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From Bayonets To Tomahawks

Saddam is learning a lethal lesson about the links between militaries and societies

General Schwarzkopf, his voice as flat as Kansas, his language spare, said,, "The Iraqis had no concept of what they were getting involved in." Indeed, how could they have known what had begun when the first Tomahawk missile detonated in Baghdad? By making the cradle of ancient civilization a theater of war involving the most modern nation, Saddam was slapped in the face by this fact: Today's weaponry evolves rapidly, sophistication increases exponentially. When a scientific nation like America goes 15 years between wars, it brings t the next battle new weapons never tested in the crucible that counts. America's new array is passing its test and proving this point to Saddam: Modern science makes militarism increasingly untenable for societies that are not comprehensively modern.

The weapons Wellington's men used at Waterloo in 1815 were like those Marlborough's men used at Blenheim in 1704. But America's inventory of weapons today is significantly different from that of the Vietnam War. Saddam, too, has some advanced systems. A bane of the modern world has been the acquisition of sophisticated technology by political primitives. Saddam is a primitive at large in, but not at home in, the modern world. The marriage of a modern military apparatus to a politically and culturally underdeveloped society is bound to fail because of irreconcilable incompatibilities. Saddam struck it rich in the oil business, went on a shopping binge and imported some lesson about the relationship between militaries and societies. Saddam is making disastrous history for Iraq because he knows so little history, particularly of war.

Early in this century Europe bled nearly to death because of ignorance of the new realities of war. In 1914 many Europeans welcomed war. They were gripped by an old, romantic idea that soon would be machine-gunned to death at the Somme. The idea was that in war morale matters more than material--three times more, Napoleon said.

In 1914, graduates of the French military academy marched into battle wearing white gloves and pompons. German university graduates marched singing, with arms linked, toward British trenches. Several British contingents kicked soccer balls as they advanced through no man's land. For four years generals fought machine guns with young men's chests. The old men did not understand that war, the greatest engine of social change, had unleashed forces that profoundly changed war itself.

We have come a long way from the infantryman's pike, to the bayonet, to the Tomahawk. In the early age of handguns, 16 feet was thought to be a good length for a pike because most pistols were inaccurate at that distance. The bayonet (invented for the protection of hunters who found themselves with empty guns, facing wounded beasts) made armies reluctant to close with one another. That made firepower over distances more important. Today, a sailor in the gulf programs a computer and minutes later a Tomahawk deals destruction deep in Iraq's interior.

Historian Michael Howard notes that Viking longboats and Magyar ponies made warriors mobile across long distances. Eighth-century Franks developed the stirrup, making horses useful for fighting as well as mobility. The 12th century's technological marvel, the crossbow, shrank battlefield distances and devalued armor. Combustible materials had been hurled by catapults in sieges of cities and naval engagements. Then the process was reversed. Combustion was used to propel things. The age of cannon arrived when Turkish artillery battered down the walls of Constantinople.

Until industrialism produced a social surplus, the scale of war was severely restricted by its expense. The cost of a single mounted and armored soldier could require several years' income of an entire 12th-century village. henry V. had only 6,000 soldiers at Agincourt. Napoleon was to take 600,000 to Russia. With Napoleon's notion of "the nations in arms,' war entered the era of mass effects. But it entered slowly, hauled by horses, dependent on fodder.

War did not really get rolling until the coming of the steam engine, and then the internal-combustion engine. These spared soldiers long marches, saving their energies for ferocity in combat. In America's Civil War railroads transported mass-produced conscripts who were carrying canned rations and rifles mass-produced from interchangeable parts. Breech-loading replaced muzzle-loading weapons so infantrymen could fire lying down, killing at a range of several hundred yards while not making themselves targets. Rifling of gun barrels improved range and accuracy by a factor of five. Calibrated rifle sights made raw conscripts better marksmen than Frederick the Great's finest grenadiers. And by 1914 a regiment of field guns could deliver on a few hundred square yards more destructive power in an hour than had been fired by all the guns on both sides in all the Napoleonic wars.

Marx said the industrial working class would acknowledge no fatherland and would sere no nation's military efforts. Actually, public education made workers skillful, trade unions made them loyal, sensationalizing newspapers made them fervid. IMproved sanitation and medicine made armies more efficient: Before 1870, sickness usually killed five times as many soldiers as enemy action did.

The 19th century's long peace fostered industrial and scientific progress that made possible the horrors of the 20th century, when wars of armies were supplanted by wars of populations. A 19th-century Indiana inventor named Gatling, appalled by Civil War casualties, thought a gun capable of sustained fire would enable one soldier to do the work of 100, thereby making for smaller armies. But the Gatling gun had the opposite effect. In World War I huge armies were driven into trenches, "shovelry replaced chivalry" and war was deglamorized.

Until 1914 the military was the last redoubt of romantics in the industrial age. Then the gun enabled "three men and a gun to stop a battalion of heroes." Military romantics--not an endangered species, a vanished one, buried in Flanders Fields--regretted the machine gun and would have regretted the Tomahawk because "you can't pin a medal on a piece of metal." But neither can you bury a piece of metal in Arlington Cemetery.