”

    When war is what is consistently on the menu, the kitchen must be supplied…the staff paid…

    “What does it say about us as a nation?”

    To truly answer that you have to look deeply at America’s relationship with firearms.

    This land was taken from its indigenous inhabitants at the point of a gun. A country was built upon the back of slaves, at the point of a gun. After the civil war, the nation industrialized and began to build a global empire on the backs of wage slaves, at the point of a gun. Now in the information age, this global empire threatens to fly apart at the seams (largely under the mass of its own bullshit) and is held together literally, at the point of a gun.

    Yeah so, next up for debate…gun laws…


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