Contrary to what Ron Perlman might tell you at the beginning of every Fallout game, war always changes, or at least changes its clothes. I suppose the horror at the heart of it never varies all that much, but the means and mechanisms, the tactics and objectives, are constantly shifting.
The notion of “total war” is something we occasionally like to pretend we made up in the 20th century, at least those among us who buy into the sort of noble-savage bullshit that permeates some schools of thought when they expound upon the virtues of a more primitive lifestyle.
To paraphrase Heinlein, those people are welcome to explain how we invented total war to the city fathers of Carthage. If they can find ’em.
The truth of the matter is that we practiced it a hell of a lot more thoroughly back in the old days than we did after the rise of industrial warfare, but things certainly got vastly easier in the 20th century than they had ever been before.
One could argue that the first World War was an example of total warfare on an industrial scale, but I generally tend to disagree. Not because the intent wasn’t there, but simply because the capability was still too primitive. Artillery only reaches out so far, aircraft of the day were too fragile and underpowered, and in general while the notion of mass bombing of civilian targets was toyed with, it was never implemented effectively.
World War II, of course, was a bit different.
There we have a perfect exemplar of the sorts of devastation we are capable of wreaking on one another when the principles of mass production are applied to war itself.
So where am I going with all this?
There are people out there who insist that “war is what the terrorists want”, and they’re probably not wrong, though their understanding is incomplete. War, after all, is something that the terrorists, radical Islamists, call them whatever you like, have seen before. They’ve seen American tanks rumble across the desert, American planes in the sky making precision airstrikes, and American soldiers on the ground, and from what they have seen they believe that they can win such a war.
They have seen warfare of the digital age, and believe that that is something they can withstand, something they can endure, until the fickle Westerners get bored and go home.
Their ignorance is appalling.
Because what they’ve never seen, what no one has ever seen, is total warfare in the digital age. There’s no comprehension of the sort of devastation that could be unleashed by a sufficiently-motivated West. To date, digital warfare has been a war of half-measures, of precision and control, with substantial effort taken to minimize civilian casualties.
Imagine what it would be like if those priorities were changed. Instead of carefully plotting out the best angle of attack, the smallest weapon necessary for the task, and the precise point of impact, you simple programmed your smart bombs with the most efficient pattern of overlapping destruction. Not the random strings of bombs dropped from the sky in previous wars, but each bomb placed just so, right where it needs to be.
The United States has the power to destroy cities in a single day without the use of nuclear weapons.
It wouldn’t be cheap, of course, but part of total war is bending the nation’s economy towards the waging of that war. JDAM kits are among the cheapest smart munitions yet constructed, but even then they cost between ten and twenty thousand dollars.
Or do they?
It took Boeing fifteen years to produce a quarter million such kits. Apple, however, cranked out almost 170 million iPhones last year, each selling for a tiny fraction of what a JDAM kit costs, and while iPhones lack wings and motors, in most other ways they’re vastly more complicated.
In a way I suppose we should be grateful that the military-industrial complex has gotten so used to bilking billions out of the US government, because if we ever had to actually mass-produce such things, I’d wager people would be shocked by how little they could cost. The price of an infantry rifle today is little different than it was sixty years ago, after all, once adjusted for inflation. It’s the other things, the things not produced in massive quantities and more importantly not available to the civilian market where costs have spiraled out of all reason.
Of course, I reckon allowing people to buy their own smart bombs could perhaps end poorly.
At the moment adding a JDAM kit increases the cost of a 2000lb bomb by about a factor of seven. I’d wager that if you committed to cranking out enough of them, you could cut that to double the cost, or less. At that point, the difference in efficacy easily overwhelms the difference in cost if you’re looking to start bombing someone back into the Stone Age.
We like to pretend that we’d never do that, that we realize that the people around the terrorists are not with the terrorists, that we wouldn’t wage a campaign of aerial genocide against innocent civilians.
Except that history would call us liars. We have done those things, repeatedly, with whatever justifications we care to name at the time. Call it “dehousing“, prattle on about waging war on the enemy’s morale, but ultimately what we did was simple.
A strategic bombing campaign that targets civilians is a message to the people of a region. It’s not particularly complicated, and once you strip away all the various euphemisms surrounding it, it boils down to something like this:
“Kill for us or die.”
Get rid of the people we want you to get rid of, or we’ll destroy your house. We won’t target you personally, of course, but eventually you’ll die of exposure. Move to someone else’s house and we’ll destroy that too. And your barn. And your fields. If you survive the blast, we’ll see to it that you starve.
And all you have to do to make it stop is kill someone else. Sure, you don’t have to kill them yourself. You can dress it up, call it a revolt, resistance, or insurrection, you can go to the trouble of a trial or just scare ’em badly enough that they give themselves up, and we may in the end be magnanimous and let them live, but until you’re doing what we want we will continue to do our damnedest to kill you.
And we’ve gotten ever so much better at communication in the digital age.