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?


A Century of Mass Slaughter

Big Bertha (wiki)
Big Bertha (wiki)

W.J. Astore.  Also featured at Huffington Post.

This August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That “Great War” was many things, but it was most certainly a war of machines, of dreadnought battleships and “Big Bertha” artillery, of newfangled airplanes and tortoise-like tanks. Industrial juggernauts like Great Britain, France, and Germany succeeded more or less in mobilizing their economies fully for war; their reward was reaping the horrors of death-dealing machinery on a scale theretofore thought impossible.

In that summer of 1914, most experts expected a short war, so plans for sustaining machine-age warfare through economic mobilization were lacking. Confronted by trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism and machinery, the “big three” antagonists strove to break that stalemate using the means that had produced it: weapons and munitions. Those empires caught up in the war that were still industrializing, e.g. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, found themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Together, Britain and France forged an industrial alliance that proved (with help from the U.S.) to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy.” Yet this alliance contributed to an overvaluing of machines and munitions at the soldiers’ expense. For Entente leaders — even for old-school cavalry officers like Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig — new artillery with massive stockpiles of shells promised to produce the elusive breakthrough and a return to mobile warfare and glorious victory.

Thus it was that at the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, British soldiers were reduced to trained occupiers. Lengthy pre-battle artillery barrages, it was believed, would annihilate German defenders, leaving British troops to slog uncontested across no-man’s land to occupy the enemy’s shattered and empty trenches.

But those trenches were not empty. Germany’s defenses survived Britain’s storm of steel largely intact. And Britain’s soldiers paid the price of misplaced faith in machine warfare: nearly 20,000 dead on that first day, with a further 40,000 wounded.

The Somme is but one example of British and French commanders being overwhelmed by the conditions of machine warfare, so much so that they placed their faith in more machines and more munitions as the means to victory. After underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield up to 1914, commanders quickly came to overestimate it. As a result, troops were inadequately trained and tactics inadequately developed.

As commanders consumed vast quantities of machinery and munitions, they became accustomed to expending lives on a similarly profligate scale. Bodies piled up even as more economic means were tapped. Meanwhile, the staggering sacrifices required by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends. Industrialized warfare that spat out lead and steel while consuming flesh and bone served only to inflame political demands, negating opportunities for compromise. Total victory became the only acceptable result for both sides.

In retrospect it’s remarkable how quickly leaders placed their faith in the machinery of war, so much so that military power revved uncontrollably, red-lined, then exploded in the faces of its creators. Industrialized destruction and mass slaughter were the predictable outcomes of a crisis whose resolution was driven by hardware — more weaponry, more machinery, more bodies. The minds of the men who drove events in that war could not sanction negotiation or compromise; those were forms of “weakness” that neither side could accept. Such murderous inflexibility was captured in the postwar observation of novelist Virginia Woolf that “It was a shock to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell fire. So ugly they looked — German, English, French — so stupid.” Note how she includes her own countrymen, the English, in the mix of the ugly and the stupid.

In World War I, Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of war as an extreme form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only means of politics, with industrialized mass destruction as the only means of war. The resulting failure to negotiate a lasting peace came as no surprise since the war had raced not only beyond politics, but beyond the minds of its military and political leaders.

The Great War had unleashed a virus, a dynamic of destruction, that would only be suppressed, and even then only imperfectly, by the wanton destruction of World War II. For what was Auschwitz but a factory of death, a center for mass destruction, a mechanized and murderous machine for efficient and impersonal slaughter, a culmination of the industrialized slaughter (to include mass gassing) of World War I?

The age of mass warfare and mass destruction was both catalyst for and byproduct of the age of machinery and mass production. Today’s age is less industrial but no less driven by machinery and mass consumption (which requires a form of mass destruction inflicted largely on the environment).

Aerial drones and cyber warfare are already providing disturbing evidence that the early 21st century may yet echo its predecessor in introducing yet another age of misplaced faith in the machinery of warfare. The commonality remains the vulnerability of human flesh to steel, as well as human minds to manipulation.

A century has passed, yet we’re still placing far too much faith in the machinery of war.