Greek, Romans, Mongols, Americans and the Technology of War

Throughout the course of human history the practice of warfare has been as consistent any other "civilized" practice. When we discuss warfare as a whole it can be seen that a great controversy brews between its consistent nature and its ever changing practical applications. Either of these aspects could be assigned superiority to the other as the ends cannot survive without the means and the means have no manifestation without the practicality of the ends. Seemingly over the course of human warfare the means of warfare have rarely changed. But the motivations of warfare: greed, fear, misunderstanding, religion, conquest are in fact subordinate to the societies and technologies upon which they are based. Any observation can conclude that the practical aspect of warfare has always been in a state of constant flux in regard to developments in society, technology, and culture. Moreover the ideology and motivation of war is also in a constant state of change. Taking this in turn with the fluidity of the practice of war we can only derive a single conclusion, that warfare is not a constant force but that of constant change.

When we look at war the first consideration we should take is that of generalship. Since the inception of warfare men and on occasion women have consistently arranged themselves into armies, militias, and bands when the prospect of conflict arises. Naturally these organizations need a commander to operate successfully in any practice of war. Any army must act as a single entity in order to survive and to enact any purposeful damage onto an opponent. This fact is a consistency in ideal but when practically applied is in a constant state of change. Over history the process by which general's command and come to that status are greatly divergent. In the early history of the west, generals were elected by the men under them on the case of merit. The Carthaginians for example elected a young Calvary commander by the name of Hannibal to lead them against Rome. Furthermore in most ancient armies Generals were seen not as superiors but as first among equals, Athens and Sparta for example. The role of Roman generals however was quite different as they were appointed by the Senate then the Emperor not by the soldiers. Further they were not seen as equal to their men but as the clear superiors in the strict Roman military structure. Later in Medieval Europe leadership of armies was almost always given do to the heredity of kings and barons. The emergence of gunpowder changed this and allowed for other more common aristocrats to rise to ranks of prominence within European militaries. In the modern wars of Europe command came to long term officers who had risen thru the ranks of the strict western military system. Furthermore the supreme command of these armies now would rest in the civilian government.

Perhaps the main variable in the history of warfare is technology. The level of military technology at the time of a war dictates the prosecution of said conflict beyond any other factor. Indeed the tactics, strategies, and scale of the war are dictated by the level of technology in a given society. The case of scale is perhaps the best example of the inescapable effect of technology. It can be seen that many civilizations have engaged in wars of extermination using all the technological means at their disposal, Rome endeavored and succeeded in the utter decimation of Carthage in the Fourth Punic War. Even in modern times there are instances of wars of extermination, the Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, the Eastern Front in World War Two, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990's. But in the case of America our vast and expansive cold war military power has never been used. This is in reference to our vast collection of thermo-nuclear weapons and biological and chemical devices. This technology has prevented us from enacting any war of extermination due to the outdated but still very real policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. America cannot even consider the use of nuclear weapons in Iraq. Another instance of technology affection warfare in the modern era is the prevalence of mass media. The technology of satellite communications and frontline journalists has altered the tactics of many American police actions in contemporary times. The real time images of combat and warfare have fed the fires of American isolationism and pacifism. It has enhanced the natural human disapproval of casualties to almost a level of xenophobia. To a high degree this has spearheaded the drive toward precision munitions above the so called "dumb-bombs". For example the simplest tactical solution to capture Baghdad would be to literally siege the city and carpet bomb it with artillery and B-52s. This would greatly decrease the military casualties of the brutal house to house fighting involved in a city. From a military context a large city nullifies many of the advantages of our military. The narrow streets of the city, especially those of the old city nullify the great range advantage the M1A1 fighting vehicle has over the T-70. The many structures of the city provide good cover for snipers and Republican Guard Divisions. In addition to the vast oil fires that blanket the city the buildings negate the usefulness of attack helicopters and close air support, the latter being almost wholly prevented due to the threat of friendly fire to our own forces that would be engaged in the city. All together the best option in this case would be the most brutal one. This is prevented however due to the prevalence of the mass media; the civilian casualties are now unacceptable. This has not always been the case. We dropped the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to prevent the need for a large scale ground campaign on Japan at the end of WWII. We bombed St. Lo and Cean for similar reasons in Allied efforts to break out of the Normandy beaches in 1944. The allies also busted the Rhine River Damns and firebombed Frankfort to deter Nazi industry during WWII with little concern for the local civilian population. Technology has also allowed for the great emerging success of guerilla warfare. While this tactic has been used since the Peloponnesian War its success was quite rare, the best example of this being the Guerilla tactics of American Indian tribes during the 1800's. The emergence of compact explosives, automatic weapons and mines have greatly enhanced the destructive power of a single fanatic. It is now possible for a single guerilla armed with an explosive and some nails to eliminate nearly a score of his enemies with his own death, a favorite tactic of Hamas and Hezbolla. This ability would be unheard of to a Jewish rebel armed with a sword and the conviction to drive the Romans from Jerusalem.

Another factor that greatly effects the prosecution of a war is the particular cultural attitude of any civilization where a war originates. Any given society has its own consideration of war. The Romans for example viewed War as a defining characteristic of a civilization. It feed into their overwhelming emphasis of strength and superiority. Thus they would engage in all sorts of preemptive strikes against foreign nations, the invasion of Dacia in 102 A.D. was enacted only because Dacia had recently united as a nation. This policy also allowed for the legendary brutality of Roman soldiers on civilian populations and captured soldiers of their adversaries. It would not be acceptable behavior for President Bush to line any highway with the crucified bodies of surrendering Iraqi soldiers. Nor would it have been acceptable for President Johnson to shoot all Confederate soldiers for treason after The American Civil War. It was common practice for the Mongols and Huns to decimate male populations of assimilated lands. In the 1950's snipers were temporarily removed from the American military due to a social believe of honorable combat. Frontal charges were condoned in WWI even in the face of machine guns and artillery due to a social acceptance of brave sacrifice. Some societies see war as only a last resort: ancient China and Korea, the U.N. Society and culture dictate the tactics of brutality used within a war, enhancing them or scaling them back.

In the annals of human military history are much as the ocean tides. They rise and fall now and then but are forever changing. They are never the same and reflect the social, cultural, and technological level of a civilization. While the attitudes of war may remain the same, war as a force is and will be in constant change until its eventually elimination.

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Sean Fullmer 8 years ago from California

James, this was a fine piece. I think your paragraphs were a bit meaty, but very good, informative reading. This would make for the beginnings of a fine book.

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