Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Holding Back: Rules of Engagement and Illusions of Restraint

Notions of the 'right way' to do things extend to every aspect of human behaviour, even to that of outright hostility. The Victorian historian Lord Macaulay, notorious for his sweeping statements, is recorded as saying that 'Moderation in war is imbecility'- but in practice the matter is far more complicated than he allowed. War is a human activity, and humans are complex social animals, so the desire to defeat the enemy is seldom the sole consideration in armed conflicts. Military activity usually takes place in a framework of existing conventions; this means that there is usually some sort of common understanding about what is, and what is not, permissible. The direction of a conflict may also be complicated by political considerations, and actions within it may be constrained by religious or humanitarian scruples. All of these are, of course, fragile precepts. The more advanced and the more desperate a conflict becomes, the more likely it is that limitations of any kind will be overridden.


Wars are usually fought within an understood framework. Military attitudes, bound up as they invariably are with notions of discipline and honour, tend to be conservative, and concepts of how a war ought to be conducted have always been a powerful influence on how they are fought. But preconceptions of this kind can be, and frequently are, thrown into confusion by unanticipated changes in the conditions of warfare - by the introduction of new technology, for instance, or by the challenge of an unfamiliar enemy, or one using unfamiliar tactics. The incongruous events at the battle of Fontenoy (1745) are a case in point ...

At Fontenoy two lines of Royal Guards, French and English, marched into positions facing each other. Both sides were armed with muskets, but neither were sure of the formalities that should accompany these newly introduced weapons (by contrast with the rituals accompanying fighting with swords, which were well known and understood by all). For some time neither one side or the other fired their weapons. To break the deadlock an English officer ran forward to the French lines and asked them to fire first. But they refused. After a short period of consultation the English opened fire. The effect was devastating, with upward of a 1000 French officers and men falling at the first volley.

The scene at Fontenoy was one of those dreadful moments in military history when the introduction of a new technology had quite overtaken the existing sense of the military 'rules of the game'. This sort of thing had happened before, and in the following centuries there was much worse to come. But even by this time there was a long history of confused attempts at coming to terms with technical innovations in weaponry. The medieval controversy concerning the use of the crossbow is one of the more famous examples.

The crossbow was well known and widely used in Europe by the latter part of the 11th century. It was a particularly effective weapon since it could pierce the armour of a mounted Knight at some distance, and these warriors were the principle arm of warfare throughout the medieval period. In purely economic terms every Knight represented an enormous investment in training and maintenance costs, but there was far more to this chivalric institution than that (particularly in their own eyes). Knights belonged to an aristocratic warrior class. For them war was, above all, an opportunity to demonstrate their personal prowess in hand to hand combat, it therefore seemed entirely wrong to them that they could be layed low by some relatively unskilled commoner firing his wicked device from a distance. So, effective as it was, there was a distinct stigma attached to the use of crossbow, and there were countless attempts during the medieval period to abolish their use. When captured in battle crossbowmen were frequently executed on account of their treacherous use of what was regarded as a cowardly weapon. The Knights wanted to win wars, of course, but they also wanted to retain the primacy of their role in the battlefield, and in society.

After years of debate on the subject the Church stepped in and took a principled stand (coming from the same aristocratic elite as the Knights the Bishops were naturally sympathetic to their concerns). This culminated in the decision made at the second Ecumenical Council (1139) that the crossbow should not in future be used in wars between Christians; those who did would be anathematised. This injunction did not apply of course in wars against infidels and heretics - and in practice it was unevenly observed (to say the least) in conflicts between believers. Despite its condemnation at the highest level, and the fact that excommunication promised eternal damnation, the crossbow proved to be too useful a weapon to ignore. In time, companies of crossbowmen were increasingly, though grudgingly, employed in warfare. There remained, though, the unspoken fear that it might occur to the lower orders to use this unmanly weapon in a popular insurrection.

Rather later in the medieval period there was a similar resistance on the part of military conservatives to the use of artillery and gunpowder which, having come from the East, tended to be associated with such unprincipled infidels as the Turks and Chinese. Once again, the Knightly classes were torn between their deeply embedded notions of how wars should be fought and the devastating efficiency of the new weapons. Their fears were not unjustified; gunpowder was to blast away the old feudal structure that supported their way of life just as effectively as it blasted the walls of medieval castles themselves. One gets the impression that if had been possible the Knights would liked to have abolished the diabolical invention of powder and cannon altogether, and held to the old, honourable ways of fighting. And this is precisely what did happen in 17th century Japan.

Like the western Knights the Japanese Samurai were a feudal warrior class, and like them they despised firearms and recognised them as a threat to their whole way of life. They were well aware of their effectiveness; many Samurai had seen these weapons in use, and many had in fact used them. By the 17th century these weapons were well known in Japan, and had been used in the recent successful attempts to restore order after a long period of political turmoil. In another parallel with the attitudes of the Knights of medieval Europe firearms tended to be identified with malign foreign influences; in this case that of the meddling Europeans themselves (with their peculiar Christian religion that spoke of peace, but brought guns). Unlike their western counterparts, the Samurai contrived a scheme to get rid of these weapons (and foreign influences) and, in doing so, retain their social dominance.

