The First Machine War and the Lessons of Mortality

Lincoln Motor Co., in Detroit, Michigan, ca. 1918 U.S. Army Signal Corps Library of Congress

I just finished a thrilling little book about the first machine war. The author writes of a war set off by a terrorist attack where the very speed of machines being put into action,and the near light speed of telecommunications whipping up public opinion to do something now, drives countries into a world war.

In his vision whole new theaters of war, amounting to fourth and fifth dimensions, have been invented. Amid a storm of steel huge hulking machines roam across the landscape and literally shred human beings in their path to pieces. Low flying avions fill the sky taking out individual targets or help calibrate precision attacks from incredible distances beyond. Wireless communications connect soldiers and machine together in a kind of world-net.

But the most frightening aspect of the new war are weapons based on plant biology. Such weapons, if they do not immediately scar the face and infect the bodies of those who had been targeted, relocate themselves in the soil like spores waiting to release and kill and maim when conditions are ripe- the ultimate terrorist weapon.

Amid all this the author searches for what human meaning might be in a world where men are caught between a world of warring machines.  In the end he comes to understand himself as mere cog in a great machine, a metallic artifice that echoes and rides rhythms of biological nature including his own.

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A century and a week back from today humanity began its first war of machines. (July, 28 1914). There had been forerunners such as the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century, but nothing before had exposed the full features and horrors of what war between mechanized and industrial societies would actually look like until it came quite unexpectedly in the form of World War I.

Those who wish to argue that the speed of technological development is exaggerated need only to look to at the First World War where almost all of the weapons we now use in combat were either first used or used to full effect– the radio, submarine, airplane, tank and other vehicles using the internal combustion engine. Machine guns were let loose in new and devastating ways as was long-range artillery.

Although again there were forerunners, the first biological and chemical weapons saw there true debut in WWI. The Germans tried to infect the city of St. Petersburg with a strain of the plague, but the most widely used WMDs were chemical weapons, some of them derived from the work on the nitrogen cycle of plants, gases such chlorine and mustard gas, which killed less than they maimed, and sometimes sat in the soil ready to emerge like poisonous mushrooms when weather conditions permitted.

Indeed, the few other weapons in our 21st century arsenal that can’t be found in the First World War such as the jet, rocket, atomic bomb, radar, and even the computer, would make their debut only a few decades after the end of that war, and during what most historians consider its second half- World War II.

What is called the Great War began, as our 9-11 wars began, with a terrorist attack. The Archduke of Austria- Hungary Franz Ferdinand assassinated by the ultimate nobody, a Serbian nationalist not much older than a boy- Gavrilo Princip- whose purely accidental success (he was only able to take his shot because the car the Archduke was riding in had taken a wrong turn) ended up being the catalyst for the most deadly war in human history up until that point, a conflict that would unleash nearly a century of darkness and mortal danger upon the world.

For the first time it would be a war that would be experienced by people thousands of miles from the battlefield in almost real time via the relatively new miracle of the radio. This was only part of the lightning fast feedback loop that launched and sped European civilization from a minor political assassination to total war. As I recall from Stephen Kern’s 1983 The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1914   political caution and prudence found themselves crushed in the vice of compressed space and time and suffered the need to make policy decisions that aligned with the need, not of human beings and their slow, messy and deliberative politics, but the pace of machines. Once the decision to mobilize was made it was almost impossible to stop it without subjecting the nation to extreme vulnerability, once a jingoistic public was whipped up to demand revenge and action via the new mass media it was again nearly impossible to silence and temper.

The First World War is perhaps the penultimate example of what Nassim Taleb called a “Black Swan” an event whose nature failed to be foreseen and whose effect ended up changing the future radically from the shape it had previously been projected to have. Taleb defines a Black Swan this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (xxii)

Taleb has something to teach futurists who he suggests might start looking for a different day job. For what he is saying is it is the events we do not and cannot predict that will have the greatest influence on the future, and on account of this blindness the future is essentially unknowable. The best we can do in his estimation is to build resilience, robustness and redundancy, which it is hoped might allow us to survive, or even gain in the face of multiple forms of unpredictable crises, to become, in his terms “anti-fragile”.

No one seems to think another world war is possible today, which might give us reason for worry. We do have more circuit breakers in place which might allow us to dampen a surge in the direction of war between the big states in the face of a dangerous event such as Japan downing a Chinese plane in their dispute over Pacific islands, but many more and stronger ones need to be created to avoid such frictions spinning out of control.

States continue to prepare for limited conventional wars against one another. China practices and plans to retake disputed islands including Taiwan by force, and to push the U.S. Navy deeper into the Pacific, while the U.S. and Japan practice retaking islands from the Chinese. We do this without recognizing that we need to do everything possible to prevent such potential clashes in the first place because we have no idea once they begin where or how they will end.  As in financial crises, the further in time we become removed from the last great crisis the more likely we are to have fallen into a dangerous form of complacency, though the threat of nuclear destruction may act as an ultimate break.

The book I began this essay with is, of course, not some meditation on 21st or even 22nd century war, but the First World War itself. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel is perhaps the best book ever written on the Great War and arguably one of the best books written on the subject of war- period.

It is Jünger’s incredible powers of observation and his desire for reflection that give the book such force. There is a scene that will ever stick with me where Jünger is walking across the front lines and sees a man sitting there in seemingly perfect stoicism as the war rages around him. It’s only when he looks closer that Jünger realizes the man is dead and that he has no eyes in his sockets– they have been blown out from an explosion behind.

