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American Diplomacy takes pleasure in offering to its readers an article of considerable interpretive importance by the military historian Alex Roland.
Prepared for and presented at the Summary Conference on the Study of War held in June 1997 under the auspices of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, with the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, the paper is intended as part of an extended study of the phenomenon of warfare in the nuclear age.
Professor Roland invites your comment. You may address him by e-mail PLEASE NOTE: For quicker downloading, we’ve divided Prof. Roland’s article into the following sequenced files:

  • Introduction & Quincy Wright
  • The Transformation of Conventional War
  • The Nuclear Revolution
  • Technological Determinism & Conclusion


    By Alex Roland

    “The hydrogen bomb not only made single weapons more destructive, [it] also made massive destructive power affordable, at least to the superpowers. Neither [the Soviet Union nor the United States] could have otherwise afforded to amass the nuclear arsenals they did, with a combined explosive force equivalent to more than five billion tons of TNT. Finally, the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile ensured that these weapons could be placed on any target in the enemy’s territory without interference.
    “Nuclear weapons thus became the first weapon in human history that the holders dared not use.

    ~ Alex Roland


    As warfare became more lethal in the second half of the twentieth century, it killed fewer people. Casualties from war fell by 82 percent between 1950 and 1995.1


    War Deaths, 1800-1995

    As a percentage of world population, they are now at a level comparable to that of the first half of the nineteenth century.

    War Deaths, 1800-1995
    as Percentage of Population

    One explanation for this paradox may be found in Quincy Wright’s A Study of War (1942).2 Wright did not predict a decline in deaths from war. He did, however, identify technology as the principal shaper of war in the modern world.

    It is the thesis of this paper that technology accounts for the declining death rate from war over the last fifty years. Death rate, in turn, is taken to be the most important barometer of war. The argument will be made using Wright’s analysis as a point of departure. His understanding of the relationship between technology and war will be tested against the experience that followed publication of his study.

    The paper is organized in four sections:

    First, an account of the genesis of A Study of War will explore the goals of that project, the conceptual scheme that Wright employed to organize his material, and an analysis of Wright’s argument about technology and war.
    The second section summarizes the major developments in conventional military weaponry since World War II, with primary emphasis on the United States. It concludes by asking whether these advances constitute a technological “revolution in military affairs.”
    The third section contrasts the rapid but steady development of conventional arms with the revolutionary impact of nuclear weapons. These are the instruments, this paper claims, that account for the dramatic fall in casualties from war in the second half of the twentieth century.
    The fourth and concluding section of the paper measures this claim against the standard of technological determinism. It asks if this paper goes beyond Quincy Wright in asserting that technology has become the primary determinant of war.

Quincy Wright

Quincy Wright and his colleagues at the University of Chicago undertook their study of war in response to the shock of World War I. Though the Great War had its most profound and lasting impact in Europe, where most of the casualties were suffered, it nonetheless stunned thoughtful observers around the world. Its duration and cost were largely unexpected; the casualties in less than five years of fighting exceeded those of the entire nineteenth century. And it called into question the optimism and hubris nurtured by the Pax Britannica.

War Deaths per Century, 1500-1995

These in turn had been fueled by increasing mastery of the forces of nature, by the sheer power of modern technology and industry.

Scholars of every persuasion asked themselves how a disaster such as World War I could have come upon the modern world unbidden. Books offered answers from the biology of war, the psychology of war, the sociology of war, the economics of war, and still other explanatory categories and agents of causation. Some of these studies focused on the conduct of war, a few on the consequences of war, but most on the causes of war. Their authors wanted to understand how World War I could have happened. The answer for some lay in human nature; they challenged the Enlightenment faith in the perfectibility of man. Others sought the explanation in human institutions.

