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What Price Glory?’

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NASA/JPL/Kinetikon Pictures
Jupiter’s atmosphere in the area of the Great Red Spot, shown in a mosaic of images taken in 1979 by the unmanned space probe Voyager 1. This image comes from Michael Benson’s 2003 book Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, which is now the basis of the Smithsonian’s exhibition ‘Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System,’ at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., May 26, 2010 –May 2, 2011. Benson’s new collection of astronomical images, Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, has just been published by Abrams.

Steven Weinberg is famous as a scientist, but he thinks deeply and writes elegantly about many other things besides science. This collection of his writings is concerned with history, politics, and science in roughly equal measure. The picture on the jacket shows dark waves on deep water with a distant suburban shoreline. The water is Lake Austin in Texas, and the picture is a view taken from the window of the study where Weinberg thinks and writes. He is a native of New York who has taken root and flourished in Texas. His chief contribution to our civilization is his leadership in the understanding of nature. After twenty years of experiments in particle physics had displayed a tangled landscape of particles interacting with one another in incomprehensible ways, Weinberg’s mathematical wizardry dispelled the confusion and revealed an underlying unity.

But he is not only preeminent as a mathematical physicist. He has also made important contributions to the discussion of history and politics. He is one of the founders of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of citizens who have worked steadily for forty years to bring scientific wisdom into public debates about political and military problems. He has been called to Washington to testify at congressional committee hearings on strategic questions. He has become almost as expert in military history as he is in mathematical physics.

A reader who has time for only one piece should read Chapter 12, “What Price Glory?” It goes deeply into the history of military technology, from the twenty-first century all the way back to the eleventh. Weinberg finds in many diverse times and places a common theme. Military leaders and military institutions have a constant tendency to glorify technology that is colorful and spectacular, even when it leads them repeatedly to defeat and disaster.

The most durable of the glorified technologies was the medieval horse carrying a knight in armor. The knight was armed with a heavy lance pointing forward. The tactic by which the knight was supposed to win battles was a cavalry charge, the horses and lances overwhelming foot soldiers with irresistible force. Weinberg examines the evidence and finds that successful cavalry charges were rare. More often, foot soldiers defeated the charge by moving out of the way of the horses or by occupying strong defensive positions. After the charge was over and the knights were dispersed, foot soldiers could defeat them individually by force of numbers.

Weinberg describes with scholarly relish several historic battles in which foot soldiers defeated cavalry. In spite of these repeated calamities, the knight on his horse remained the emblem of military virtue throughout the long centuries of the Middle Ages. Kings and emperors spent their fortunes and gave land to their feudal dependents to pay for knights and horses. In times of peace, the knights and horses exercised their military skills by competing with one another in splendid tournaments. The display of fine armor and equestrian skill became an end in itself, pursued by knights and armorers without much regard for military effectiveness. Making a grand spectacle in tournaments was more important than winning battles against peasants armed with bows and arrows. According to the customs of the Middle Ages, a knight who survived a defeat by peasants could usually return home without dishonor, after paying a ransom appropriate to his rank in the feudal hierarchy. The ransom might ruin his feudal estate but would not ruin his military career.

Weinberg finds a historic continuity between the medieval hero-worship of the knight on horseback and the modern hero-worship of men riding invincible machines. He tells the sad story of the Dreadnought, a British battleship that was launched in 1905, the brainchild of Sir John Fisher. Fisher was an anomaly in the Royal Navy, a technical expert who had risen to the rank of First Sea Lord. Unlike other Sea Lords, he understood the technologies of gunnery and torpedoes. The Dreadnought was the fulfillment of his dream to build a ship that was technologically supreme, faster and more heavily armed than any ship afloat, outrunning and outgunning any possible opponent.

In 1905 Britannia still ruled the waves. My father was then at the Royal Naval College at Osborne, teaching music to naval cadets. The sons of the British aristocracy were trained at Osborne to become officers of the Royal Navy, just as they had been trained in past centuries to become warriors on horseback. My father had two future kings, Edward VIII and George VI, singing in his boy choir. He enjoyed the welcoming message emblazoned on a banner above the main entrance to the college: “There is nothing the Royal Navy cannot do.” He shared the prevalent admiration for the Royal Navy and for Sir John Fisher. The Royal Navy was then bigger and stronger than any two other navies combined. Without the Dreadnought, Britain would probably have stayed ahead of other navies for a long time.

