Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lessons of War

I've been reading Beatrice Webb's autobiography, "My Apprenticeship", and came across this astonishing quotation she includes from Charles Bradlaugh, who wrote this in 1872:

"These bodies which now we wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them; already we look upon them with contempt. A time will come when Science will transform them by means which we cannot conjecture, and which if explained to us we would not now understand, just as the savage cannot understand electricity, magnetism, steam. Disease will be extirpated; the causes of decay will be removed; immortality will be invented. And then the earth being small, mankind will emigrate into space and will cross airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of Nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man will then be perfect; he will be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as God."

She explains however that this religion of science is no longer conceivable: "In these latter days of deep disillusionment, now that we have learnt, by the bitter experience of the Great War, to what vile uses the methods and results of science may be put, when these are inspired and directed by brutal instinct and base motive, it is hard to understand the naive belief of the most original and vigorous minds of the 'seventies and 'eighties that it was by science, and by science alone, that all human misery would be ultimately swept away."

And yet, this "naive belief" survived well into the 20th century among Science Fiction writers. Are SF writers just behind the times? Personally I suspect it's more that so many of the writers were Americans, and the impact of World War I, and later World War II, was never really felt in the same way in the US. Wikipedia suggests almost 10 million combat casualties in WWI of which only 116,000 were Americans; if the US had some proportion of casualties to population as the rest of the combatants, it would've been more like a million US casualties, ten time as many... and that's even before civilian deaths.


  1. I think this "naive belief" survives even today. I hold it in some sense, although I am not a disciple of the nerd rapture; I don't think it's necessarily going to happen in my lifetime or even that it's an inevitability.

    The horrors of WWI and WWII don't really invalidate this hypothesis; if anything, they're evidence for it. War without advanced technology is brutal and terrible, but its scale is limited. War *with* advanced technology is magnified to the extreme; the wars of the 20th century taught us that, if we, as a species, really put our minds to it, we can completely obliterate ourselves.

    The same follows with just about every other human endeavor to which science has been applied to develop new technologies. And the same lesson has to be re-learned in each field: science can optimize things, but it can also tell you what you really want to optimize. If you ask it for the former before the latter, you don't get what you really want. America is learning this lesson right now with agriculture: huge volumes of cheap, bad food are an improvement over mass starvation, but they have their own problems. So when you decide that what you want to optimize is "number of dead germans", you may not realize that that's actually what you wanted until you're hip-deep in mustard gas victims' corpses, and you notice that wading through corpses isn't as great as you'd hoped it would be.

    That said, I would not have expected people with direct personal experience of a world war to feel the same way. I feel privileged by my distance from it. There are some things that are so traumatic that you can just never think about anything else again, without some echo of that disaster informing it.

  2. It reminds me a bit of the communist manifesto about the inevitable fading of nationalism. That didn't really work out so well as a prediction either :-)