The Dialectic of Stalemate
24 January 2009
The First World War introduced the horrors of the twentieth century to the Western world; it also proved a foretaste of the conflict that was to dominate the second half of the twentieth century. For while the Second World War broke through the tactical stalemate that the hardware technologies of the First World War imposed on military operations, the decisive battles of the Second World War (largely made possible by the adoption of social technologies such as Blitzkrieg) decisively settled military questions but left a political stalemate in place of the earlier military stalemate.
This political stalemate that was the legacy of the outcome of the Second World War grew into the Cold War. The Cold War was the First World War writ large — stalemate extended not only across Europe, as in the First World War, but also across the world entire, and this stalemate persisted not for months or years, but for decades. And while there were vicious proxy wars within the context of the Cold War, there was also Détente and vested interests that maintained the status quo. Stability — even an equilibrium guaranteed by MAD — is a Siren song few can resist, especially after war on the scope and scale of WWII.
How are we to understand the scope and scale of the Second World War? For those of us not present — and within a generation, this will be everyone — it is an intellectual challenge that can never be redeemed by experience. There are many measures of destructiveness and casualties that could be employed. Just as dramatic is the technological measure of what took place within a mere six years from 1939 to 1945. When the Second World War ended, there were operable jet fighters, ballistic missiles, electronic computers, and atomic weapons. None of these existed when the war began. This technological measure is equaled by dramatic production measures: the air was filled with squadrons of aircraft, the sea, over and under, with ships, and the land was covered in armor and artillery. As Thucydides noted, war is a stern teacher, and the lesson was well-learnt. The dynamism of a hot war pushes human experience and human capability to the limit.
It is often remarked by military historians that the (hardware) technologies of the First World War increased defensive strength without augmenting offensive capability, and this led to the nearly static warfare of the trenches. Like the First World War, the Cold War was a great stalemate driven by intense technological competition. It would be difficult to name all the technological innovations that emerged from the Cold War, but we note here that neither the US nor the Soviet Union pioneered any revolutionary social technologies during the Cold War, even while new hardware technologies were in continual development.
There are two excellent books that detail the struggle for hardware technology dominance during the Cold War, Skunk Works, about the creation of spy planes, and Blind Man’s Bluff, about submarines during the Cold War. Both are truly remarkable tales. While these books have no agenda regarding the Cold War, what is underlined by these fascinating tales of remarkable technology is that the ingenuity and imagination so evident in the creation of new technologies was almost wholly absent in the ideological struggle and in the formulation of social technologies that might have made it possible to deploy these innovative hardware technologies in decisive ways.
The ideological battle fought between the two sides was all familiar ground by the middle of the twentieth century. Espionage tradecraft was sophisticated, but did not involve any innovations that represented an increase in order of magnitude, nor were there any breakthroughs on a level with the breaking of the Enigma code during WWII. Indeed, the US came to be known for shifting the focus from human intelligence (which is a paradigmatic social technology) to the technologically driven field of signals intelligence, at which it excelled. In other words, neither side fought with innovative social technologies. It is impossible to imagine what the Cold War might have looked like if its battles had been fought with a revolutionary social technology, because social technologies by their very nature cannot be predicted or anticipated until they appear. (Demonstrating this latter claim would prove an interesting inquiry; I here state it merely intuitively, without argument.)
It is interesting to speculate that the contest between nation-states, at times played out as a cold war (as in the nineteenth century’s Great Game and in the twentieth century’s Cold War) and at other times played out as hot wars (as in the two World Wars of the Twentieth century), seems to swing like a pendulum between stalemate and dynamic conflict. One of the drivers of such a swinging of the pendulum (if any such movement in history exists in fact) seems to be technology, and moreover a technological swinging of the pendulum between the ascendancy of hardware technologies and newly devised strategies (i.e., social technologies) that nullify any hardware technology advantage that either side might possess, possibly even giving the advantage to the side that achieves the innovation in social technology first.
If we wanted to be a little tendentious, we could call these movements of the pendulum back and forth between static and dynamic conflict the dialectic of stalemate (or, more awkwardly, the dialectic of stalemate and movement). The simultaneous movement of the pendulum back and forth between advances in hardware technology and advances in social technology would, by analogy, be called the dialectic of technology (again, more awkwardly as the dialectic of hardware technologies and social technologies). These two dialectical tensions in history — the dialectic of stalemate and the dialectic of technology — are themselves involved in a higher-order dialectic of dialectics. With these principles interweaving throughout the development of history, it is no wonder that the order of complexity of historical events is of a magnitude beyond ordinary human comprehension, and decisively beyond human calculation or prediction. History carefully and scrupulously examined exhibits patterns, but we are as likely to mis-identify as to identify these patterns, so complex are they.
. . .
Two further points should be made:
1) the rapid changes in the international order that followed the end of the Cold War could be considered a form of “hot” or “dynamic” conflict, even though it mostly did not take the form of a conflict (as it did in the Balkans).
2) the innovations of high concept / low tech terrorism that we have previously discussed could be counted as a new social technology that moves the above postulated dialectic forward.
. . . . .