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Is War Civilized? The Evolution of the Battlefield

March 8, 2013

David A. Bell in The New Republic:


The scene is familiar from a thousand novels and films. Lines of soldiers, clad in brightly colored uniforms, march toward each other across a flat green field. Fifes and drums, perhaps a bagpipe, accompany them. Nearby, on well-groomed warhorses, sit cavalrymen, resplendent in gold-braided pelisses and plumed shakos. In response to shouted commands, the soldiers lift heavy muskets to their shoulders. Explosions drown out the fifes, and the magnificent colors vanish under clouds of thick gray gunpowder smoke. Screams of agony arise, along with the weird sounds made by cannonballs in flight—Goethe likened them to “the humming of tops, the gurgling of water, and the whistling of birds.” The firing continues, so intense that flying sparks set the field afire. The soldiers, choking in the smoke, can no longer see the enemy shooting the deadly missiles that tear into men’s bodies—or, in the case of the cannonballs, rip them apart like frail dolls. But still they stand.

It has been a long time since the last of these classic “set piece” battles, which generally took place in a single day, on a field measuring at most a few miles across. In the world wars of the last century, battles turned into massive affairs that could devour huge stretches of land and last for months—think of the Somme, or Stalingrad. More recently, in a world of American military dominance, shadowed by nuclear weapons, large-scale clashes between roughly matched modern armies have virtually disappeared, the last ones taking place during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. America, in its “shock and awe” campaigns in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central Asia, has not fought battles as an older history understood the term. The age of battles is over.

For this very reason, historians can now look back on the classic set piece battles of the past and fully appreciate what a strange phenomenon they were. For a start, as evolutionary biologists like to point out, humans have an inherited disposition to avoid anything like an open, fair fight against a well-prepared adversary.  Instinctually, we prefer surprise attacks, ideally with overwhelming force. Fights from which we cannot flee are worse, and fights where we have no direct contact with the enemy—perhaps cannot even see him—test to the limit our control over our natural impulses. Standing under fire is surely one of the most unnatural things human beings have ever been asked to do. [More]

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