Industrialization, War, and Politics: Trifecta of Doom
I read a lot of history, especially military history. And I am convinced at this point that one truism about history is indeed true: “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” If anything it doesn’t go far enough, war and politics have been inextricably intertwined since the beginning. People with political ambitions routinely use war to gain power. They range from brilliant military minds like Julius Caesar, to shameless opportunists like Teddy Roosevelt. The one thing they all have in common is a perfect willingness to kill to get more political power. Pause for reflection.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t want to have a boss who was willing to kill to get what they wanted, let alone a political leader. And of course it’s entirely debatable on a case by case basis if such leaders do more good than harm. Still, for every “good” leader one can pull from the annals of history dozens of incompetent or evil leaders. Incompetence slips in there because being willing to use military accomplishments to gain political power doesn’t require any military skill whatsoever. Again, one can easily pull from the annals of history endless examples of military leaders who got their positions through politics … and performed catastrophically badly when called upon to actually lead armies and fleets in battle. In other words, this horrible intertwining does a disservice to both politicians and military leaders. Granted this is not an original observation, just something that fuels my lack of faith in human governing institutions in general.
In other words, studying history can be really depressing. Moving right along however, there’s a recent fly in this ointment that makes it a lot worse. Living in the lap of luxury and consumption (comparatively speaking historically,) modern people forget that throughout most of history the entire human race was fantastically poor compared to today. In most times and places the vast majority of people for all practical purposes slaved their lives away growing food, up until the late Middle Ages at the very least. And this widespread poverty had at least one very positive effect. It limited the race’s ability to wage war.
And these were very real limits. Typically throughout history an army was a few thousand men at most, a few tens of thousands on rare occaisions. Even then the majority of people who fought in wars were peasant conscripts who only served a few months a year, as they had to both plant and harvest the crops. Thus the armies that did exist were very much limited in both their mobility and their ability to wreak widespread destruction. Certainly cities and even civilizations were destroyed, but these were the exception. Today tiny handfuls of military persons can rain destruction down on people on the other side of the planet. And modern armies can number in the millions, something inconceivable even as late as the mid nineteenth century. The destruction wrought by modern armies makes was of the past look trivial in comparison. Millions dead, entire countries laid to waste. And the destructive power available to modern armies (not to mention insurgents and non-state actors) continues to grow.
So already I’m finding that I see little to be optimistic about in humanity’s future. And if these aspects of the human condition weren’t bad enough, modern propaganda is vastly more effective than the propaganda of old. Science applied to advertising has multiplied the power to do evil the same way science applied to warfare has done. And as a final icing on this cake of doom, scientists are once again raising alarm about the health of the planet’s ecosystem and the catastrophic effects human activity is having upon it.
We’re not really an intelligent species. Convince me otherwise.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s central to illustrating the post, isn’t being used for profit, and arguably is an historically important image. Credit and copyright: Some anonymous Russian photographer during World War Two. It’s an image taken during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, though to be fair it may be a staged image. It does show the destruction of the city though.)