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Reader's Companion to Military History


Technology is systematic, purposeful manipulation of the material world. It is a process: power is applied through a tool or machine to a certain material by employing a certain technique. The result is an artifact. The term technology, meaning the study of technics, appeared in the seventeenth century; before then, all was arts and crafts, passed on by apprenticeship.

Until modern times, the artifacts of war were built on a human scale, powered by muscle. By about 10,000 b.c., the major weapons of premodern warfare had appeared—the spear, sling, mace, knife or short sword, and finally the bow and arrow, arguably the first machine. These deadly instruments prompted development of defensive technologies, first body armor and then fortification, the most important military technology before gunpowder. Walls precluded many wars and channeled the course of others.

There was a symmetry to the weapons employed in most wars fought before the modern era. The two sides deployed similar arms and armor. In such circumstances, the outcome was usually determined by strength in numbers, the fighting prowess of the combatants, or superior tactics, strategy, or leadership. Occasionally one side or another enjoyed a technological advantage, as did the chariot empires of the second millennium b.c. And occasionally arms races dominated, such as that between fortress building and siege techniques in the first millennium b.c. But there is no reliable evidence for secret military technologies in the ancient, medieval, or classical worlds, save Greek fire in the middle centuries of the Byzantine Empire; winning weapons were available to all.

Throughout the period when muscles powered war, weapons fell in two broad categories: missile and striking. Generally, missile weapons, such as the bow and arrow and the thrown spear, were the choice of mobile warriors, often mounted nomads and raiders such as the Scythians of Roman times. They used speed and surprise to throw the enemy off balance and inflict casualties without the risk of a toe-to-toe engagement. Striking weapons such as the sword, the mace, and the stabbing spear were the choice of infantry, who relied on discipline, formation, and mass to overpower and annihilate their enemy, as did the Spartans of classical Greece. The choice of weapons in such cases reflected deep-seated societal convictions about the nature of war and its role in society: a standing, professional army bent on offensive war might choose one set of weapons, whereas an amateur militia defending its homeland might prefer another. The weapons of choice also had to be appropriate to the context; cavalry, for example, was suited to the grassy steppes of Eurasia but not to the barren mountains of the Greek peninsula.

The gunpowder revolution that began in the West in the fourteenth century transformed warfare. Strength and skill gave way to machines. For the first time in the history of land warfare, equipment mattered more than men. On the battlefield of the late Middle Ages, for example, an uneducated, poorly trained, and uninspired gunman could bring down a mounted knight, the flower of European chivalry and the uncontested champion of the feudal battlefield. What is more, larger versions of these same gunpowder weapons, when turned on fortress walls, could reduce the refuge to which the mounted knight had retired when faced with superior force and to which peaceful societies had turned throughout history when beset by predator bands. The muscle that had wielded the sword and raised the fortress wall gave way to the chemical power of the internal combustion engine, which powered the cannon. From there to the hydrogen bomb, it was a straight line.

Gunpowder weapons also transformed naval warfare. War at sea, since it first appeared in the second millennium b.c., has always been more technological than warfare on land. The ship, often the most complex artifact of its age, is a necessary precondition of this combat; it furthermore determines what the combat will look like. Throughout most of history, this combat involved oared vessels—galleys—which sometimes rammed each other but more often locked up in deadly embrace to support hand-to-hand fighting by marines. Unsuited to gunpowder weapons, the galley gave way in the sixteenth century to the European broadside-firing sailing vessel, which established Western hegemony over the world's littoral. This warship was in turn displaced in the middle of the nineteenth century by vessels incorporating steam propulsion, screw propellers, armor, rifled guns, and high explosives. These set off an arms race that spread in the twentieth century from battleships to submarines and aircraft carriers.

The Industrial Revolution that transformed naval warfare effected similar changes on land. From the American Civil War through World War II, the great powers fought wars of industrial production. Often, the total resources of the state were mobilized; productive capacity, not battle, became decisive. The target of combat expanded accordingly, from the army in the field to the entire economic and industrial base of the enemy, including transportation, utilities, natural resources, and capital equipment.

World War II was the first war in history in which important weapons in use at the end had not existed when the war broke out. Jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, proximity fuses, and the atomic bomb were all invented and fielded in a frenzy of research and development. Since 1945, the quality of military technology has replaced quantity as the desideratum of modern war. The electromagnetic spectrum has become the most important locus of new military technologies, ranging from remote sensing devices and information technology to precision guided munitions and satellite-based navigation. The competition to prevail on this electronic battlefield has produced an international arms race, military-industrial complexes in the United States and elsewhere, an unprecedented prominence for the military as a driver of civilian technology, and finally a search for dual-use technology that can serve both military and civilian purposes.

Nowhere are these phenomena more evident than in aerospace technology, the third dimension of warfare. A product of the twentieth century, air warfare, like naval warfare, is entirely dependent on technology. From the Battle of Britain in 1940 to the Gulf War of 1991, quality has consistently proved superior to quantity. Research and development drive the field and ensure that only the wealthiest, most technologically advanced states can be truly competitive. This same phenomenon is true in the latest arena of military technology—outer space.

William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since a.d. 1000 (1982); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934).

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