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Reader's Companion to Military History

War and Industry

The spread of modern methods of industrial production from Britain in the eighteenth century to much of the rest of the world ever since has had a remarkable influence on the conduct of war. Especially in conjunction with the innovation of mobilizing a nation's population that France pioneered during the 1790s (see French Revolution, Wars of the), industrialization has made possible enormous increases in the application of brute force. And the technological innovations at the heart of modern industrial revolutions have made possible new ways of waging war.

The most conspicuous type of war in the industrial age has been multitheater, protracted wars fought for such high political stakes that both sides mobilized the bulk of their resources. Though large-scale, protracted wars in the preindustrial era often took a great toll on life and property, the course of modern industrial wars has been marked by unprecedented destructiveness. The outcome of these "total" wars has seemingly followed a straightforward pattern: the state or coalition with the greatest industrial capabilities has won all such conflicts. The North in the American Civil War, the Allies in World War I, and the Grand Alliance in World War II eventually overwhelmed their opponents quantitatively. To be sure, such a result was not necessarily foreordained. In the global conflicts in this century, which states ended up on which side was the result of contingent choices, and a different alignment of coalition partners might have produced a different outcome in any given case. Moreover, in every case the losing side also made the disparity in the balance of industrial power worse by managing the mobilization of its resources less efficiently than the winning side.

There have also been wars of a very different type among industrial powers, wars of a much lesser scope and duration. When a power has achieved a quick, decisive victory in such a conflict, it often has derived its military success from the application of a new industrial technology. In the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, for example, General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, used the mobility provided by a superior railway system to make possible a major battlefield victory over the Austrians. Because General Otto von Bismarck kept the stakes of the war limited and kept the Austrians isolated from potential allies, that battlefield success was sufficient to bring the war to an early end. The Germans in 1914 tried, but failed, to win another quick, decisive victory. Their failure was partly due to the fact that, with the further evolution of industrial technique and technology, firepower had come increasingly to favor the defense. It was also due to the fact that the political nature of the war was quite different: the Germans now faced a coalition that saw the stakes of the war as much higher than the Prussians' adversaries half a century before. Then, in 1940, taking advantage of the industrial development of tanks and aircraft, Adolf Hitler won a surprisingly swift victory over the French. But in 1941 the Germans' "military-technical revolution" was not enough to overcome the Soviets, who not only had greater strategic depth, reserves, and resources than the French, but also saw the threat of Nazi conquest as more catastrophic.

A third type of war in the age of modern industry has pitted relatively advanced industrial states against less economically developed societies. In the nineteenth century, Western forces used the superior firepower made possible by industrialization to overcome relatively easily the military resistance of indigenous forces in Africa and Asia. But in the twentieth century, anti-imperialist insurgents were often able to use force successfully to reclaim national independence. By developing tighter political organization, devising more sophisticated military strategies, and arousing the passions of the masses, they could hope to resist an industrial style of warfare long enough to prevail in what became a contest of willpower more than of firepower.

With memories of the Vietnam War superseded somewhat by the experience of the Gulf War of 1991, some prophets now foresee the eclipse of industrial warfare not by a style of warfare based on revolutionary political ideologies but by one based on revolutionary information technologies. If history offers any guide to the future, however, the effectiveness of information warfare, like the effectiveness of industrial warfare in the past, will depend crucially upon the political nature of the conflicts to which it is applied.

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987); Maurice Pearton, Diplomacy, War, and Technology since 1830 (1984).

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