Technology After the Great War

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, which brought the Great War to an end. The Great War, of course, would later come to be known as the First World War because an even greater war would follow within twenty years.

Although it has been eclipsed in the public imagination by the Second World War, a case can be made that the first was indeed the more significant. This is true in a superficial sense, of course:  it’s hard to see how you get the second war without the first. But it is true even apart from that rather obvious claim. It was the first war that dealt a mortal blow to much of what we associate with the culture of modernity: its confidence, its commitment to reason, its belief in progress, and its faith in technology.

There are few better summaries of the losses that can be attributed to the First World War than the following lines from Jacques Barzun:

“Varying estimates have been made of the losses that must be credited to the great illusion. Some say 10 million lives were snuffed out in the 52 months and double that number wounded. Others propose higher or lower figures. The exercise is pointless, because loss is a far wider category than death alone. The maimed, the tubercular, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits, the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births were losses, and they are incommensurable … One cannot pour all human and material resources into a fiery cauldron year after year and expect to resume normal life at the end of the prodigal enterprise.”

Barzun was right, of course, and he knew of what he spoke; he lived through it all. Barzun turned twelve just a few days after the war came to end. He was 104 when he died not that long ago in 2012.

In Machines as the Measure of Men, historian Michael Adas devotes a chapter to “The Great War and the Assault on Scientific and Technological Measures of Human Worth.” In it, he makes a number of observations about the impact of the Great War on the place of technology in the public imagination.

In the years leading up to the war, Adas writes, “little serious discussion was devoted to the horrific potential of the new weapons that had been spawned by the union of science and technology in the ever changing industrial order.”

“The failure of most Europeans to fathom the potential for devastation of the new weapons they were constantly devising,” Adas added, “owed much to their conviction that no matter how rapid the advances, Western men were in control of the machines they were creating.”

The failure had not been total, however. A few military specialists had taken important lessons from the closing campaigns of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War, and they foresaw the great destructive potential of industrialized warfare. Adas cites Baron von der Goltz, for example, who, in the 1880s, concluded, “All advances made by modern science and technical art are immediately applied to the abominable art of annihilating mankind.”

Adas continued:

“Numerous writers [of the time] lamented the extent to which scientific research, formerly seen as overwhelmingly beneficial to humanity, had been channeled into the search for ever more lethal weapons. Some of the most brilliant minds of a civilization ‘devoured by geometry’ had labored for generations to ensure that death could be dealt on a mass scale ‘with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed, millesimal-calculated velocity.’ Many of those who watched their compatriots die cursed not the enemy, who was equally a victim, but the ‘mean chemist’s contrivance’ and the ‘stinking physicist’s destroying toy.'”

The following is worth quoting at length:

“The theme of humanity betrayed and consumed by the technology that Europeans had long considered the surest proof of their civilization’s superiority runs throughout the accounts of those engaged in the trench madness. The enemy is usually hidden in fortresses of concrete, barbed wire, and earth. The battlefield is seen as a ‘huge, sleeping machine with innumerable eyes and ears and arms.’ Death is delivered by ‘impersonal shells’ from distant machines; one is spared or obliterated by chance alone. The ‘engines of war’ grind on relentlessly; the ‘massacre mecanique‘ knows no limits, gives no quarter. Men are reduced to ‘slaves of machines’ or “wheels [or cogs] in the great machinery of war.’ Their bodies become machines; they respond to one’s questions mechanically; they ‘sing the praises’ of the machines that crush them. War has become ‘an industry of professionalized human slaughter,’ and technology is equated with tyranny. Western civilization is suffocating as a result of overproduction; it is being, destroyed by the wheels of great machines or has been lost in a labyrinth of machines. Its very future is threatened by the machines it has created. Like David Jones, many of those who fought on the Western Front and lived long enough to write about their encounter with war in the industrial age began to ‘doubt the decency of [their] own inventions, and [were] certainly in terror of their possibilities.’ To have any chance of survival, all who entered the battle zone were forced to ‘do gas-drill, be attuned to many newfangled technicalities, respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme; all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity certainly, but at a considerable cost.'”

One is reminded of how one survivor of the horror of the trenches came to characterize “the Machine” in his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings. Readers will remember many of the obvious ways in which Tolkien linked the apparatus of industrialization with the forces of darkness. Saruman, to take one memorable example, is described by another character in these terms:  “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.” Saruman harnessed the power of mechanized magic and wielded this power to destroy, among other things, the forests surrounding Isengard, which it is clear we are to understand as a great offense and one for which he pays dearly. It would be a mistake to dismiss Tolkien as an opponent of technology per se pining for a romanticized pre-modern world. Tolkien’s views are not, as I understand them, romantic; quite the contrary. They were forged in the fires of the war as he experienced first hand the fruits of industrialized violence. “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression,” Tolkien once wrote, “but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

In a letter to a friend, Tolkien wrote of Lord of the Rings, “Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” He went on to explain what he meant by “the Machine” in this way:

“By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised …. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.”

It is likely that Tolkien’s depiction of Saruman’s destruction of the trees owed something to the devastation he witnessed on the front lines. According to Adas, “‘Uprooted, smashed’ trees, ‘pitted, rownsepyked out of nature, cut off in their sap rising,’ were also central images in participants’ descriptions of the war zone wasteland.” “As Georges Duhamel observed in 1919,” Adas went on to write, “the Western obsession with inventing new tools and discovering new ways to force nature to support material advancement for its own sake had inevitably led to the trench wasteland in which ‘man had achieved this sad miracle of denaturing nature, of rendering it ignoble and criminal.'”

“As a number of intellectuals noted after the war,” Adas concluded, “the Europeans’ prewar association of the future with progress and improvement was also badly shaken by the mechanization of slaughter in the trenches.” He went on:

“Henry James’s poignant expression of the sense of betrayal that Europeans felt in the early months of the war, when they realized that technical advance could lead to massive slaughter as readily as to social betterment, was elaborated upon in the years after the war by such thinkers as William Inge, who declared that the conflict had exposed the ‘law of inevitable progress’ as a mere superstition. The Victorian mold, Inge declared, had been smashed by the war, and ‘the gains of that age now seem to some of us to have been purchased too high, or even to be themselves of doubtful value.’ Science had produced perhaps the ugliest of civilizations; technological marvels had been responsible for unimaginable destruction. Never again, he concluded, would there be ‘an opportunity for gloating over this kind of improvement.’ The belief in progress, the ‘working faith’ of the West for 150 years, had been forever discredited.”

What is most striking about all of this may be the fact that the effect was so short-lived. Narratives of technological progress, as it turned out, were not altogether discredited. The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, celebrating “a century of progress,” took as one of its mottos the line “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Even after similar fears spiked once again following the Second World War, especially in light of the development of atomic weapons, it would be only a matter of time before concerns subsided and faith in technological progress reemerged. It’s hard to live without a myth, and it seems that the myth of technological progress is the only one still kicking around at this late hour. Although it is also true that ever since the Great War, the embrace has never again been quite so earnest.


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