As far as we know,the first outstanding scientist to devote his talents to the design and development of weapons was Archimedes. It is said that the Romans besieging Syracuse expressed dismay whenever one of Archimedes’ engines of war such as a new model of a catapult came into view. “Here comes that damned geometer again,” they are reported to have grumbled. When the city was taken, a Roman soldier killed Archimedes, so the story goes, but not for his contributions to the war effort of the enemy. The soldier is reported to have given him an order which Archimedes, engrossed in a problem, ignored.
There was a time when a scientist could feel justifiably proud for contributing to the security of his city or country by solving problems related to defence. For the meaning of defence was unambiguous, and so was the identity of the enemy who came to the gates or invaded the country, looting and killing. The defenders fought these enemies. If they succeeded, the enemies were driven away; looting and massacres stopped for a while.
There was a time when professional warriors looked askance at weapons that killed at a distance. The knight did not regard the bow and arrow as a “fair weapon”. The sword knew where it struck, the arrow did not. But fair play was no match for technology. Fire arms came to stay. For some time artillery was used almost apologetically. Throughout the eighteenth century cannon were placed to the left of the main body of fighting men to indicate that it was not to occupy a place of honour. It was Napoleon who promoted artillery to “Queen of Battle”. But already in the seventeenth century rationalizations of this new terror weapon appeared. A Captain Michael Mieth in the service of the Emperor wrote in 1683:
Before the discovery of gunpowder, both the Indies were in the jaws of hellish Satan and in the very darkest obscurity, more like cattle or wild beasts in customs and beliefs than like reasonable creatures of the Great God. Gunnery has been the only means by which the command of Christ could be performed (Luke 14:23- ‘Urge them to come in that My house may become full.’)1
Paradoxically, rationalizations as well as gross distortions of reality are evidence that the voice of conscience is not yet dead. The contemporary admirers of Adolf Hitler who deny that the Holocaust ever happened thereby recognize the evil: if Hitler was a hero, he couldn’t have condoned the slaughter. When reality is not distorted, the victims must be dehumanized. One way or another, one’s admiration of or commitment to evil must be reconciled with remnants of human feeling.
The image of the adversary as an Evil Empire is a manifestation of the same need to reconcile deliberate preparations of the final holocaust with one’s dormant but not yet extinguished responsibility as a human being, in particular as a scientist. In a recent exchange of views in Physics Today one enthusiast of Star Wars wrote:
“from our point of view, there is no such thing as a good political relationship with the Soviet Union….War is the norm, not the ‘abnorm’ for them They are convinced intellectually, politically, and theologically, that the only way for Mother Russia to be safe is for her to be totally in control of the world. All other peoples must be subservient to Mother Russia….The Soviet view comes centuries in the past and nes centuries into the future…”2
Once the adversary is dehumanized the voice of conscience is stilled. Or else one resorts to denial. Here is Colin S. Gray’s comment on the contention that nuclear war would be a catastrophe unparalleled in human history:
“Nuclear war may or may not be a catastrophe unparalleled in world history,but it is unlikely to be the functional equivalent of the cataclysmic biblical flood, notwithstanding the recent claim advanced by some scientists to the effect that nuclear war would probably trigger climatic changes that could be fatal to life on earth. The new apocalypse vision is of the nuclear winter. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Mongols and the bubonic plague were viewed in much the same eschatological terms in which many people today view nuclear war. These visitations from God were terrible, but mankind remained in business. As Herman Kahn sought to establish more than twenty years ago, catastrophes can come in different sizes.”3
Dehumanization of the adversary and distortion (or denial) of reality are not the only ways of coming to terms with conscience. There is a third way – simply shutting the world of people out of one’s sphere of vision. One can escape into a modern equivalent of the monastery – the war research laboratory, a world as inspiring to a certain type of young, brilliant scientist of today as the world of fasting, prayer and ascetic self-denial must have been to the anchorites of another age. A vivid and frightening view of these devotees of death technology is given by William J. Broad in Star Warriors, subtitled, “A penetrating look into the lives of young scientists behind our space age weaponry”. These young scientists have cut themselves off from the world of ordinary human concerns. Broad writes:
“…The fabric of friendship extended even in the language they spoke. Classified projects led to classified jokes. After a while,the young scientists began to be cut off from the spontaneity of the outside world… It was like the Gulag… High-tech Gulags such as 0 group are seductive. The prisoners are there of their own accord, serving both science and war, creating in order to destroy, part of an elite, yet pawns in a terrifying game…”
There is an account of how a young scientist and his girl friend drifted apart. It was weaponry that broke them up.
“My view of weapons has changed,” Peter recalled. “Until 1980 or so I didn’t want to have anything to do with nuclear anything. Back in those days I thought there was something fundamentally evil about weapons. Now I see it as an interesting physics problem.”
Success and proximity to power must have played a major part in the young scientist’s conversion (or seduction). Peter’s devices worked.
“All power corrupts,” said Lord Acton. “Nothing fails like success,” said Kenneth Boulding.
1 Cited in S. Vagts, A History Of Militarism, pp. 44-45. ^
2 Correspondence section in Physics Today, February, 1986. ^
3 Wm. J. Broad, Star Warriors, Simon & Schuster, 1985. ^