Military Technology - Selected Themes

Steven Dutch University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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It's a lamentable fact that warfare has been one of the most powerful stimuli to science and technology. One wonders how long it would have taken to get into space if the U.S. and Soviet Union had not been locked in an arms race. Without exaggeration and with little effort, one could fill a large truck with literature on warfare, and this page and its companion will touch on only a few salient points dealing with the relationship between warfare and technology.

If Only the Politicians Would Stay Out...

The German general Clausewitz once wrote that war is politics continued by other means. War is inherently political; its only practical use is to attain a political goal. So it does no good to lament that things would be different if only the generals had been allowed to have their way in the Persian Gulf or Vietnam or Korea. That amounts to wanting what can never be. Generals will never be allowed to have things all their own way any more than scientists will ever get absolutely unlimited research budgets.

Military Values: Why the Military Does What it Does

Certain features stand out as separating the military from the civilian world. As a general rule, however, all the attributes below have counterparts in the civilian world; the military differs more in degree than in kind from the civilian sphere.

Ceremony, Rank, and Hierarchy

One of the most obvious signs of the military is its visible use of signs of rank and its highly codified ceremony. You can't look at a businessman and tell where he's worked or what he's done, but you can a soldier. However, anyone who thinks uniforms are solely a military feature is sorely mistaken. Just get a job in any business firm and show up in a plaid shirt or a Packer sweatshirt and you will find out very quickly that, yes indeed, civilians do wear uniforms.


The invention of military uniforms in the modern sense is generally credited to the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th century, who needed large armies to fight the Thirty Years' War and raised them by conscripting Swedish men. With no battlefield telecommunications, poor or no maps, and no aerial observation, it was all but impossible to know where soldiers were in battle. To help commanders see where troops were located in the smoke and confusion of battle, he dressed his soldiers in brightly-colored uniforms. Although high visibility might seem suicidal, in the days of muskets that took a minute to load and fire, the key to battlefield survival was massed troops able to keep up a steady rate of fire. Scattered soldiers in camouflage uniforms would have been completely ineffective and easy prey for enemy cavalry.

Uniformity is prized in the military for many reasons beyond presenting a neat appearance. Even in peacetime, the military has tremendous personnel turnover as soldiers enter the service, are reassigned, or leave. Soldiers are regularly reassigned to keep up morale, provide soldiers with a variety of experiences, prevent complacency and routine from setting in, and prevent insider networks from becoming too entrenched. In order to function effectively, soldiers arriving at a new post have to have a clear idea how to do their jobs and uniform procedures help ensure that they do. Uniformity also assists in administration. To be certain that procedures are being properly followed, inspectors have to be able to count on a high degree of uniformity from place to place.

Discipline and Obedience

To many people, the terms "discipline" or "obedience" are almost automatically preceded by the adjective "mindless." Nothing could be further from the truth. American society is filled with people who cannot defer their own gratification, even briefly, even if it means the loss of something they dearly want, or brings severe adverse consequences. If you ever deal with any of these people, it becomes very obvious that discipline and the ability to obey are actually very high-order mental skills.

Automata make poor soldiers. Good soldiers have to be able to adapt and show initiative, spot and correct errors, and fill in gaps in incomplete orders. So effective soldiers actually have to be highly autonomous. At the same time, however, they have to be able to recognize and respond instantly to situations that require automatic obedience. Emergencies and fast-moving combat situations are no time for debate or discussion; anything other than the most immediate response may get people killed. The kind of obedience effective armies seek to instill is actually a finely-honed intuition that enables the soldier to switch immediately from one mode of thought to another.

Group Cohesion

Group cohesion makes units more effective. Soldiers are more effective if they are confident they can count on support and aid from their comrades. At the same time studies have shown repeatedly that soldiers perform not because of their training or fear of punishment, but mostly because they don't want to let their comrades down.

Peer pressure is widely used in military training to reinforce weak links. A soldier who repeatedly falls short may not respond to a tirade by a sergeant, but if his failure causes the entire group to work longer hours or miss out on a privilege, the group will begin exerting pressure to perform. Apart from its effectiveness in discipline and training, mild group punishment adds a note of realism to military life. A unit whose position is given away by a single soldier's mistake will suffer as a whole. It will do no good to say "punish him - he's the one who messed up."

Uniforms and military ceremonies reinforce group cohesion by requiring soldiers to be publicly identified with the military. In times of tension between the military and civilians, the military will be particularly insistent on identification with the group. One of the best illustrations is the story of hair and the military.

