Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The use of weapons

On 30 June I discussed technology historian David Edgerton's thought provoking book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, especially the relevance of use-centred accounts of technological development and 'creole technology'.

Edgerton's work also challenges conventional wisdom as to the significance of certain technologies. Among the examples he discusses are World War Two technologies we're accustomed to thinking as central to eventual Allied victory - strategic bombing and the first use of atomic weapons.

During the war, British air commanders such as Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris claimed that continued area bombing of targets in German-occupied Europe were devastating. However, a United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) found a wide range of evidence to contradict this after the war had ended. In contrast, the USSBS's assessment of the American bombing of Japan - which overall was much less heavy in terms of tonnage of bombs dropped - was that it did similar damage "because the bombs were more concentrated in time and more accurately delivered".

These are not new facts, but they're often overlooked. One obvious lesson is that technologies in themselves don't ensure success in war, especially if the adversary has time to respond and adapt, as the Third Reich did to several years of area bombing. While of course this had its costs, area bombing also had costs for the Allies. In 1940 there weren't many other options for an isolated Britain to take the offensive than to bomb what it could hit with its air force (that is, cities rather than the precision targets the RAF thought it could strike in planning before the war). But later in the war there were more options, yet the UK was heavily invested in its bombing strategy by then and found it hard to change, except for limited periods (like the run-up to D-Day). It's worth recalling that Stalin never doubted that the opening of a Western land offensive - not area bombing - was the only way to relieve the military pressure on the Soviet Union. The terrible fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five occurred in part because the Allies wanted to demonstrate to the Soviets that their air power was of some use.

Assessments of the usefulness (the utility) of a given technology have to be made against the most effective alternatives, not simply the absence of them. The USSBS compared conventional and atomic bombing in Japan in terms of resources required to achieve equivalent effects - that is, death and damage caused. While the total destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs was great, a lot of the energy was not directed at the target. Edgerton explains that "What the report was suggesting was that an atomic raid did the same sort of damage as a standard large conventional one, a few per cent at most of the destruction meted out to Japan from the air."

However morally distasteful such calculations may strike us, they are illuminating. Edgerton points out that the American atomic bombs were products of an industrial effort costing just under US$2 billion (or $20 billion in 1996 dollars). At the time, it cost around $3 billion to construct the 4,000 or so B-29s used exclusively in long distance operations against Japan, including to drop the atomic bombs:

"One billion dollars to destroy a city which would have been destroyed at minimal additional cost by one [large] conventional raid represented an awful lot of 'bucks per bang' ... In other words, by reducing the conventional material available [since resources are finite], the atomic programme, it could be argued, lengthened the war and this cost lives. That we do not see this is partly the result of a carefully fabricated myth put about after the war, that the bomb brought the war to a quick end and saved no fewer than 1 million US lives. This myth depended on the dubious counterfactual argument that the Japanese would have fought on and on had they not suffered atomic bombing, and that the only other way of defeating them involved an invasion that would have cost 1 million lives. In other words, this argument assumed that blockade and conventional bombing were ineffective by comparison with the atomic bomb."
Yet, based on USSBS and other data, blockade and conventional bombing clearly did have profound effects on Japan's war-making capacity. It means that, in 1945, arguments for the efficacy of atomic weapons compared with other means at the time were doubtful - they were not thought to be the war-winners we may consider them to be in hindsight.

And post hoc rationalization remains strong about huge weapons programmes like the Manhattan Project. Moreover, the post-war American atomic programme, including bombers and missiles, cost nearly US$6,000 billion in 1996 prices according to Edgerton - roughly one-third of all defence expenditure and just under the total spent on social security by the United States. These programmes were regarded as crucial tools of national defence and might. Yet, Edgerton further point out:
"Had the [Second World] War extirpated militarism from the world and had the development of weapons stopped, the rocket and the A-bomb would not have been seen as harbingers of the future, but more likely as the last dreadful examples of the irrationality of war and military technology."
In Nazi Germany the V-2 rocket is - notoriously - believed by some historians to be responsible for killing twice as many people involved in its production (mainly due to starvation) as were killed at the receiving end of the weapon. At a cost of one-quarter of the American atomic bomb programme, the German military could have had thousands of fighter planes, tanks, motorized vehicles and artillery pieces it desperately needed late in the war. The Nazis's own pursuit of a military technology oblivious to the alternatives sapped its strength - testimony indeed to the need to be aware of the relative costs of different technologies.

Moral arguments for nuclear disarmament or those based on the costs to civlians are - despite their importance - often pooh-poohed by the so-called realists. So whatever one feels about the rightness or not of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, Edgerton's type of analysis seems highly relevant. At a time now when new uses are being sought for existing nukes and new nuclear weapons are being proposed for development, such resources are desperately needed for pressing global problems of massive significance like global warming and sustainable development.

John Borrie


David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Picture taken of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, from Wikipedia.