An ancient price in new guise


In July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer watched the thing he helped create explode in a blinding light, rivaled only by the sun. In tearful reflection, Oppenheimer famously said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line form the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu was trying to persuade the Prince he should do his duty and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

This was hardly the first time religion and the technology of war had intersected. A millennium earlier in 1096, Pope Urban II banned the use of crossbows in Christian-versus-Christian conflict. It bears note that the church still permitted its use against “infidels” during the Crusades.

What these two historical vignettes highlight are the ways in which human societies reconcile the destructive potential of innovation with their moral context. As the old saying goes — just because we can doesn’t mean we should. As we approach the national Veterans Day observance, it is fitting that we reflect on the impact of technological advancement during the War to End All Wars, World War I.

The Great War provided the stage upon which many now-commonplace implements of battle saw their first widespread use. While Hiram Maxim had developed his machine gun three decades earlier, WWI gave the device its first broad debut.

While balloons had been used in primarily observational capacities for many years, the advent of powered flight gave rise to a whole new arena of death-dealing: aerial combat. Fokkers, Spads, Sopwith Camels and Albatrosses entered the lexicon of warfare alongside zeppelins and blimps.

The cannons of antiquity gave way to mammoth siege pieces like Big Bertha and the Paris Gun. Bertha could hurl 2,200-pound shells nine miles. It took a crew of 200 men six hours to assemble the weapon. The highly inaccurate leviathan of artillery, the Paris Gun, fired German shells over 70 miles into a terrorized French capital.

Another invention of the 19th century came to grizzly ultimate use amid the trenches of WWI: barbed wire. Invented in Ohio in the 1860s, long coils of barbed wire ended the reign of horse-mounted cavalrymen while clutching foot soldiers in its lethal bladed tendrils.

The trenches also prompted another innovation: mechanized armor. The translation of automobiles and tractors from tools of conveyance and cultivation into implements of war is perhaps the greatest metamorphosis of the era. Knights of old rode armored horses. A few hundred years later, the knights of the Dellville Wood and Villers-Bretonneux rode their clattering metal caskets into the laps of terrified enemies.

Just as war had changed on the ground and in the air, so too did it change in sea. Like the tank and the airplane, the concept of the submarine as a technology of battle was a very old one. In WWI the U-Boat transformed the theory of submersible combat into cold watery fact.

Launched in 1907 the RMS Lusitania was for a time the world’s largest ship. On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland. She went to the bottom in just 18 minutes and took 1,195 lives with her. Among those lost were 128 Americans. This loss helped catalyze an anti-German sentiment in the U. S., thus easing the way for eventual American entry into the conflict.

None of the above touches on the promulgation of war using poisonous gas — a facet of the conflict leading some to dub WWI “the Chemists’ War.”

Like all wars, WWI provided many positive technologies: reliable blood transfusions; coagulants; modern artificial limbs; improved reconstructive surgery; better mobile hospitals; improved psychological therapies for combatants…

Even so, we know the price. The price was the same as it has always been; and likely always will be.