Same old warfare?

by Victor Davis Hanson // TLS

A Review of three books:

Saltpeter: The mother of gunpowder by David Cressy (Oxford University Press, 237pp)

Napalm by Robert M. Neer (Belknap Press, 310pp)

Warrior Geeks: How twenty-first-century technology is changing the way we fight and think about war by Christopher Coker (US: Columbia University Press, 330pp)

Can lessons from the warfare of feuding Greek or Renaissance city-states still apply in an age of drones and nukes? Contemporary conflict has been so altered by post-industrial technologies, some modernists argue, that we must adopt commensurately new ways of understanding war-making. In contrast, the classical view insists that war remains a human enterprise. Given that human nature is unchanging, new weapons are merely accelerants of the same old, same old fighting. In this timeless debate, three very different books on the interplay between technology and war assume that contemporary high-tech computerized weapons, the introduction of napalm during the Second World War, and the widespread production of saltpeter have all done their part to reinvent the theories of warfare of their respective ages.

David Cressy offers a brief but fascinating history of saltpetre, a form of potassium nitrate and the scarcest of the three main ingredients of gunpowder (along with charcoal and sulphur). Until the widespread use of cordite in the twentieth century, saltpetre was for centuries necessary for the firing of almost all small and large firearms. Professor Cressy focuses mostly on pre-industrial Britain, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, when the growing empire’s inexhaustible need for more cannon and muskets changed British society in ways that we can scarcely appreciate today.

Saltpetre was certainly felt to be mysterious (best used in a ratio of six parts sulphur, and one part charcoal). Early scientists were not sure whether it was organic and sprouted from the soil, or a mineral to be mined. They agreed only that it seemed to turn up most plentifully in soils rich in urine and dung. The result was that the British crown for four centuries gave a veritable blank cheque for freelancing saltpetre hunters to scour the countryside at a breakneck pace for this strategic national asset. And dig around they did, especially in toppling private stables, overturning outhouses, and tunnelling through refuse piles of both the rich (with some difficulty) and the poor, as well as in caves and burrows where naturally occurring manure and guano were plentiful.

Try as the British might to organize society to save their saltpetre systematically (something akin to the modern idea of putting your daily waste in the proper coloured plastic container), the crown was never quite able to turn a scavenging art into a science of systematized production. Haphazard collection persisted in Britain – unlike the more sophisticated processes in Switzerland and France – until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, mass importation of cheap saltpetre from India, and, later the replacement of gunpowder altogether by cordite-based ammunition.

Cressy captures well the tensions over near-lawless collectors who toppled barns and tore up gardens to get their hands on the treasure, without which, the crown continually lectured its British subjects, the growing empire would dissolve. His larger point – such as it is, given that his book is brief and reads more like a well-crafted doctoral dissertation on the sociology of saltpetre – is that the expansive growth in gunpowder not only led to a more lethal brand of warfare, but made intrusive demands on European societies that often ensured that they were to become more authoritarian. To Cressy’s credit, in Saltpeter he has skilfully turned 200 pages on the collection of human and animal waste into a fascinating reflection on how civic liberties were often quashed by concerns for national security.

Robert Neer’s much longer book, Napalm, likewise explores how a novel weapon, which appeared in the last years of the Second World War, evolved into a metaphor of destructive American excess. Neer systematically follows the story of napalm that originally empowered an often outnumbered American military to fight far abroad against the Japanese, and later, North Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese – only to become a byword for the pathologies of the military-industrial complex of the United States.

Napalm – the name derives from two jelling agents, naphthenic acid and palmitic acid, that help turn gasoline or other incendiary fuels into a sticky goo – was discovered in 1943 by a Harvard research team led by the chemist Louis Fieser. His scientists were working hurriedly in response to the military’s professed need for improved incendiary bombs that might shorten the war by ruining German and Japanese industrial centres, in a way that traditional high-explosive bombs or earlier varieties of incendiaries had apparently not managed.

The napalm-fed incineration of Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945, conducted by a vast armada of B-29 bombers organized by General Curtis LeMay to fly low and fast at night from distant bases in the Mariana Islands, proved the most lethal single day in the history of human conflict. My late father, William Hanson, flew on that raid, and thirty-nine other missions over Japan. On rare occasions he recalled the horrific fireballs that were visible nearly a hundred miles away from his departing formation – a perfect storm of high winds, wooden houses, inadequate firefighting, huge payloads, and a new incendiary. The Americans ostensibly calculated that the decentralization of Japanese industry throughout its urban centres, the dropping of leaflets to give civilians advance warning of the infernos to come, the huge investments in the mammoth but underperforming high-altitude B-29, and the desperate effort to avoid a costly invasion of Japan, all made the decision to abandon precision – but largely ineffective – bombing and to turn to the firing of cities morally acceptable. Yet LeMay himself acknowledged that had America lost the war, he would have been tried for war crimes.

Neer is often highly critical of the American use of napalm; yet his narrative of its origins, production and use over the past seven decades is not a jeremiad, but learned, fair and historically accurate. In the post-war era, napalm was felt essential to protect American ground troops, often outnumbered and deployed in hostile Asian landscapes. Soon it became a favoured tactic in Korea and Vietnam to substitute mini-firestorms from the air for the costlier insertion of infantry altogether. Yet the paradox of napalm, as Neer shows, is that while the use of such jellied gasoline – Napalm B, the successor to the original toxic mixture, is safer to store while burning longer and at higher temperatures – has saved the lives of American soldiers, it has usually been dropped in controversial post-war insurgent landscapes, where the lines between civilians and soldiers were blurred.

