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The Way I See It

July 2024
2min read

Back around the beginning of the twentieth century, when royalty was royalty and Imperial Pomp expressed the ultimate in human strutting, the czar of Russia one day held a grand review of his imperial guard and invited all and sundry to come and see.

Ambassadors and foreign military attachés came to the parade ground and for upwards of an hour watched while ten thousand soldiers, who had been drilled to within an inch of their lives, went through their tactical paces with machinelike precision. The long lines moved in perfect unison, broke into marching formation with never a stumble or a shuffle, and finally swung into a long column and came to a halt perfectly aligned, utterly motionless, a fantastic human machine whose thousands of parts had somehow become one.

Profoundly impressed, a military attaché looked down the marblelike wall of human bodies and paid the professional soldier’s ultimate tribute.

“Perfect!” he said. “Perfect—except that they breathe.”

As all philosophers know, complete perfection is unattainable in human affairs, and the militarists’ dream of an army made totally machinelike—the goal of all drill sergeants since the days of Frederick the Great—always had that one failure. The soldiers did breathe; which is to say that even though they were compelled to move, fight, and exist as components of a machine they remained human beings, with human emotions, failings, and virtues—a fact which was finally borne in on the Russian czar when his soldiers concluded that they had had enough of him, and he and his dynasty vanished from the earth.

Ancient history, of course; yet a matter poignantly relevant to our own day, when armies have become mechanized beyond the most extravagant dreams of all earlier generations. The relevance is highlighted in a cogent book, The Face of Battle (Viking Press, New York), written by John Keegan, who teaches at the famed British Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and may be supposed to know something about this fascinating subject.

“Man can stand only so much of anything,” says Mr. Keegan, who remarks that although the soldier himself is no longer forced to be an automation the all but total mechanization of war is making battle an absolutely intolerable experience: “The divergence between the facts of every day and of battlefield existences not only greater than ever before but it is widening year by year.” Early in this century the nations tried for a while to make battle less barbaric; the dumdum bullet, which made a nastier wound than necessary, was actually outlawed. But now weapons are designed to make wounds as terrible and as terrifying as possible: “Impersonality, coercion, deliberate cruelty, all deployed on a rising scale, make the fitness of modern man to sustain the stress of battle increasingly doubtful.”

Both east and west of the central-font border in Germany, says Mr. Keegan, everything is mechanized, including the supply and maintenance units, and nearly everything is armored and tracked as well. The infantry section advances, retreats, and stays alive (or tries to) in a monstrous steel cocoon, and an army may have to endure this for days, with men wearing stifling gas masks and clammy radiation suits, isolated in their armored boxes from sight or smell of the outer world.

… perfect— except that they breathe . When things become literally intolerable people stop tolerating them. Totally mechanized war can be self-defeating simply because men may refuse to fight that way.

The final word is Mr. Keegan’s. “It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armored hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.”

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