It’s alive!

After a long hiatus, a new Military History Carnival has appeared, at The Edge of the American West and H-War. (Thanks, David Silbey!) A post on combat drones at Legal History Blog caught my eye. It suggests that drones are part of a process in America, post-Vietnam, whereby the need for public support for military adventurism is minimised by the increasing use of high technology, particularly airpower, since they minimise American casualties and hence political resistance. I'd argue it goes back much further than that. Air control between the wars -- as practiced by the RAF in Iraq and the US Marine Corps in Nicaragua -- had much the same purpose. And then there's the (alleged) American preference for security through superweapons. Still, the conversations we are now having about the ethical and political ramifications of drones are interesting; the prospect of robotic warfare in the interwar period didn't lead to the same debates. We have different interests now, it seems, even with respect to the same subjects.

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8 thoughts on “It’s alive!

  1. It has been a strange paradox. The US utilizes technology in order to minimize the potential impact of public opinion on war by reducing the need for manpower and American casualties. (While these solutions are expensive, Congress has an appetite for them, because suppliers spread their manufacturing operations among many districts.) And yet this very attempt to minimize the potential impact of public opinion in the US can create public relations nightmares elsewhere.

  2. George Shaner

    This actually goes back to Dennis Hart Mahan, who argued in favored of a style of warfare that protected the electorate. American arms has never been about fighting to the last expendable son of the gentry and the last peasant infantryman.

  3. Christopher

    Air control in Iraq was really about minimising costs and giving the RAF a raison d'etre to protect it from being reabsorbed into the other two services. Whilst it did reduce Imperial casualties that was not necessarily the driving force. In a cash strapped postwar world huge armies were not the most popular thing and the RAF experiment ostensibly offered a way out of this issue. For the Americans, particularly before the Second World War there was an aversion to sending their young men overseas to die in battle for 'non American values'. The British ethos differed somewhat from this approach.

  4. Post author


    Yes, and again that process goes back a long way, e.g. the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.


    Interesting, I'm not familiar with that Mahan. Do you have a good cite?


    You're quite right, I elided 'political cost' with 'financial cost' with 'human cost'. That's what I get for writing a post at 1am.

  5. Erik Lund

    The whole security issue in postwar Iraq was ....something else. The Official History's account of the "Mesopotamian" campaign starts out with a a discussion of geography and logistics that ranked beside Bunskill's account of the logistics of the 1941 Greek campaign as an eye opener for me. Blowing silt and sand, lack of ports, endless flooding... all standing in the way of a policing effort that had to cover 170,000 square miles. Winston Churchill's "call for proposals" for high technology security suggested the use of armoured cars, motor launches, and even poison gas, but only air power really offered a solution.
    And posting at 1AM is not the problem. Well-rested posters set the bar too high!

    And as for technology and casualties: Charles VI's country-building exercise in Corsica send 30,000 Imperial soldiers to that island in the early 1730s, virtually every man of them front-line cavalry or infantry. It did not work, either.

  6. Christopher

    And even then airpower only offered an illusion of a solution. The British still had to maintain a substantial ground force in the region and the very act of using airpower turned the population against them.

  7. George Shaner

    Even though it's close to being obsolete, Weigley's "The American Way of War" is still useful on Mahan's contribution to the high firepower/low personnel exposure thread of American military thinking.

    William Skelton's "An American Profession of Arms" is much more recent if you can get hold of a copy, though less about theory and more about institutional culture.

    Brian Linn's "Echo of Battle" also looks interesting, but I haven't read it yet.

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