Nations as Machines for War by William J. Astore

By | December 11, 2018

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 US spends enormous sums of money on its military. The US is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events. The US 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?

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

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