War Deaths per Century, 1500-1995, as Percentage of Population

The interdisciplinary nature of this scholarly assault on the puzzle of World War I naturally resonated with the social sciences faculty at the University of Chicago. Barely a quarter of a century old when World War I broke out, Chicago was already famous for intellectual rigor, innovative scholarship, and interdisciplinary study in the social sciences. Beginning in 1929, it would become more famous still for the educational reforms instituted by its young president, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

In this environment, Quincy Wright proposed a study of war to his department chairman, political scientist Charles E. Merriam.3 Wright, himself a political scientist and a pacifist with a PhD in international law, had joined the Chicago faculty in 1923. His proposal to Merriam three years later led to meeting of Chicago colleagues from the departments of political science, economics, history, sociology, anthropology, geography, psychology, and philosophy. Out of this meeting grew a five year plan for an interdisciplinary study of war relying mostly on University of Chicago faculty and graduate students. In the end, sixty six studies were completed. Forty five of these were accepted as theses for Master’s or Doctor’s degrees at Chicago. Ten were published as books, seven as the substantive basis of journal articles. Wright himself wrote the synthetic A Study of War , gathering in its appendices much of the other work.

Wright advanced a four tier model of the evolution of war. Each tier he associated with a stage in human evolution, with a primary driving force behind war, and with a scholarly discipline. The relationships are represented by the matrix in the following table:

Wright’s Evolutionary Stages of Warfare
Animal Warfare Indistinct Psychology
Primitive Warfare Society Sociology
Civilized Warfare Int’l System Int’l Law
Modern Warfare Technology Science

The transitions from one stage to the next, Wright believed, were caused by changes in communication: speech, writing, and printing respectively.

The model served several purposes for Wright:

  • It first of all allowed him to place in periods all of human experience, lending historical perspective to the trauma of World War I by placing it in an evolutionary epoch the modern which he dated from 1500.
  • Secondly, it characterized warfare in each period, allowing a contrast between modern war and the kinds of war that had preceded it.
  • Finally, the model emphasized the need for interdisciplinary study, to which he was committed.

Wright’s assertion that changes in communication drove the transitions from one stage to the next seems to have been based more on conceptual neatness than solid evidence. It works reasonably well in the transition from primitive to civilized eras; writing is often linked to the emergence of civilization. Similarly, the introduction of movable type in the West in the fifteenth century corresponds closely to Wright’s periods scheme of the modern. There is less evidence, however, that the transition in human evolution from “animal” to “primitive” correlated with speech.

Furthermore, the model now raises the question of whether the so-called “communications revolution” of the late twentieth century marks another transition in Wright’s scheme, perhaps to the post modern. If so, then Wright’s model supports the claim that there is a “revolution in military affairs” under way, driven by an “information revolution.”

However flawed Wright’s periods may be, his model nonetheless provides a powerful framework for evaluating current claims about the transformation of war effected by technology in the second half of the twentieth century. Those claims, it will be seen, turn on the same question of disjunctures or discontinuities in history that Wright sought to identify in his model.

Wright argued that it was possible to trace the origins of war to any one of his four stages. It was perfectly appropriate, he felt, to speak only of modern war and to see it beginning around 1500. But it was also appropriate to view war as an artifact of civilization, and thus trace its roots to the Mesopotamian Valley in the fourth millennium BCE.

Wright’s model is layered and cumulative; therefore, the earlier one begins, the richer one’s understanding. Animal war was shaped by biological and psychological drives for food, sex, territory, dominance, and activity.4 When communities arose, these drives did not disappear. Rather, they were submerged beneath the more dominant drive to maintain the “social solidarity” of the group.

The resulting tension between these biological and social drives is not trivial. Wright concluded that the

artificial drives [of society] developed by education and habit may be in conflict with natural drives existing from heredity. The effort at reconciliation leads to the psychological and sociological peculiarities which constitute culture.5

The model grows more complicated still when primitive societies shifted to civilization. Now the dominant drive behind warfare is the international state system, i.e., the anarchic relationship between autonomous societies. In this equation the influences of biology and sociology do not disappear. They simply attenuate. Biology remains a force, but it has the least power. Social drives are more important than biological, but less important than international politics. The nature of the interstate system has more explanatory power than either of the other two.

