Armageddon

Univac

Remember that episode on Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon?” The plot essentially tells of computer warfare, where simulated clashes determines, by treaty, real casualties in execution chambers. That one premiered in 1967. 

Stay with me.

Rising industrialization and the emergence of international Imperialism triggered America’s early 20th Century entrance into an arms race. Competitors, like the British, governed colonies around the globe, and to a lesser extent so did the French, Dutch, and even Spain.

Money, weapons, power, and influence. America wanted its share.

Defending far-flung potential islands and territories required enlarging the US Navy. At that time, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Naval Officer, published a seminal work, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Mahan proposed that an updated Navy would ensure America’s emergence as great an influence as Great Britain.

Theodore Roosevelt embraced Mahan’s work, as did his nephew, Franklin. Young Winston Churchill openly admitted his devotion to Mahan’s views, as did Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany.

In the years that followed, wooden vessels were retired in favor of formidable steel battleships, and smaller surface craft. And a new, dangerous, arms race launched, pitting the US against its colonial rivals. 

The Germans, late imperial entrants, felt they had been left behind in access to imperial growth. Particularly jealous of his English cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm pushed his own nation’s armaments production. The result? A nasty militarism, combined with foreign domination—a time bomb waiting to detonate.

An American arms manufacturer, Hiram Maxim, headed to Washington to sell his innovation: the self-cooling machine gun. Christened the “Maxim,” the arms builder demonstrated his handy work in DC, to the Department of War. The government turned him down. Undaunted, Maxim presented his automatic weapon to the Brits. Once again, no interest. In a  visit to Berlin, the Kaiser bought all the automatics in stock, and ordered the inventor to produce more.

By August, 1914 the first full-on Industrial War erupted, complete with aircraft, submarines, and automatic guns. (Plus poison gas, tanks, and rifles of various caliber.) All of these were mass produced and damn deadly.

The nature of Twentieth Century warfare had literally been forged in steel–producing assembly line annihilation.  

How does weaponizing technical innovations apply to now? 

The world resides in a post-industrial age, in a universe dependent on computers. From  Univac, to Commodore 64, to Apple, we enjoy countless benefits of the computer age. But the dark side of this ever-evolving technology, and the significant dangers it poses deserves reappraisal.

As I write, misinformation, via the internet, has abetted in the deaths of 670K-plus Americans, and the numbers still climb. Troll farms in Russia are ruthlessly still hacking away, as they did meddling in our 2016 presidential election. Those same hackers shut down Colonial Pipeline last May, while universities, government agencies, infrastructure, and businesses are under constant threat, paying millions to rescue their systems from ransom ware.

The indispensable nature of computers, like this one in my lap, is a useful, essential tool. But like the advent of the 20th Century, technical advances portends danger; cyber space as deadly as a machine gun, and as real as poison gas. Factor in nations around the globe are still vying for dominance—especially the Russians, and the Chinese. 

Nothing has changed since 1914, aside from more sophisticated ways to destroy. Fifty-four years after Star Trek aired “Armageddon,” computer-generated death is as real as the death toll at The Marne, or Verdun. Flourishing fingers harmonize chords on a piano, as does the right strokes on a keyboard. Unlike harmony, horrific death and discord threaten our nation by those who wish us ill.  

Anyway Anyhow Anywhere

The deal is, coming out victorious World War Two, the certainty of America’s omnipotence shaped foreign policy. The US armed forces proved they could expertly parachute behind enemy lines, storm contested beaches, and plant the flag of American freedom at the close of every engagement. US pride meant we only mobilized decent men, and armed them with top notch war materiel, and enough Hershey Bars to treat the world. 

Those lessons of the 1940’s mislead later military planners. The assumption that Americans could do no wrong, and intervening into other nations, an imperative. However, what worked in one moment wasn’t necessarily viable later. America’s entrance had saved the world, but that particular episode ended in September, 1945, and the US moved forward looking backward.

Five years later the Korean conflict exploded, and after three years of fighting, ended where it began, the 38th parallel. That stalemate ought to have signaled a reassessment of America’s role abroad, but the Sergeant Stryker school of war had engrained itself too deeply into foreign poIicy.

I am a child of the Vietnam era. In my head the kaleidoscope of Lucy’s eyes plays, and televised images of soldiers knee deep in rice paddies, flicker in black and white. Protesting students with raised fists, black armbands affixed, occupying college offices, all to the soundtrack of kick ass rock and roll. In fact, the most enduring feature of the Sixties, for this boomer, is that pulsating electric guitar played by the hands of masters.

From 1959 to 1975 Washington dispatched advisers, munitions, and finally by ’65 ground forces to Vietnam. The French had failed to hold their Indochinese possession against the Communists, as they had failed against the Germans in 1940. America would bail them out once again.

But our intervention was premised on dated strategies. Vietnam was not a stand and fight war.

What Vietnam taught policy makers, (for a millisecond) is that patience is a most powerful foe. The NVA and Vietcong played the waiting game with grit and timeless certainty. 

the Our nation was not the first on the scene in Saigon, but certainly the last western power. As for Afghanistan, the dynamic remains. Leaving 10 years ago, or 10 days ago, the outcome would have been the same. The post-911 Middle Eastern conflicts were truly good for the people of those nations, but not for the United States.

Just check with the Brits and Russians. They left too.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com