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The Technological Fix: Weapons and the Cost of War

Authored by Dr. Alex Roland. | June 1995

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Beyond the observations already made, these three case studies suggest some conclusions that might help us see our contemporary problems more clearly. First, these problems are not new. As far back as we can see in human history, states have been seeking ways to get more bang for their buck.The primary difference between now and then may be the expanded definition of the purpose of the state. In ages past when war was the primary business of the state, it may have been easier to secure funding for military purposes than it is in modern times when so many other issues seem to influence what we now conceive of as national security. The barbarian at the gate was a powerful persuader; the new barbarians are poverty, education, environmental deterioration, industrial infrastructure, and research and development?all of which are besieging penurious governments for scarce resources, all of which are claiming to be indispensable to national security.

Second, technology has always been one method by which states have sought to get more bang for their buck. Not until the l7th century did we begin to think about ?technology? as a conceptual entity with power to shape the future. But there is ample evidence that states nonetheless thought of specific technologies?chariots, Greek fire, submarines?as sources of military power. While not as self-conscious in such pursuits as we are in the modern world, the ancientsnonetheless supported researchanddevelopment,subsidized infrastructure, adjusted social relationships, and in the case of Greek fire at least even maintained state secrecy in order to promote technologies that enhanced the military power of the state.

Finally, it may be concluded that technological solutions to security problems, while not necessarily deterministic, can nonetheless generate powerful inertial forces that are difficult to reverse or redirect. Commitment to huge chariot corps seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that led to a long standing but nonetheless fragile faith in the invulnerability of this method of combat. Maintained at ruinous cost over a period of centuries, the whole concept collapsed when challenged by a group of outsiders who did not realize they were supposed to lose.

So, too, with Greek fire. Introduced initially as the miracle weapon that saved Constantinople, it soon came to be seen as fit for no other purpose. But even as it took on mythic qualities as the defender of Constantinople, so, too, did it pose the converse threat of arming the enemy with the one weapon that might bring down Constantinople. Thus, secrecy took control of the weapon; it seemed more important to deny it to the enemy than to have it oneself. The same enthusiasm surrounded the introduction of the proximity fuse in World War II. In some ways it drives the controversy over proliferation of nuclear weapons now. In the case of Byzantium, the emperor and his inner circle finally succeeded in keeping the secret even from themselves.

There was also a technological inertia at work in l8th century naval warfare. Just as Levantines faced with huge chariot corps built huge chariot corps of their own, so too did governments of the age of sail build huge fleets of battleships to contest huge fleets of battleships. Perhaps in their time these were an appropriate technological investment, but they bred a worship of the battleship.39 So beguiled were Alfred Thayer Mahan and his contemporaries that they were unprepared for the submarine and the aircraft carrier when these technologies came along.

Finally, note that all of the weapons systems explored here were as important psychologically as they were physically. Chariots dominated the battlefield because people thought they were invulnerable. Greek fire kept the Moslems at bay long after the Byzantines had lost the power to deploy it because the Moslems remembered the horror of Constantinople. Jellico turned away at Jutland because he feared what torpedo boats might do to his fleet, and he was, in Churchill?s memorable phrase, the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. Whatever technology one buys in times of penury, it is well to remember that its effectiveness will be measured as much by what people think it can do as by what it can really do.


39 John U. Nef, War and Human Progress: An Essay on the Rise of Industrial Civilization, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1950.