In 1587 the leading General Hideyoshi demanded that all non-Samurai, particularly the many armed monks and peasants at loose at the time, should surrender their weapons, both swords and firearms, ostensibly to use the metal in the construction of a huge statue of the Buddha. Remarkably, this 'Sword-Hunt' as it became known, was successful, and as a result Hideyoshi managed to restore the monopoly of the use and manufacture of arms to the old military class. In a short period, and by fairly brutal means, the old system of Feudalism was re-established. Firearms of every kind then came under the complete control of the Samurai - who disapproved of their use, and who gradually phased out their manufacture. In this way, having eliminated the unsettling challenge of the new weapons, the Samurai were able to return to their ancient traditions - and their dominant position in Japanese society. In the second half of the 17th century firearms and gunpowder were effectively outlawed in Japan, and this remained the situation for a further 200 years - until the American Commodore Perry arrived in 1854, and forced the country to open up to the outside world. The fact that Japanese weaponry had so regressed by this time, and that as a nation they were humiliatingly vulnerable to foreign intervention, made a lasting impression on the Japanese national psyche, and accounts for their later resurgence of militarism.

The entire ethos of the Samurai, like that of the Knights of Medieval Europe, was bound up with a military code of honour. In common with the members of warrior classes everywhere they adopted standards of discipline and conduct that set them apart from the lower orders. This came about as a natural consequence of the sort of intensive training necessary to their calling. Unfortunately the sort of conformity to discipline that is necessary to the professional warrior all too often appears to induce a certain rigidity of thought - hence the 'bone-headedness' that is such a feature of military thinking through the ages (the Spartans, for instance, were renowned for their hardiness, discipline and military prowess, but were regarded as rather stupid by other Greeks).

'Codes of Honour' are bound to be a feature of military professionals, but traditional notions of what is acceptable and what is simply 'not done' can themselves become a positive impediment in times of war. As we have seen, the crossbow was considered improper in medieval warfare, but it was not the 'done thing' either to reconnoitre a terrain in advance of a battle, or to conduct night skirmishes. War, at that time, was conceived as a sort of extended Tournament. The whole of the Knights extensive training was dedicated to this end and, having acquired these skills, they wanted to keep things as they were. Changes to this mind-set, when they did occur, were forced by what now seem to be blindingly obvious technological advantages.

Blinkered military attitudes, including distorted notions of 'honour', the mindless adherence to discipline, and blindness to change were not, however, the prerogative of the Middle Ages. The Virginian debacle is another classic in the field...

Early in 1755 General Braddock arrived in the British colony of Virginia to assume command of the campaign against the troublesome French settlers. He had two British regiments for the task, and managed to organise a contingent of local volunteers. By July they were ready to advance on the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne: the troops were formed up and they set off. Unfortunately, some nine miles before they reached the Fort, they were ambushed by a contingent of native Indians, armed with rifles and led by French officers. The British soldiers were marching in tight columns, wearing scarlet uniforms and white leggings; they presented an almost perfect target. Naturally, when they were shot at by an enemy that they could not see the soldiers scattered, taking cover behind trees and attempting to return fire. But Braddock and his officers were appalled by this skulking, unsoldierly behaviour, and drove their men back into regular columns - thereby setting them up once more as an ideal target. The ambushers could hardly miss. As a result both regiments, including Braddock and most of his officers, were slaughtered.

This episode, ludicrous were it not so tragic, made a deep impression on the surviving colonists, among whom was a certain George Washington, the future Commander-in Chief of the colonial army in their war against the British, and the future first President of the independent American states.

Some things don't change. Rigidity of thought among the military, and their resistance to innovation, were as evident in the early 20th century as they were in the 17th. In fact most of the important modern developments in weaponry at that period were initially opposed by the various High Commands of the time. The rapid-fire machine-gun, the tank and the aeroplanes, each of which lead to the complete transformation of warfare in the modern era, were dismissed when they were first introduced. Not surprising, perhaps, when even the potential for internal combustion motors in warfare was thoroughly neglected. Astonishingly, the use of aeroplanes to survey enemy positions was considered 'unsporting' by some officers in the early part of the First World War, and in the early days of trench warfare even the use of the telephone was considered infra-dig. The Generals at first reacted to the threat posed by machine-guns largely by ignoring them, to the terrible cost of the soldiers that they sent to be mown down in their thousands, and the British Admiralty stubbornly refused to accept the threat that aircraft posed to their ships until long after the end of that war.