Unlike another great book on the First World War, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Storm of Steel is not a pacifist book. Jünger is a soldier who sees the war as a personal quest and part of his duty as a man. His bravery is undeniable, but he does not question the justice or rationality of the war itself, a fact that would later allow Jünger’s war memoir to be used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Storm of Steel has about it something of the view of war found in the ancients- that it was sent by the gods and there was nothing that could be done about it but to fulfill one’s duty within it. In the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita the prince Arjuna is filled with doubt over the moral righteousness of the battle he is about to engage in- to which the god Krishna responds:

 …you Arjuna, are only a mortal appointee to carry out my divine will, since the Kauravas are destined to die either way, due to their heap of sins. Open your eyes O Bhaarata and know that I encompass the Karta, Karma and Kriya, all in myself. There is no scope for contemplation now or remorse later, it is indeed time for war and the world will remember your might and immense powers for time to come. So rise O Arjuna!, tighten up your Gandiva and let all directions shiver till their farthest horizons, by the reverberation of its string.

Jünger lived in a world that had begun to abandon the gods, or rather adopted new materialist versions of them – whether the force of history or evolution- stories in which Jünger like Arjuna comes to see himself as playing a small part.

 The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, suddenly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that not only had opened red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them. (255-256)

Jünger is not a German propagandist. He seems blithely unaware of the reasons his Kaiser’s government was arguing why the war was being fought. The dehumanization of the other side which was a main part of the war propaganda towards the end of the conflict, and on both sides, does not touch him. He is a mere soldier whose bravery comes from the recognition of his own ultimate mortality just as the mortality of everyone else allows him to kill without malice, as a mere matter of the simple duty of a combatant in war.

Because his memoir of the conflict is so authentic, so without bias or apparent political aims, he ends up conveying truths about war which it is difficult for civilians to understand and this difficulty in understanding can be found not only in pacifists, but in nationalist war-mongers with no experience of actual combat.

If we open ourselves to to the deepest meditations of those who have actually experienced war, what we find is that combat seems to bring the existential reality of the human condition out from its normal occlusion by the tedium of everyday living. To live in the midst of war is a screaming reminder that we are mortal and our lives ultimately very short. In war it is very clear that we are playing a game of chance against death, which is merely the flip side of the statistical unlikelihood of our very existence, as if our one true God was indeed chance itself. Like any form of gambling, victory against death itself becomes addictive.

War makes it painfully clear to those who fight in it that we are hanging on just barely to this thread, this thin mortal coil, where our only hope for survival for a time is to hang on tightly to those closest to us- war’s famed brotherhood in arms. These experiences, rather than childish flag- waving notions of nationalism, are likely the primary source of what those who have experience of only of peace often find unfathomable- that soldiers from the front often eagerly return to battle. It is a shared experience among those who have experienced combat that often leads soldiers to find more in common with the enemies they have engaged than their fellow citizens back home who have never been to war.

The essential lessons of Storm of Steel are really spiritual answers to the question of combat. Jünger’s war experience leads him to something like Buddhist non-attachment both to himself and to the futility of the bird-eye view justifications of the conflict.

The nights brought heavy bombardment like swift, devastating summer thunderstorms. I would lie on my bunk on a mattress of fresh grass, and listen, with a strange and quite unjustified feeling of security, to the explosions all around that sent the sand trickling out of the walls.

At such moments, there crept over me a mood I hadn’t known before. A profound reorientation, a reaction to so much time spent so intensely, on the edge. The seasons followed one another, it was winter and then it was summer again, but it was still war. I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light. Things were less dazzlingly distinct. And I felt the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up and no longer held. The war posed new, deeper puzzles. It was a strange time altogether. (260)

In another scene Jünger comes upon a lone enemy officer while by himself on patrol.

 I saw him jump as I approached, and stare at me with gaping eyes, while I, with my face behind my pistol, stalked up to him slowly and coldly. A bloody scene with no witnesses was about to happen. It was a relief to me, finally, to have the foe in front of me and within reach. I set the mouth of my pistol at the man’s temple- he was too frightened to move- while my other fist grabbed hold of his tunic…

With a plaintive sound, he reached into his pocket, not to pull out a weapon, but a photograph which he held up to me. I saw him on it, surrounded by numerous family, all standing on a terrace.

It was a plea from another world. Later, I thought it was blind chance that I had let him go and plunged onward. That one man of all often appeared in my dreams. I hope that meant he got to see his homeland again. (234)

The unfortunate thing about the future of war is not that human beings seem likely to play an increasingly diminishing role as fighters in it, as warfare undergoes the same process of automation, which has resulted in the fact that so few of us now grow our food or produce our goods. Rather, it is the fact that wars will continue to be fought and human beings, which will come to mean almost solely non-combatants, will continue to die in them.

The lessons Jünger took from war are not so much the product of war itself as they emerge from intense reflection on our own and others mortality. They are the same type of understanding and depth often seen in those who suffer long periods of death, the terminally ill, who die not in the swift “thief in the night” mode of accidents or bodily failure, but slip from the world with enough time to and while retaining the capacity to reflect. Even the very young who are terminally ill often speak of a diminishing sense of their own importance, a need to hang onto the moment, a drive to live life to the full, and the longing to treat others in a spirit of charity and mercy.

Even should the next “great war” be fought almost entirely by machines we can retain these lessons as a culture as long as we give our thoughts over to what it means to be a finite creature with an ending and will have the opportunity to experience them personally as long as we are mortal, and given the impossibility of any form of eternity no matter how far we will extend our lifespans, mortal we always will be.

 

 

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One comment on “The First Machine War and the Lessons of Mortality

  1. […] without mediation, but they often involve contemplation of our own impending death, which is why soldiers amid the suffering of war and the terminally ill or the very old like my Nanna can often unhitch themselves from the train pulling our thinking off […]

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