Hair Wars

Photographs of Civil War soldiers offer a sharp contrast to the close-shaven basic training recruit of today. 19th century soldiers had more or less complete latitude to groom their hair any way they liked. That changed in World War I, and the reason was not a desire to present a sharp military appearance. It was much less glamorous: the need to control lice.

Lice have been a nuisance of military (and civilian) life since time immemorial and for a long time they were just that - a nuisance. That changed in the late 19th century with the discovery of disease microorganisms and the realization that lice and other parasites were disease vectors. Disease, until recently, was always a bigger killer of soldiers than battle, so by World War I there was a serious military reason to control lice. (World War II was the first war with more U.S. deaths from battle than disease - in World War I the U.S. had 53,000 battle deaths and 63,000 by other causes. In the Spanish-American and Mexican Wars, both fought in tropical areas, disease deaths outnumbered battle deaths six to one.)

Soldiers returning home were instantly recognizable by their short hair. Short hair quickly came to confer status and an aura of masculinity, and soon short hair became the norm for American males. World War II, Korea, and the peacetime draft all reinforced the idea that short hair was manly and patriotic.

That all changed when a war came along that wasn't seen as status-building, manly, and patriotic - Vietnam. Even before the Vietnam war escalated, dissidents were starting to wear long hair as a means of expressing contempt for a society they saw as conformist. With Vietnam, many young males chose to present as unmilitary an appearance as possible and also began letting their hair grow. One of the most famous musicals to come from that era was titled simply, Hair.

Military leaders began seeing hair in "us versus them" terms. With long hair becoming a symbol of opposition to the war, they insisted that soldiers conform strictly to military hair standards. Long hair on a soldier was seen as a symptom of divided loyalty and possible insubordination. Official military standards compromised to the extent of allowing haircuts to overlap the shorter end of what was regarded as fashionable in the civilian world (for a brief interval the Navy even permitted beards), but many commanders insisted that soldiers identify themselves publicly with the military by adhering to the strictest possible haircut standards.

With the fading of the Vietnam War and the protest climate from popular consciousness, hair became less of an issue, and today hair styles on both males and females run the gamut from shaven to extremely long. For the first time in three-quarters of a century, civilian hair styles are not heavily influenced by the military. And it all started with controlling lice.


Military training is unpleasant; always has been, always will be. The only way to teach soldiers to work long hours under unpleasant conditions is to make them work long hours under unpleasant conditions. Modern military literature speaks openly about "stress inducement", not for sadistic purposes but to simulate the stress of real military operations. Responsible armies work diligently to weed sadists out of training, not always successfully, but they do try. Rigorous training also serves to identify people who simply cannot deal with the stress, but comparatively few people wash out in reality. Most people can endure far more than they think, and for many, a military experience is the only time in their lives they are ever pushed close to their limits. By creating stress far beyond ordinary experience, rigorous military training also fosters group cohesion by creating a shared experience that only members of the military have had.

The above remarks don't fully apply to training of elite forces like Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, British SAS, or Russian Spetznatz. These troops enter training fully aware that most will not pass (the ones who fail may be perfectly adequate, even superior soldiers, just not in the uppermost few per cent). The object of this training is not to train a large mass of soldiers but to identify and train a small elite that can endure the utmost rigors and who will simply not allow themselves to be stopped by anything. The ultra-rigorous training that successful candidates endure is a powerful force for creating group cohesion and a feeling of being members of an elite.

Gunpowder and Fortifications: An Early Arms Race

Ancient Artillery

Before the advent of cannons, Europeans employed three artillery devices. The ballista was much like a giant crossbow mounted on a stand. In some cases it was a literal bow, in others it consisted of two arms mounted in bundles of tightly-twisted elastic fibers. In both cases the projectile was propelled by a bowstring. A pouch in the middle allowed either small javelins or stones to be fired. The ballista could fling small spears or fist-sized rocks up to a couple of hundred yards. A second device was the onager, named after a species of wild donkey for its kick. The onager consisted of a long beam held in a thick bundle of tightly-twisted elastic fibers. A sling on the end held the projectile. The onager could fire basketball-sized rocks or pots of flaming liquid several hundred yards. Ancient writers have said that the fibers for both weapons were women's' hair. The third device, the trebuchet, originated in China and appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages. It employed a large falling counterweight, often weighing tons, to fling projectiles. The capacity of the trebuchet was limited only by the size of the weight and it could fling rocks weighing hundreds of pounds.

We commonly use the term catapult to describe all three weapons. Ancient combat engineers would carry the critical metal parts and fiber ropes for these weapons into battle, then cut timbers and build the weapons themselves on-site.

