Thursday, June 21, 2012

Was War Impossible? Remembering Ivan Bloch

In 1898 Ivan Bloch published a study titled The Future of War in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations – widely known in English by the title of an abridged version, Is War Now Impossible?

In that study Bloch considered the evolution of military forces in his time. He paid particular attention to recent advances in weaponry (particularly the skyrocketing increases in the killing power of small arms and artillery in that period, and the advent of smokeless powder), advances in the techniques of fortification, and the size of modern armies – as well as the problems all these factors raised for command and control, logistics and the care of the wounded. He concluded that these factors would combine to make war a matter of prolonged, large-scale and extremely costly sieges, which would shift the advantage from the offensive to the defensive. A similar explosion in the technological sophistication and firepower of warships was simultaneously ongoing at sea, which seemed equally unlikely to prove a decisive instrument in the hands of any of the actors he examined, given the geopolitics of the continental states. (Britain, because of its special reliance on sea power as an island nation uniquely dependent on far-flung colonies and trade, was the only major European state really reliant on its navy, with the others more or less wasting their money – Russia most of all.)

At the same time, he looked at the vulnerability of urbanized, industrialized societies to the disruptions caused by the mobilization of a national economy (like the conscription of much of the labor force), and the cut-off of international trade which the outbreak of hostilities would involve; and to the psychological strain such warfare seemed bound to entail, especially over the course of prolonged fighting, both for soldiers in the field and civilians on the home front. In combination with the rough parity in military power between the two alliances prevailing on the continent (specifically the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy, and the Franco-Russian entente), all of this guaranteed that any war would be a long contest of attrition, bound to push economies and populations to the breaking point, with the belligerents driving their societies to the point of collapse (victors as well as losers), and the most likely outcome socialist revolution.

Consequently, war, in the sense of general warfare among the great powers, had become impossible as a rational instrument of national policy. However, Bloch appreciated that the fact would not necessarily stop these nations from fighting exactly this kind of war, and that they might in fact experience the conflict before learning their lesson.

Of course, it was two decades before the war he wrote of actually came, and much did change in that time – with many of the changes rendering the fighting even deadlier. In his book Bloch had been attentive to improvements in rifles and artillery; he did not think of the machine gun or chemical weapons. He only dimly foresaw the advent of submarine warfare, and the advent of the aircraft and the armored tank (fielded only during the conflict) not at all. Despite these developments, the belligerents continued to endure the strain longer than he anticipated – but what he predicted did come to pass in its essentials. On the Western Front, the fighting was indeed characterized by trench warfare of the kind he described, and the war's end saw the collapse of Germany, Austria and Russia, which all saw socialist revolutions on their soil (and the Bolsheviks actually emerging triumphant in Russia).1

The western allies would seem to have suffered less than he suggested they would – but this can be chalked up to a profound shift in the pattern of alliances, with Britain joining the Franco-Russian entente a few years later, Italy following it in 1915, and the United States doing the same in 1917. Nonetheless, after the war Italy suffered a period of upheaval that ended with a fascist takeover – a revolution of its own, albeit from the right. France saw a round of dramatic strikes, and while little came of these, the country was left politically exhausted and divided, and remained so in the decades that followed. Britain, the European belligerent most sheltered from the war, suspended the gold standard, and accumulated a massive debt, while facing turmoil across its empire by war's end – including the rebellion that made Ireland free a few short years later, and labor unrest in England itself. Even the United States, despite its late entry, massive resources and comparative insulation from the fighting, proved not to be immune to the effects of the war on the world's economic system, the accumulation and mismanagement of international debts contributing to a worldwide Great Depression in the 1930s in which it was particularly hard hit.

All of this, of course, helped lead to the outbreak of World War II – that second taste of modern warfare he speculated the great powers might indulge in before recognizing the enterprise's futility. Granted, it was not a simple repeat of World War I, the conflict remembered today for armored offensives and strategic bombing rather than the static style of warfare that prevailed on the Western Front a generation earlier – but also the endurance of the combatants through an even longer, bloodier, more destructive fight than that of 1914-1918. In fact, that destructiveness was such as to spell the end of the European states on which he'd focused as first-rank international actors, excepting the Soviet Union, which along with the United States (again, protected from the war's effects by its late entry into the war, and its distance from the fighting, as well as its sheer size and wealth) dominated the continent at its end. Western Europe rebuilt with American aid provided on a scale that had seemed unthinkable in the aftermath of the First World War, and their colonial empires dissolved in the following decades, while virtually every one of the European participants saw a new political order established in their territory, allies included – the French Fourth Republic, and in a milder form, "Labor" Britain, as well as post-war Germany (divided between East and West) and Italy. (By contrast, the Soviet Union, which suffered massive human and material losses, is thought by some to have never quite recovered from the war.)

It is notable, too, that Bloch's view that war had "become impossible," which had its adherents in the pre-war period (like H.G. Wells) but had little actual impact on practitioners, only continued to gain credence as the century progressed. In the interwar period, after the advent of strategic bombing and chemical weapons, it was not uncommon to view armed forces as instruments capable of putting an end to the modern world. The advent of the ballistic missile and the nuclear bomb made this outlook the conventional wisdom after 1945, so much so that while the American- and Soviet-led blocs competed globally and militarily, and confronted each other in numerous crises, neither resorted to a direct, open clash of arms with its principal opponent (even as thinkers on both sides continued to theorize and fantasize about how nuclear war might be made winnable).

Consequently, even as the armies grew, the alliance systems expanded and the technology evolved far beyond what he anticipated, the twentieth century bore out his essential predictions about how devastating general war had become, and what its consequences would be – enough, in fact, to show up the tiresome smugness of those who dismiss such predictive efforts out of hand. So far, the twenty-first century has done the same. Just last year I wrote that "the relations of the major powers are less defined by concerns about traditional, state-centered threats than at any time since the nineteenth century, if not earlier." That still seems to me an accurate assessment of the situation. The reality of nuclear weaponry and its associated delivery systems continue to make general war too destructive to be a practical option, among not only the great powers, but a circle of states expanding beyond them as well (as seen in areas like the Middle East and South Asia).

However, the possibility of a reversion to more intense military competition remains. Very large question marks still hang over the international system, and especially the three actors far and away most likely to be involved in a clash between great powers – China, Russia, and the United States. (The South China Sea, for instance, presents a more worrisome picture today than it did a few years ago.) Yet, it might reasonably be hoped that we will manage to avoid the stupidity and waste of such a course, which this increasingly crowded, interconnected and precarious planetary civilization can less and less afford.

1. Notably Russia was the one country where he'd dismissed such a possibility – though in fairness, he'd been writing twenty years earlier, when the country was less developed.

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