War from afar

9780199959747_450My interest in tracking the history (or if you prefer, historical geography) of waging war at a distance – my ‘Deadly Embrace’ project, which will eventually produce a long-form essay for War material – has been given another boost by news of a new book from Patrick Coffey, Visiting Scholar in the Office for History of Science and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley: American Arsenal: a century of waging warfrom Oxford University Press, it’s out now in North America (at least as an e-book) and available elsewhere early next year.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, the United States had only 200,000 men under arms, a twentieth of the German army’s strength, and its planes were no match for the Luftwaffe. Less than a century later, the United States today has by far the world’s largest military budget and provides over 40% of the world’s armaments.

In American Arsenal Patrick Coffey examines America’s military transformation from an isolationist state to a world superpower with a defense budget over $600 billion. Focusing on sixteen specific developments, Coffey illustrates the unplanned, often haphazard nature of this transformation, which has been driven by political, military, technological, and commercial interests. Beginning with Thomas Edison’s work on submarine technology, American Arsenal moves from World War I to the present conflicts in the Middle East, covering topics from chemical weapons, strategic bombing, and the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, to “smart” bombs, hand-held anti-aircraft missiles, and the Predator and other drone aircrafts. Coffey traces the story of each advance in weaponry from drawing board to battlefield, and includes fascinating portraits the men who invented and deployed them-Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project; Curtis LeMay, who sent the Enola Gray to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Herman Kahn, nuclear strategist and model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; Abraham Karem, inventor of the Predator and many others. Coffey also examines the increasingly detached nature of modern American warfare-the ultimate goal is to remove soldiers from the battlefield entirely-which limits casualties (211,454 in Vietnam and only 1,231 in the Gulf War) but also lessens the political and psychological costs of going to war.

I start the story much earlier – and so pay attention to other, older imperial powers too – but you can see the interest.  Here’s the Contents list:

Edison at War
Gassing the Senator
Mitchell’s War in Three Dimensions
The Bombsight
Precision Bombing Tested
The Switch
The Atomic Bomb
The Weapon Not Used
The Cold War and the Hydrogen Bomb
War games
Four lessons from Vietnam
Star Wars
Smart Bombs and Drones

And you can read the last substantive chapter, or at any rate a version of it, at Salon here: ‘War from afar: How the Pentagon fell in love with drones‘.  Despite the title, the essay is about more than the history of drones, which Coffey links to the development of so-called ‘smart bombs’ (and yes, I do think all bombs are dumb bombs):

In the last years of the twentieth century, two weapons changed the way that America fights air wars: smart bombs (bombs that “see” a target using a television camera or a radiation sensor, or that head for a programmed location) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Smart bombs came into their own in the first Gulf War. Reconnaissance UAVs proved their worth in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990s, and offensive UAVs began firing missiles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere a few years later.

The connection between the two is a tightrope on which both advocates and critics of today’s drone wars sway – as I’ll discuss in detail in my next post on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.