Finally, in the fourth stage, technology dominates. Or at least Wright would say that technology became the most important category of analysis. For him, the inventions of the late Middle Ages marked the transition to the modern. Gunpowder was, of course, the most important for warfare. In its wake came other technologies that applied chemical energy to military purposes. The side-gunned sailing ship gave way to the steamship. Land transport was transformed by railroads and then by the internal combustion engine in trucks and tanks; the same engine made possible submarines and airplanes. Weaponry increased in range, accuracy, and lethality. The “utilization of sources of power other than those of man and beast in hostile operations has transformed the character of such operations,” said Wright, “and made them war in the modern sense.”6 It was not so much that technology defines or even drives modern war. Rather, the global implications of technology lent new significance to war.

Releasing power stored by other than human or animal muscle . . . has made war more destructive, more likely to spread, and consequently of more general interest. Resort to war anywhere has tended to become a matter of concern to all governments. . . . Animals have fought from inherited drives, primitive men have fought from group custom, people of historical civilization have fought for group interests, but people of contemporary world civilization fight for a better world order.

This conceptualization of war appears to have been shaped by Wright’s own predilections for international politics and by his deeply held belief that salvation lay in world government.

  • It treated technology not only as a category of analysis but also as a catalyst of modernity.
  • It was not only the instrument by which modern war became more deadly, but the vehicle as well for spreading that warfare around the globe.
  • It did not cause or define war in the sense that psychological drives caused and shaped animal war, but it nonetheless provided a necessary precondition for modern war.
  • And it lent urgency to the study of war, for even local wars had the potential for world wide impact.

Wright qualified his characterization of the modern to escape the crude determinism implied by his formula. He believed that drives could be most readily identified in animal and primitive war; “among civilized people. . . there is seldom an immediate causal relationship between any one drive and a war.”7 Still, he identified food, sex, territory, adventure, self preservation, domination, independence, and society (i.e., subordination of the individual to the state) as drives toward war in historic societies.8

While animal war is a function of instinct and primitive war of the mores, civilized war is primarily a function of state politics. It seldom springs spontaneously from the behavior patterns of the masses but from the calculations of the leaders. The drives of the masses as organized into behavior patterns at a given time are significant because they may be worked upon to create an army and war spirit in the civilization.9

Similarly, though “modern” was defined for Wright by technology, he nonetheless associated it with decidedly non-technical characteristics: humanism, liberalism, pragmatism, and relativism.10 The modern world, he believed, was increasingly shaped by these Western values. By incorporating them in his analysis, he avoided espousal of a mere technological determinism. Indeed, he identified the “drives of modern war” as political, economic, “cultural,” and religious.

These characteristics might well be compared with present notions of modernity and the causes of war. Recent scholarship still dates modernity from 1500, but associates it with secularism, capitalism, rationalism, and social fluidity. Science and technology often appear in this literature as off-shoots of rationalism or capitalism or both; war and militarism are off-shoots of capitalism. In this literature, technology and modern war are seldom construed as causally related. Rather, they are both second-order consequences of modernity.

“Modernity,” however, is a slippery term. Its definition is constantly changing.11

  • Scholars such as Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, and Marek Thee see war and militarism as central to an understanding of the modern world.12
  • James Rosenau views technology as a global force, just as Wright did.13
  • And historian Leo Marx has gone so far as to suggest that “technology may be the truly distinctive feature of modernity.”14 This comes remarkably close to Wright’s position, though the recent scholarship fails to take the final step. Technology often plays a prominent role in these models, but seldom as an independent variable.15

Wright’s conceptual model displays an internal contradiction that he was never able to overcome. The four-tier framework suggested that technology played the same role in modern war that instinct played in animal war, i.e., that it drove and defined war in its time. This was tantamount to saying that it caused war, that it was deterministic. But Wright recoiled from such reductionism. He insisted first of all that it was only the most important feature of modern war, that all the other drives present in previous ages still played a role as well. Furthermore, Wright argued that other characteristics of the modern era–humanism, liberalism, pragmatism, and relativism–“drove” modern war. But categories such as these were not continuous throughout his modern period. They have more explanatory power for the early twentieth century than they do for the seventeenth century or the late twentieth century. So his claim for the explanatory power of technology when applied to modern war dissolves in his own appreciation of the complexity of modern war, of its imperviousness to single cause explanations. His model suggests a kind of technological determinism which his own analysis cannot support.

