The Relevance Of World War I

Monday, October 16, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 00038, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 00038, Hoover Institution Archives.

In the decades before the First World War, vast scientific and technological changes altered the face of the globe. Those changes had immense implications for the world’s military institutions. The invention of the internal combustion engine, nitroglycerine, smokeless power, barbed wire, the telephone, and medical advances had all changed the civilian world and seemed to have major implication for the conduct of war. They did. Most military experts calculated that such technological changes would lead to quicker wars. In that respect, they were wrong. In fact, the massive industrial and societal changes confronted Europe’s military organizations with a whole host of unintended consequences. While the technological changes had certainly made the battlefield more lethal, they also enabled the combatants to suffer immense manpower and resource losses and still remain on the battlefield. It took nearly four years before the armies on the Western Front were capable of breaking through the dense and increasingly effective defenses their opponents had established.

What does this have to do with the problems we confront today? As with the period before the First World War, technological change is being driven by the civilian world outside of the military sphere. Moreover, the technological changes appear to be occurring at an increasing rate. The implications for the military, then, are considerable. Adaptation to these changes demands the imagination to understand not only how they might increase our own capabilities, but how a potential opponent might use such changes to greatest effect against our weaknesses. In a period of declining defense budgets, what new technological capabilities to buy raises substantial questions. The character of war—the context of ever changing weapons and tactics—is such that the ability to innovate in peacetime and adapt to the actual conditions of war are the most important qualities that senior leaders and their staffs must possess. Cyber warfare, drones, EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapons, biological capabilities, all influenced by the explosion of computing power, represent threats and possibilities that are incalculable until they appear on the battlefield.

The problem though is that at present the American military is spending more time in addressing the issues raised by political correctness instead of dealing with the harsh realities of a world where our opponents seem to be closing the asymmetric gap between America’s combat capabilities and their own. Too much of the time finds senior leadership demanding that those training their units focus on politically correct issues instead of preparing their troops for the nasty business of war.

The failure of Europe’s political and military leaders in 1914 to understand the import of the scientific and technological changes that their world was undergoing resulted in catastrophic destruction and lives lost. But perhaps the greatest casualty was the sense of security that the collapse of the world caused. The warning is there: we can prepare now by more thorough and perceptive thinking, or we can learn on the battlefield by filling body bags.