The invention of Gunpowder

Gunpowder was invented in China at least a thousand years ago and used both for civilian festivals and for military purposes. Gunpowder is a simple material, a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal. On the battlefield it was used mostly for its psychological effects and for concealment - rockets and smoke screens.

Gunpowder was the first true explosive discovered. Europeans had nothing like it. There is a Latin word for "bomb" - globus, but it referred to a pot of flammable liquid that burst on impact, rather like an oversized Molotov cocktail. Gunpowder reached Europe perhaps with the Mongols, and soon Europeans had devised cannons.

Pre-gunpowder castles in Europe

Before the advent of gunpowder, castles had high, thin curtain walls as a defense against scaling. The walls were only as thick as necessary to support their own weight, and that was usually thick enough to withstand projectiles. At the top were toothlike projections, or crenellations as shields for archers. Frequently, bay window-like projections, or machicolations projected out from the walls. They served to allow defenders to fire down on attackers. In peacetime they often doubled as latrines so waste fell outside the walls. This practice was not advisable in time of war since arrows can fly up as well as down! Towers were round, since that design allowed the largest area with the least building material. This design created a blind spot beyond the tower which was not really a great problem since defenders could shoot down from the tower. Overall, there was perhaps the strongest defensive advantage in the history of warfare.

To assault such a castle, there were three main approaches. Direct assault involved scaling the walls and breaking through the gates, generally a costly approach and not usually tried unless the defenders had been seriously weakened. Sapping involved digging under the walls, often at the blind spot behind a tower. Once the walls were undermined, the tunnel supports would be set on fire or pulled out and part of the wall would (it was hoped) collapse, allowing an easier assault. Finally, there was espionage or treachery. If a courier was seen leaving a concealed exit, the attackers could exploit the situation. Prisoners could be induced, by bribery or torture, to reveal hidden weak spots or traitors could be induced to open the gates.

Because of the strong defensive advantage, most castles were besieged in an attempt to force the defenders out through hunger or disease. Dead bodies and waste were often flung over the walls to speed up the spread of disease. Most castles had an internal water source to prevent being forced out by thirst.

In addition to arrows, defenders dropped rocks, hot pitch, molten lead, scalding water or boiling oil on attackers. Modern satires of medieval life treat this tactic almost humorously. It was anything but. It was the medieval equivalent of napalm, only worse. Napalm can kill quickly; victims of its medieval precursors lingered for hours or days before dying of burns.

The trebuchet inspired some changes in castle designs. By its very design, a projectile from a trebuchet might be ten meters off the ground upon launch. Curtain walls were made higher and thicker. Early firearms of the 1300's were crude and weak, packing about the punch of a ballista, but by the 1400's, they had become much more powerful. To counteract the effects of cannon, the curtain walls were thickened still more and often faced with timber or earth. The crenellations and machicolations were removed, since they were now sources of lethal shrapnel when hit. To counteract the greater range of firearms, moats were widened. (In popular thinking, "moat" conjures up images of a canal teeming with vicious creatures. The vicious creatures were never more than figments of the imagination, and many moats were dry.

Iron Cannonballs and Star Forts

By 1450, better gunpowder and metallurgy led to iron cannonballs. Iron is twice as heavy as stone, volume for volume, and does not fragment when it hits, hence does greater damage. But because of its greater density, iron cannonballs required greater pressures in the cannon barrels to be fired. Before about 1450, iron cannonballs caused cannon to burst. In the early days of artillery it was almost as dangerous behind a cannon as in front of it.

In response to the threat from iron cannonballs, the curtain walls were replaced by lower earthen structures capable of absorbing cannon fire. The greater range and power of firearms meant that a sapper team that reached a blind spot could be well protected. To guard against sapping, the round towers were modified to triangular to remove the "dead spot." Triangular projections were called bastions. Bastions were not wholly satisfactory since it was difficult to protect the bastion without shooting at it. Bastions were soon modified to an arrowhead shape. The notch at the base of the arrowhead was termed an oreillon. By 1500, fortifications had assumed a form they would have for 300 years, the - "star fort." Freelance engineers often went from town to town designing forts, then were frequently hired in wartime as consultants by attackers to devise methods of capturing their own fortifications.

(Cannon on land recoil when they are fired. On a ship, they can't be simply anchored to the deck because they'd rock the entire ship when they were fired. So the cannon are on wheels, tethered on a stout rope. Just imagine the havoc one could cause if the rope broke and the cannon went careening around on a pitching deck, especially in a battle. Hence the expression "a loose cannon.")