The aftermath of First World War saw a re-evaluation of all the weapons that had been introduced in that conflict but, despite all the evidence of their military capability, there was still a considerable body of resistance to a number of them. Incredible though it now seems, there was during the inter-war years a prolonged feud in the British military establishment between the supporters of the horse and the proponents of the tank. Field Marshall Earl Haig (who had sent several squadrons of cavalry against machine-guns in the First World War, with predictably disastrous consequences) saw tanks and aeroplanes only as 'accessories to the man and his horse'. Haig had an extraordinarily lack of imagination, even for a General, but he was not alone. It was perfectly clear to progressive elements that the vast increase in firepower that was demonstrated between 1914-18, and the uselessness of horses in trench warfare, meant that the days of cavalry were over. But Haig's sentimental attachment to the horse was shared by the British War Office. In 1922 there were still 20 cavalry regiments, compared with just 6 tank battalions. The problem was that the officer class had a deep affection for horses and their traditional role in warfare (and, it must be said, to the associated privileges), and simply couldn't face the fact that they no longer had a military role.

Even in these politically tense times the British military establishment continued to view new ideas with hostility, particularly those of Captain Basil Liddell Hart, a tank expert. Unfortunately for the future of Europe these particular ideas were taken up enthusiastically in Germany (where they were to form the basis of Hitler's Blitzkreig). The British authorities drew no lessons from this. In a manifestation of pure, irrational military conservatism, the pro-horse lobby continued to hold sway, and the tank to be treated with suspicion (and to be seriously under-funded) right up to the outbreak of war in 1939. There is a particularly telling statistic from this period. On the very day in 1935 that Hitler announced that his new Nazi 'peacetime' army would comprise thirty-six divisions, the British War Office increased the amount spent on forage for horses from £44,000 to £400,000.

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Unfortunately, irrationality in military affairs was never all on the side of military conservatism; freethinkers and radicals have a history entirely of their own, with their own illusions, with regard to these matters ...

One of the most enduring of these illusions, dating from long before 'the War to end all Wars', was the expectation that technical improvement in weaponry would bring humanity to its senses, and an end to armed conflict. The French aristocratic revolutionary philosopher, the Marquis de Condorcet, was perhaps the first proponent of this hopeful idea. Condorcet was a visionary and an idealist; he fervently believed in the 'limitless perfectibility of the human species'. For him the forces of progress were unstoppable, and a humane, rational Revolution would inevitably lead to a more reasonable society and would bring equality to all. He was convinced that the increasing availability and efficiency of firearms would further this process of enlightenment, using the unlikely rationale that, since combatants would no longer fight at close quarters they would lose their taste for bloodshed, and conflicts would, of necessity, be resolved by more peaceful means. Unfortunately, in common with so many of his fellow revolutionaries, Condorcet fell victim to the Revolution that he helped to bring about. (It is one of those incidental curiosities of revolutionary history that the ghastly Robespierre, who relentlessly persecuted Condorcet, and sent thousand of other radicals to the guillotine, opposed experiments with a rapid-fire gun on ethical grounds).

Condorcet's optimism with regard to advances in science in general and weapons technology in particular was taken up by a later French visionary, Charles Richet. In his futuristic forecast 'Dans cent ans' Richet accurately predicted the 20th centuries development of weapons of mass destruction, but firmly believed that nations would never use them, that they would 'draw back from this fearful vision'. Although Richet was more detailed in his predictions than most, sentiments of this sort were commonplace in projections of the future in the late Victorian period. It was firmly believed by progressives that advances in technology were bound to bind the nations of the world closer together. It was characteristic of this mood that an early machine-gun, the Pacificator, was welcomed by one pacifist-minded commentator as being so deadly a weapon that, since it could fire a stream of bullets to a radius of two miles, 'no soldier would face it, and there would be an end to fighting'.

Sadly, predictions for the emergence of weapons that were capable of unprecedented levels of destruction were quite accurate, but expectations that these would induce a mood of restraint were way off the mark. Even as Richet wrote his millennial visions in the late 19th century the total wars of the 20th were in an advanced state of preparation. The illusion that war would prove to be impossible to pursue as a result of new forms of weaponry was, however, a persistent one before the First World War. One British writer declared that 'If any man could invent a means of destruction by which two nations going to war with each other would see large armies destroyed in a single campaign they would both hesitate at entering upon another. In this sense the greatest destroyer is the greatest philanthropist'.

This sort of blind optimism with regard to weaponry was commonplace at this time. It was advanced when hand grenades were first used, when the machine-gun was perfected, and when tanks first appeared. Even Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite (and the Peace Prize) also subscribed to the notion - 'My factories are more likely to make an end to war than any peace congress. On the day when two army corps can annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will probably shudder back from a war and dismiss their troops'. This was not to be. Instead, his factories contributed in no small way to the 'inconceivable' carnage of the First World War.

The moral of this story, of the sad history of the failure of pious hopes concerning advances in weaponry, and that of the perennial rigidity of the military mind, is not of course a terribly encouraging one in at a time that is still experiencing the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.