Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism

17 May 2009

Sunday


A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

The First World War is one of the great catastrophes of Western history. This is insufficiently appreciated today. The Second World War appears to be the pivot of the twentieth century, occurring near the center of the century, a war fought on a larger scale and with more advanced technology and over a greater swath of the world. And while all of this is true, and the Second World War was the pivot of the twentieth century, the First World War was the pivot of something even larger than the twentieth century.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

The First World War was contemplated as a brief war, planned as a brief war, and started (or triggered, if you prefer) with the intention of being a brief war. Instead, it lasted years and consumed the lives the millions. Unlike the Second World War, the dead and wounded were overwhelmingly soldiers, and the war was primarily fought in the countryside of Europe, not in its cities. Thus the First World War was, in a particular sense, less destructive than the Second World War. But that particular sense is a material sense; in a moral or social sense, it could be maintained that the Frist World War was the more destructive.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

We all know that with the outbreak of the First World War, weapons and technology had changed while tactics had not yet caught up. And we have all heard that these innovations in warfare favored the defense and thus resulted in the static trench warfare for which the First World War is notorious.

Industrialization came late to war as compared to other aspects of life in Western civilization. It transformed the technology of war with machine guns and barbed wire, and it took several decades for the social technology of war to fully exploit the hardware technologies of war. The exploitation of the social technology of modern war was to be felt with the onset of the Second World War and the use of Blitzkrieg. (I have written briefly of this in The Dialectic of Stalemate.)

In my Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that the Industrial Revolution forced society to change in response, and that the Western world had responded twice with social arrangements attempting to accommodate the changes forced by industrialization and was still groping toward a third paradigm of social organization following the collapse of the earlier attempts. The social technologies of war — what military thinkers call “doctrine,” as in “armor doctrine” — exhibit a similar pattern of groping for an effective way to utilize hardware technologies. The trench warfare and mass assaults on fixed positions of the First World War represents the first attempt to incorporate novel military technologies. Blitzkrieg represents the second attempt. The challenge posed by unconventional, asymmetrical, and guerrilla warfare, and the responses to these threats on the part of conventional military forces, represents yet a third attempt to converge upon a military doctrine adequate to contemporary hardware technology.

One aspect of social technology and organization that made the First World War such a catastrophe was an ethos of industrialized society that found its expression in universal conscription and mobilization. In the pre-modern and early modern world, war was a business for professional soldiers. There was a nearly absolute social division between the mass of the population and professional soldiers. This division was effaced by the emergence of popular sovereignty as the sole form of political legitimacy after the American and French revolutions.

With industrialization, urbanization, and democratization, all men were asserted to be equal, and in some rare cases were actually treated as such. If all men were equal before the law, all men were equally obligated to fight for “their” country, for the masses now had a stake in the political outcome that they had never had in the pre-modern era. Thus emerged the idea of every man a soldier.

There is a sense in which this is truly ludicrous: not every man is suitable to be a soldier; not every man is fit for killing. But the newly industrialized armies were like an enormous machine constructed to consume vast numbers of men, as the newly established factory system drew vast numbers of men from the countryside into the city and consumed them in factories and machine works and workshops.

Mass man emerged in a terribly real sense during the First World War. With urbanization and concentration of vast populations rapidly mobilized by industrialized social infrastructure, the generals had literally millions of men at their disposal. Not knowing any better, they launched mass attacks that achieved little except mass casualties.

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

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