The machine gun mechanized war. Artillery and gas mechanized war. They were the hardware of the war, the tools. But they were only proximately the mechanism of the slaughter. The ultimate mechanism was a method of organization-anachronistically speaking, a software package.
‘The basic lever,’ the writer Gil Elliot comments, ‘was the conscription law, which made vast numbers of men available for military service. The civil machinery which ensured the carrying out of this law, and the military organization which turned numbers of men into battalions and divisions, were each founded on a bureaucracy. The production of resources, in particular guns and ammunition, was a matter for civil organization. The movement of men and resources to the front, and the trench system of defence, were military concerns.’ Each interlocking system was logical in itself and each system could be rationalized by those who worked it and moved through it.
Thus Elliot demonstrates, ‘It is reasonable to obey the law, it is good to organize well, it is ingenious to devise guns of high technical capacity, it is sensible to shelter human beings against massive firepower by putting them in protective trenches.’ What was the purpose of this complex organization? Officially it was supposed to save civilization, protect the rights of small democracies, demonstrate the superiority of Teutonic culture, beat the dirty Hun, beat the arrogant British, what have you. But the men caught in the middle came to glimpse a darker truth. ‘The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman,’ Siegfried Sassonallows a fictional infantry officer to see. ‘What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims.’ Men on every front independently discovered their victimization. Awareness intensified as the war dragged on. In Russia it exploded in revolution.
In Germany it motivated desertions and surrenders. Among the French it led to mutinies in the front lines. Among the British it fostered malingering. Whatever its ostensible purpose, the end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses. This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a ‘strategy of attrition.’ The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a ‘strategy’s o familiar by now that it almost sounds normal.
I twas not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response. ‘The war machine,’ concludes Elliot, ‘rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1, 500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.’ No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended. An old mechanism, the blockade, choked off the German supply of food and mat ” erie l. The increasing rebelliousness of the foot soldiers threatened the security of the bureaucrats.
Or the death machine worked too well, as against France, and began to run out of raw material. The Yanks came over with their sleeves rolled up, an un trenched continent behind them where the trees were not hung with entrails. The war purified to a close. But the death machine had only sampled a vast new source of raw material: the civilians behind the lines. It had not yet evolved equipment efficient to process them, only big guns and clumsy biplane bombers. It had not yet evolved the necessary rationale that old people and women and children are combatants equally with armed and uniformed young men.
That is why, despite its sickening squalor and brutality, the Great War looks so innocent to modern eyes. We must be curious to learn how such a set of objects-hundreds of power plants, thousands of bombs, tens of thousands of people massed in national establishments — can be traced back to a few people sitting at laboratory benches discussing the peculiar behavior of one type of atom. — Spencer R. We art ‘Alex,’ Roosevelt hailed him, ‘what are you up to?’ Sachs liked to warm up the President with jokes.
His sense of humor tended to learned parables. Now he told Roosevelt the story of this young American inventor who wrote a letter to Napoleon. The inventor proposed to build the emperor a fleet of ships that carried no sail but could attack England in any weather. He had it in his power to deliver Napoleon’s armies to England in a few hours without fear of wind or storm, he wrote, and he was prepared to submit his plans. Napoleon scoffed: ships without sails? ‘Bah! Away with!’ The young inventor, Sachs concluded, was Robert Fulton. Roosevelt laughed easily; probably he laughed at that.
Sach cautioned the President to listen carefully: what he had now to impart was at least the equivalent of the steamboat inventor’s proposal to Napoleon. Not yet ready to listen, Roosevelt scribbled a message and summoned an aide. Shortly the aide returned with a treasure, a carefully wrapped bottle of Napoleon brandy that the Roosevelt had preserved in the family for years. The President poured two glasses, passed one to this visitor, toasted him and settled back. Not human beings alone died at Hiroshima. Something else was destroyed as well, the Japanese study explains — that shared life Hannah Arendt call the common world: In the case of an atomic bombing…
a community does not merely receive an impact; the community itself is destroyed. Within 2 kilometers of the atomic bomb’s hypocenter all life and property were shattered, burned, and buried under ashes. The visible forms of the city where people once carried on their daily lives vanished without a trace. The destruction was sudden and thorough; there was virtually no chance to escape…
Citizens who had lost no family members in the holocaust were as rare as stars at sunrise… The atomic bomb had blasted and burned hospitals, schools, city offices, police stations, and every other kind of human organization… Family, relatives, neighbors, and friends relied on a broad range of interdependent organizations for everything from birth, marriage, and funerals to firefighting, productive work, and daily living. These traditional communities were completely demolished in an instant…
Destroyed, that is, were not only men, women and thousands of children but also restaurants and inns, laundries, theater groups, sports clubs, sewing clubs, boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, love affairs, trees and gardens, grass, gates, gravestones, temples and shrines, family heirlooms, radios, classmates, books, courts of law, clothes, pets, groceries and markets, telephones, personal letters, automobiles, bicycles, horses — 120 war-horses — musical instruments, medicines and medical equipment, life savings, eyeglasses, city records, sidewalks, family scrapbooks, monuments, engagements, marriages, employees, clocks and watches, public transportation, street signs, parents, works of art. ‘The whole of society,’ concludes the Japanes study, ‘was laid waste to its very foundations.’ Liftons’s history professor saw not even foundations left. ‘Such a weapon,’ he told the American psychiatrist, ‘has the power to make everything into nothing.’.