There are, furthermore, other faults to find with Wright’s study.

  • The collective enterprise behind A Study of War and the huge mass of data it collected are symptomatic of an early twentieth century faith, warmly embraced at the University of Chicago, that problems could be resolved by simply gathering a mass of information.16
  • Wright imposed upon the final report a legalistic framework that severely compromised the usefulness of the book.
  • Wright also indulged a penchant for enumeration and classification that often lent a rigidity and artificiality to his analyses.
  • And of course he was hard pressed to advance his own analysis beyond the state of the art in the various disciplines he used.17

These failings notwithstanding, A Study of War was an impressive achievement, arguably the most thorough and the most informed analysis of war ever conducted.

  • It is more genuinely interdisciplinary than anything in the field before or since.
  • Its fundamental period structure, summarized above, is essentially the same as that in Kenneth Waltz’s classic Man, the State and War .18
  • The data and analysis in the appendices are still useful after half a century.
  • And much wisdom and insight inhabit these pages.After fifty years, the book is more remarkable for its continuing strengths than for its obsolescence. Nowhere is this more true than in its appreciation of the significance of technology.In addition, Wright and his colleagues foreshadowed subsequent developments in recognizing that no discipline speaks for technology. Engineering, of course, works on technology, but seldom studies it as a social phenomenon. Technology assessment is most often a subset of engineering, concentrating on the impact or results of technology. The study of technology has spawned identifiable fields within traditional disciplines such as history, sociology, and even philosophy. And new fields, such as the social study of science and technology have appeared. But there remains no scholarly discipline devoted exclusively to technology.
    To understand the relationship between technology and war it is necessary, therefore, to draw eclectically on other disciplines. Wright and his colleagues did so in the 1920s and 1930s. This paper will do the same.
    Continue to next section, “The Transformation of Conventional War”


    1. Alex Roland, “Keep the Bomb,” Technology Review (August/September 1995): 67-69

    2. Quincy Wright, A Study of War, 2 vols., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1942] rev. ed. 1965).

    3. Wright generously attributed the initiative behind the project to Merriam. Ibid., p. 409. But archival research at the University of Chicago reveals that Wright himself began the process with an undated, five page memorandum to Merriam, written sometime before 8 May 1926. See John Hepp, “the Birth of Interdisciplinary History: Cooperative Research in the Social Science at the University of Chicago in the Jazz Age,” 9 January 1994, unpublished paper in possession of the author. The following account relies on this paper and on Wright’s reporting of events, pp. 409 13.

    4. Wright, A Study of War, p. 43.

    5. Ibid. p. 79.

    6. P. 40.

    7. P. 132.

    8. Pp. 133 43.

    9. P. 144.

    10. Pp. 169 92.

    11. Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 5; Peter Osborne, “Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category,” New Left Review 192 (March/April 1992): 65 84.

    12. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990 1992 (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1992); Michael Mann, States, War and Capitalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988); Marek Thee, Military Technology, Military Strategy and the Arms Race (London: Croom Helm, 1987).

    13. James Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics (Brighton, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990).

    14. Leo Marx, “Communications,” Technology and Culture 33 (April 1992): 407.

    15. Jack Levy, “The Causes of War: A Review of Theories and Evidence,” in Behavior, Society, and Nuclear War, ed. by Philip E. Tetlock, Jo L. Husbands, Robert Jervis, Paul C. Stern, and Charles Tilley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 209 333.

    16. Personal conversation with the author, Cambridge, MA, 3 April 1995.

    17. For example, the book was correct in 1942 when it stated that “most writers are clear that race refers to a biological rather than to a cultural classification of human beings.” Since then, however, the evidence has pointed overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.

    18. Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

Alex Roland, professor of history at Duke University since 1987, has held the departmental chair for the past year. He has been a visiting professor of military history at the U. S. Army War College and a resident fellow in the history of science and technology at MIT. His publications include Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society (1991).

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