Two Civilian Spinoffs of Military Technology

Artillery, Surveying and Map-Making

The big problem with artillery is hitting the target. The gunners' quadrant, invented in 1537, was a major improvement. It was essentially a protractor mounted on a stick, which was inserted down the cannon barrel. A hanging weight allowed the angle of elevation to be read off on the protractor. With accurate elevation, it was possible to predict the range of a projectile accurately, but note that this accuracy also implies the ability to weigh out powder precisely and manufacture gunpowder of uniform quality.

Thanks to triangulation, invented by the Dutch mathematician Frisius in 1533, it was possible to determine how far away a target was without actually having access to it. Triangulation involves viewing the target from two points a known distance apart. The lines of sight to the target from each point can be drawn on a scale diagram, and the distance to the target calculated. Originally, these sketches were made on a drumhead (the practice of using the head of a drum as a table gave rise to the expression "drumhead court-martial."), but clearly something more sturdy and accurate was needed. That was the plane-table, invented in 1551. A plane-table is a portable table. If carefully oriented with a compass, lines of sight can be drawn on it directly. While the problem of horizontal direction, or azimuth, was being solved, artillerymen were still using a relatively crude device, the cross-staff, for measuring angles of elevation. Accurate elevation is necessary for aiming at targets above or below the cannon. By 1571, Leonard Digges had combined horizontal and vertical sighting into a single instrument, the theodolite. The theodolite is not only useful for sighting artillery; it is essentially a surveyor's transit and was the first efficient surveying instrument.

While advances in artillery aiming technology were creating the ability to make accurate maps, Henry VIII was simultaneously providing a powerful stimulus to use them. After his break with the Catholic Church, Henry seized Church lands in 1536. (Catholic historians paint the incident as a defense of the Church's traditional ban on divorce and its refusal to bow to political pressure. In reality, Henry wanted an annulment, and the Church in those days granted royal annulments almost at the drop of a crown. Henry was married to the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish did not want to lose a politically valuable marriage and they had their way because they put more pressure on the Church than Henry did.) Henry's seizure of Church lands created a need to survey them accurately as possible before selling or granting them. At about the same time, copper engraving made better map printing possible. In 1579, Christopher Saxton produced a national atlas of England, the first in Western Europe.

Maps turned out to have tremendous strategic value. The British began mapping Scotland in detail after the failure of the Scottish revolt of 1745, and even today British topographic maps are the responsibility of the Ordnance Survey. Many other countries also mapped their own territory for military purposes. Such maps can also be valuable to the enemy, and detailed maps were classified in the former Soviet Union and still are in numerous countries. There exist maps of large areas of the ocean floor almost as detailed as maps of land, but because of their utility in submarine warfare, they are still classified. Because many terrestrial maps are still restricted for military purposes, we actually have more detailed topographic coverage of Venus and Mars than of the Earth.

Feeding the troops

For civilians throughout history, the approach of an army has been bad news, and it scarcely mattered which side the army was on. The only way armies could survive was by foraging for food as they went. Whether they limited their foraging to food or left local inhabitants enough to survive on depended on the discipline of the troops and the humaneness of the generals. Armies had to keep moving simply because they could not stay in one place more than a few days.

As armies grew larger, foraging grew more impractical. After the French Revolution, France found itself at war with most of Europe (guillotining Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was tantamount to declaring war on all the heads of state they were related to.) With many officers executed or exiled, the French resorted to large conscript armies and the supply problem became acute. The story of Chicken Marengo, named for a battle Napoleon fought in northern Italy, is illustrative. It's an odd combination of chicken, tomatoes, a poached egg, and crayfish, simply because that's all Napoleon's personal chef could lay his hands on. In 1800, Napoleon founded a Society for the Advancement of Industry, with the power to award large prizes, and one of the priority goals was better food preservation. A cook and wine-bottler named Nicholas Appert had already been experimenting with food preservation by putting food in sealed containers and boiling it. Being both French and a wine-bottler, he used champagne bottles. In 1810 he was awarded a prize of 12,000 francs on condition he publish his method.

It was in England, where wineries were few but the sheet-metal industry was well-established, that metal cans were first manufactured. Cans were in use by 1812 for the military and exploration expeditions. They were on sale in shops by 1830 and were originally upper-class status symbols. A can of corned beef went for two-thirds of the weekly rent on a house. If that sounds strange to modern ears, imagine a world in which green vegetables and fruit were simply unavailable in the winter at any price, then imagine how revolutionary canning must have appeared. The one drawback was that there were no can openers yet! Cans had to opened with a chisel, and would be until an effective can opener was invented a decade or so later. (Part of the problem was the heavy-gauge metal used in the first cans; a can-opener demands reasonably thin metal.)

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Created 16 November 1998; Last Update 14 December 2009

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