Advertisement

We Always Come Prepared for Battle : OF ARMS AND MEN : A History of War, Weapons and Aggression <i> by Robert L. O’Connell (Oxford University Press: $24.95; 368 pp.) </i>

Share via

Imagine a world in which no weapons exist. One day, your neighbor, who has long had his eye on a corner of your garden, brings out six pit bulldogs to bite and generally terrify you into giving your corner up. What can you do?

Well, you can get six pit bulls of your own, just as mean as his. Perhaps a little meaner, or bigger; perhaps eight of them.

Or, you can lay in a large supply of fleas and release them tactically so that, before long, your neighbor’s dogs have lost interest in doing anything but retreating under his porch and scratching.

Advertisement

These two poles of anti-dog combat can represent one of the central themes of Robert L. O’Connell’s sardonic and stimulating history of men, arms and warfare. Whether raiding a cabbage patch or defending it, mankind has either equipped itself to match and then outweigh the enemy’s armament, or found an entirely different device or method to render it useless. O’Connell calls the first symmetrical response ; the second, counter-response.

And so, from the Sumerian phalanxes to our own ICBMs, there are, for symmetry, armored knight facing armored knight, battleship against battleship, tank battalion against tank battalion.

And for counter, there is the English longbow converting the French knight into a heap of tin cans at Agincourt, the little torpedo toppling the big battleship, and the wire-guided missile suggesting a way to stymie the tank.

Although “Of Arms and Men” is a lucid and well-written account of how weapons and warfare have changed over the millennia--and remained unchanged for surprisingly long periods--the book’s fascination lies elsewhere. O’Connell calls it a work of “intellectual speculation” and tells us that he is drawing from anthropology, biology, sociology, art and a variety of other high-sounding realms.

In fact, he does. In fact, the best thing he does for a general reader is to relate arms to the men who use them. This general reader--me, let’s face it--may be able to find a shape in all the numbing public discussions of disarmament and strategy and put them in historical focus. But more important, he--sorry, I--may discern the disconcerting human mentality behind such debates and be lightened, for once and all, of any excessive humility toward them.

Because, in the reams of argumentative symmetry--deterrent dreadnought in stalemate with preemptive dreadnought--O’Connell is an argumentative counter, an intelligent seal in a mine field, a flea on the dog’s back.

Advertisement

Take, for example, his recurring discussion of the tendency of military men and statesmen to find more comfort in symmetrical strategies than in counter ones. “The pharaoh and the warrior kings of Mycenae kept track of their chariots no less anxiously than NATO commanders fret over the arms ratio in Europe,” he writes.

It is simpler to count battleships than to worry about torpedoes, he writes; safer and more predictable, particularly in peacetime. “Peace,” he adds woundingly, “is the normal condition of military organizations.” And, he continues:

“The concept of like (symmetrical) fighting imposes at least some measure of decorum and predictability upon the chaos of battle. In addition, symmetry, by implication, is intrinsically hierarchical and therefore compatible with the world-view of the rank-conscious military.”

No one but a knight was supposed to fight a knight in medieval times; and in the Trojan War, the Greeks mocked Paris for being a bowman instead of an armored wielder of spear and sword.

O’Connell recalls the Lateran Council of 1139 condemning the use of crossbows against armored knights, at least if they were Christians. There were humane reasons, no doubt; but one also discerns a resistance to having a whole way of warfare threatened with results no one could predict.

A similar objection was voiced by a British admiral early in the 19th Century to the torpedo designed by Robert Fulton. It is, the admiral complained, “a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which if successful would deprive them of it.”

Advertisement

In fact, he points out, military armament often lagged far behind technological possibilities. The Brown Bessie musket remained the British infantry’s principal weapon from 1702 to 1840; exploding rather than solid cannonballs were introduced only in the middle of the 19th Century.

There is a kind of grim comedy in this resistance to change. There is something more sobering in O’Connell’s reminder that war has always had within it a deep-rooted human, or at least male, need to assert prowess as well as to destroy an enemy.

Even when their lethal capabilities were overtaken or unclear, the plumed knight, the dashing cavalry officer, the battleship and the tank possessed a kind of antlered magnificence. O’Connell, incidentally, reminds us that deer use their antlers for status dueling, their sharp hoofs for real defense.

Finally, of course, technological change imposed itself, and devices that may have begun as counters became part of an ever-more-fearful symmetry. In World War I, for example, the tank was a late-developed counter intended to disrupt the deadly stalemate of trench warfare. In World War II, it was a principal fighting weapon; nations have been counting them ever since.

O’Connell gives a vivid and detailed picture of how war’s technology has made war’s purposes ever more dubious. World War I, in which millions died for a front line that hardly moved, was a demonstration of the point the author writes of as: “Arms have literally waged war against war.”

It was a premature demonstration, evaded until nuclear missiles made it impossible to evade. After that, “forebearance would be the key to survival. So we would have to change.”

Advertisement

Perhaps we have changed, O’Connell concludes, and as years pass without nuclear war perhaps not using a weapon we possess will become a new socio-biological reflex. It has a lot of history to contend with, though.

“War has fallen upon hard times,” the author writes, referring, of course, only to superpower war. “But the arms live on.” He speculates, with the blackest of irony, that these unusable weapons may finally find a use in outer space, should we ever encounter aliens there.

“When have we ever come in peace?” he asks. “Man is an imperial beast born with a weapon in his hand.”

The Soviet space vehicle Mir, or Peace, launched in February, 1986. From Douglas Hart, “The Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft” (A Bison Book/Exeter Books: $12.98; 192 pp.; color illustrations throughout). “Like the Salyuts,” Hart writes, “Mir, despite its name, will almost surely have some military functions. The U.S. Defense Department has pointed out that permanently manned Soviet space stations could conduct the following missions: reconnaissance, command and control, anti-satellite operations, ballistic missile defense support operations and military satellite maintenance and control.” The illustration above “shows varying vehicle and module docking arrangements with the Mir space station. Its five-port docking compartment could well enable Mir to be the crucial factor in turning what was once pulp science fiction into reality.”

Another recently published book specifically on Soviet-manned spacecraft is Philip Clark’s “The Soviet Manned Space Program: An Illustrated History of the Men, the Missions, and the Spacecraft” (Orion Books/Crown Publishers Inc.: $24.95; 192 pp.; color illustrations throughout).

Both authors serve as political analysts in the aerospace industry, Hart with Pacific-Sierra Research Inc., Arlington, Va.; Clark with Commercial Space Technologies Ltd., London.

Advertisement
Advertisement