But the Dreadnought attracted intense public attention all over the world. It made the rest of the Royal Navy seem suddenly worthless. After 1905, the only ships that counted politically were dreadnoughts. The German Kaiser decided to build dreadnoughts, and Britain had to build more dreadnoughts to keep up with Germany. A serious naval arms race had begun, which continued with increasing intensity until World War I broke out in 1914. The dreadnoughts had destroyed Britain’s naval superiority. They made the British and German navies appear to be equal. They may have helped significantly to upset the political balance of Europe and to precipitate the tragedy of 1914.

After World War I began, the British and German dreadnoughts did not play an important part. They engaged each other only once, at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916. The decisive struggle between the two navies began in 1917, when German submarines almost cut off Britain’s vital war supplies by destroying vast numbers of merchant ships, and British destroyer escorts barely succeeded in sinking enough submarines so that convoys of merchant ships could survive. If the Kaiser had built more submarines instead of dreadnoughts, he might have won the war, and if the British had built more destroyers they might have won it sooner. But the mystique of the invincible battleship lasted through World War I and afterward, until it was finally demolished by the victories of aircraft carriers in World War II.

Already in World War I, the myth of the battleship was being displaced by the new mythology of air power. The first airman-hero was the Red Baron, the German Manfred von Richthofen, who flew his red triplane flamboyantly over the Western Front. After a year and a half of spectacular combat, he was killed, but he remained a durable hero. Meanwhile Hugh Trenchard, a less flamboyant but more important airman-hero, emerged on the British side. Trenchard was the commander of the Royal Flying Corps, at that time subordinate to the army and engaged in tactical operations in France. Trenchard flew low over the Western Front and saw with his own eyes the miseries of the soldiers in their muddy trenches. He had dreams of a different kind of war, in which the agonies of the Western Front would be avoided. In his dreams he would fly his airplanes not to France but to Germany. He would bring the war to the German homeland and win it there. His airmen would destroy the German war industries without help from the army. They would attack the German war leaders directly in Berlin, and save the lives of the millions of young men in the trenches.

After World War I ended, Trenchard turned his dreams into reality. The Royal Flying Corps became the Royal Air Force, with independent authority to fight its own wars. Trenchard remained in command. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Britain had to prepare for World War II with a serious program of rearmament. Trenchard had retired as chief of the Royal Air Force, but his views prevailed. The decision was made in 1936 that Britain’s primary instrument for fighting the next war would be the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Bomber Command would be a huge force of heavy bombers, designed for the strategic bombing of Germany and not for tactical support of the army. Never again would Britain fight a war in trenches. Hitler would be defeated in the air over Berlin. At the same time, while these decisions were being implemented in Britain, similar decisions were made in the US, with the airman Billy Mitchell playing the role of Hugh Trenchard. The US also believed in victory through air power and built a large force of strategic bombers.

Hitler did not believe in strategic bombers. Neither did the leaders of Japan and the Soviet Union. As a result, strategic bombers had a minor part in the outcome of World War II. I was at the headquarters of Bomber Command in the winter of 1943–1944 when we launched the series of sixteen massive attacks on Berlin that were intended to “knock Hitler out of the war” without the unpleasantness of invading France. Bomber Command had finally grown to the size that the planners of 1936 had specified. The crews and the machines were ready for action. This was our opportunity to win the war in the air over Berlin, as Trenchard had imagined in 1917. We failed miserably. Persistent winter clouds over the city made accurate bombing impossible. Three thousand of our young men died in the attacks. Our losses of bombers grew heavier as the German fighters improved their skills and their tactics.

The population of Berlin kept the city functioning, and the German war industries continued to increase their production. By January 1944 it was clear to us at Bomber Command headquarters that the Battle of Berlin was lost. In the last year of the war, after we had successfully invaded France and the Mariana Islands, our bombers were finally able to destroy the cities of Germany and Japan, but the decisive battles happened earlier and were fought by armies and navies. “Victory through Air Power” turned out to be an illusion. If we had been better prepared to fight with armies and navies, we would probably have won the war sooner.

After this summary of world history dominated by illusions of military glory, Weinberg comes to the politics of the present day. He finds it still dominated by military illusions. Here I particularly recommend his chapters on political themes: “The Growing Nuclear Danger,” “Ambling Toward Apocalypse,” and “The Wrong Stuff.” Since 1945 the dominating illusion has been nuclear weapons. The possession of nuclear weapons now gives people and governments an illusion of power, like the illusions of knights on horseback in the Middle Ages, dreadnoughts in 1905, and strategic bombing in 1936. The United States is repeatedly engaged in costly wars that drag on inconclusively, and we have never found a way to use nuclear weapons effectively. It seems that nuclear weapons cannot be used for any sane military purpose. They are effective for destroying cities and for killing large numbers of people indiscriminately, and for nothing else.

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