Neer is especially insightful in showing how Vietnam was a turning point in public perceptions about napalm. Until photographs of burning Vietnamese children – especially the graphic disfigurement of young Kim Phúc – spread around the world, napalm per se was not particularly associated with barbarity, at least in comparison to the horrendous and multifaceted arsenal of modern weaponry. Certainly, before 1943 the Germans and British had managed well enough to burn wide swaths of European cities without it. But by the mid-1970s, napalm was forever associated with the indiscriminate torching of Vietnamese hamlets and civilians – and thus became a symbol in popular movies, rock songs and anti-war literature of the cowardly use of high-tech destruction by a bullying America against weaker indigenous populations.

By 1980 the United Nations banned the use of napalm against civilian targets, after expanding use by a variety of forces. Yet, in comparison to chemical and biological agents, napalm remains a conventional weapon, whether delivered by flamethrower, tank or bomb. It is now rarely used against cities, but instead mostly employed to provide tactical support to ground operations. Given that mass firebombing predated napalm, and given that since its introduction there have appeared more frightening new weapons such as sophisticated land-mines, drones and chemical and biological agents, it is still difficult to explain the present infamy of napalm – other than its diabolical ability to burn for minutes unaffected by most extinguishers, and its controversial use during an unpopular American war. For all its infernal destructiveness and the terror it instils in hapless ground troops, this savage weapon has probably not changed the thinking behind age-old warfare all that much.

Do not let the almost flippant title of Christopher Coker’s Warrior Geeks fool you. The title reflects the catchy philological antithesis between science (the geeks) and philosophy (the Greeks). The resulting tension is explored in a masterly account from a very well-read humanist about the fearful advance of post-human technologies in war. From Thucydides to Joseph Conrad, Professor Coker invokes most of the great analysts of Western military experience to underline his central thesis: that up to now war has been an entirely human enterprise, conjuring up within soldiers heroism, idealism and self-sacrifice, as well as the worst of savagery and brutality. For Coker, it is precisely the dirty baggage of war – muscular strength needed to kill, physical proximity, both passionate hatred and noble love for a just cause – that keeps humans fixated on armed conflict, often in efforts to make it rarer, to mitigate its effects, or at least sometimes to prevent the often greater toll of genocide.

Even in the present nuclear age, soldiers are sent to fight in awful places like Fallujah or the Hindu Kush. For all the worries about weapons of mass destruction, NATO troops have sometimes lived or died in Helmand Province through individual combat with Taliban jihadists. For all the talk of the high-tech revolution in military affairs, in Syria the violence is often reduced to premodern savagery – as a recent shocking video of a tribal insurgent eating some sort of entrails of a dead government soldier attests. Coker taps the full range of classic novels, philosophical treatises and cinema in explaining how warfare has become an expression of the human condition, and thus an endless challenge for civilization to become something better than its violent, premodern state.

What worries him are not just improved gunpowder or incendiaries that accelerate and increase the killing toll, but more fundamental changes found in computers, robots and even genetic modifications. If “geeks” take over conflict and reduce it to a tit-for-tat between pale nerds safely ensconced in distant fortified bunkers, vaporizing those on the ground through robotic munitions, then there is little courage and heroism to be found anywhere. Yet without such positive human emotions, the horror and repulsion of war recede. War as a video game with real blood for those who do not play at the consoles is, for Coker, the ultimate barbarity. He does not worship at the altar of John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima, but he does argue that the conflicting emotions that such media induce are central to understanding war as a Thucydidean “human thing”, both its frequent barbarity and its occasional utility in thwarting evil.

Yet, even here one can object that geeks are certainly human. Do they not remain subject to all the classical considerations in war of the ages: will enemy geeks target the robots’ human nerve centre? Will some geeks prove heroic in sticking to their chairs and clinging to their joysticks, as it all goes up in cinders? No matter, the imaginative Coker is way ahead of us here. In his final pages, he notes that warfare – for the first time in human experience – may well actually change its rules, precisely because it will no longer be wholly conducted by humans, as we now know them on the battlefield.

Robots reflect the nature of their human creators and operators, at least until they take on independent thought processes as imagined in the Terminator films. But what if human emotions like bravery and courage can be artificially enhanced by psychotropic drugs, surgical implantations, or ultimately by genetics, both on the battlefield and in the control room? In other words, if we were to breed or manufacture more audacious and deadly soldiers and their officers, would they be traditional combatants at all? Would what they engage in be human, and so resemble war through the ages – at least as the writers Christopher Coker cites have known it? Will the puppet-master surgeons, geneticists and pharmacists always remain themselves wholly human and thus subject to war’s ancient calculus?

I shall leave it to the reader to ponder such post-human fantasies. Warrior Geeks is a brilliantly learned reflection on the ultimate amorality of a dystopian war that would have no courage, no cowardice, no patriotism, no principled pacifism – not much of anything other than casual death, a boring sort of continually rewound reality show, but on an unimaginably bloody scale.

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals, which appeared in May.

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