THE EFFECT OF WEAPONS ON WAR

Major George S. Patton, Jr., Cavalry

Cavalry Journal

November 1930




When Samson took the fresh jawbone of an ass and slew a thousand men therewith, he probably started such a vogue for the weapon, particularly among the Philistines, that for years no prudent donkey dared to bray. Yet, despite it's initial popularity it was discarded and new appears only as a barrage instrument in acrimonious debate.

Turning from sacred to profane history, we find it replete with similar instances of military instruments, each in it's day heralded as the "dernier cri," the key to victory. Yet, each in it's turn retiring to it's proper place of useful, though not spectacular, importance.

Of yore, the chariot, the elephant, armor of various sorts, Greek fire, the longbow, and gunpowder, to mention only a few, were each acclaimed. Within our memory the dynamite gun and the submarine were similarly lauded. Today, the tank, gas, and the airplane are aspirants for a place on the list.

In investigating the question, let us begin by picturing, if we may, the cataclysmic effect produced on primordial society by the first savage who chanced to use a splintered rib as a means of giving point to his demands for a larger share of meat and women. How they gibbered around the half gnawed bison as with signs and gutturals they described the fight. How their hairy bellies palpitated as into the twilight of their minds the idea flickered that they, too, might be so struck. "Romance is dead," they growled, "The day of tooth and fingernail is done."

Eons perchance rolled by before some timorous soul (?), fleeing in vain the questing menace of a prodding point, seized, in his agony of terror, a jagged stone and, squealing as he hurled it, saw the pikeman fall. Trembling, he knew that artillery was born. Continuing, it is easy to imagine the appearance of a wattled shield to fend off the stone and after the inevitable lag phase, ages long when men thought dimly, such shields, in turn, made useless by the sling and throwing stick. Another lag and then the bullhide shield restored the balance and robbed the sling and javelin of their lead. Consider how the scythe chariots were rendered innocuous by the simple means of opening the ranks to let them rattle through. Later, at Zama, similar tactics permitted Scipio to render futile the tankish charge of Hannibal's elephants; no longer a novelty and so dreaded as when Phyrrus used them. Again, consider how, off Sicily the Roman Ravens (boarding bridges) confounded and destroyed the far superior Carthaginian fleet; not by their inherent value, but by their devastating effect of their novelty. They, too, quickly passed.

The long struggle between armor and weapons abounds in like examples of alternating successes. When Cortez defeated an army by a charge of fourteen horses, it was not the valor of his "caballeros," but the fear induced by the novelty of their mounts, which routed the Indians. In this case, however, the results attained are not traceable wholly to surprise. The rush of horsemen, and similarly of tanks, reawakens a submerged race memory of ancient flights before the devastating rush of long extinct carnivora. We might continue almost without limit eliciting further examples, but repetition is wearisome and enough has been said to justify us in formulating an axiom. It is; the initial appearance of each new weapon or military device has ever marked the zenith of it's tactical effect, though usually the nadir of it's technical efficiency.

Surprise is the most ancient and most potent of military methods. Novelty is a form of surprise, and it is surprise (the fear of the unknown), not power, which appalls us.

The wrestling adage that there is a block for every hold applies equally to war. Each new device is invariably followed by it's self induced counter. The utilization of these new methods and their counters, these holds and blocks, is highly useful in that they add to our combat repertoire. But their employment is fraught with danger, if, beguiled by their transitory preeminence, we place our reliance wholly upon them.

It is only in the writings of the romantic novelists that we find the hero successful through the knowledge of some secret lunge. In the duel or in the fencing room, success goes to the man of many good attacks and sound parries; to the man who uses all of the means at hand for the accomplishment of the end sought, victory.

Here it is well to pause a moment to examine certain characteristics which have definitely marked the march of military evolution. From the very beginning, our gifted species has expended vast amounts of time and ingenuity in a strenuous, though futile, effort to devise safe methods of war; means of killing without being killed. Ardant du Picq sums it very aptly when he says, "Man engages in battle for the purpose of gaining victory, not for the purpose of fighting."

Defensive devices are an outgrowth of the same desire; the stone and the shield, the lance and armor, gas and the mask. Obviously the emotion back of these manifestations is love of life; an emotion which from age to age has grown stronger as the chances for it's enjoyment have increased.

The hero is of truth a rarity. The most striking proof of this is found in the fact that throughout myth, legend, song, and story he has invariably shared with that other rarity, beauty, the place preeminent. Much heroism exists, but few heroes. It is rather disheartening to observe that man in his efforts to reduce danger has enhanced the requisites for courage necessary to withstand it. The sweat, noise, excitement, and bodily contact of the close encounter act as a sedative on the brain, the seat of fear. After the rush has started it takes less hardihood to charge than to sit stolidly in a ditch awaiting dissolution via the impersonal belch of a dropping shell.

In attempting to assign just valuations to the latest lethal devices, we shall not go far wrong if we keep in mind the lessons of history. In the first place, living in a mechanical age, we are prone to exaggerate the value of machines. Again, lay opinion is chiefly formed by the press, where novelty is always "front page stuff." Erroneous habits of thought also play a part. During the World War, correspondents were not allowed at the extreme front where the actual bludgeoning of war took place. Necessity imposed on them the task of making copy of what the saw; guns and machines, mostly; hence it happened that they put undue emphasis on these elements and so formed in the minds of their readers a habit of reverence for machines.

The romantic literature of the war, now as always, centers on the exploits of heroes. Unthinking people imagine that in the future all machines will be operated by these rare individuals and that the phenomenal results attained by the few will be duplicated by the many. In sport we have Sande, Tilden, and Jones, whose exceptional capabilities we admit and admire. Yet, in war we fondly imagine whole armies of Sergeant Yorks and Guynemers. Popular antipathy to unhappy endings induces writers to have their heroes "live happily ever after," whereas, in fact, only too many citations for valor end, "For this act he was awarded a Medal of Honor, posthumous."

The use of gas as a weapon is abhorred by most civilized nations. Those who in future first resort to it may well find themselves condemned by public opinion. In short, it is against the rules. But, will such rules, such scraps of paper, deter belligerents? We fear not. When two highly paid athletes contend for honors in the squared circle they too are bound by rules; so much so in fact that of late rules have proven more potent than blows. War is not a contest with gloves. It is resorted to only when laws (which are rules) have failed. If some adversary gasses us, we can under the rules, gas him. Hence, it is not brutal, but merely intelligent, to investigate the probable future military effects of gas.

What are we to expect? Casualties, certainly; destruction, no. Gas is no more devastating to the prepared soldier than were stones to the shield guarded barbarian. It is a powerful and effective weapon, but the day of it's omnipotence and the day of it's birth were one. The gruesome pictures of whole populations writhing in their last agonies amidst the fumes of an all destroying vapor, are "bunk."

Setting aside the chemical difficulties and mechanical complications inherent to such an act, we have a much stronger and simpler reason for this conclusion. For centuries all wounded and such unwounded prisoners as were valueless as slaves had their throats cut. No one was shocked; it was the custom. Finally, it occurred to some altruistic and thoughtful soldier that while the practice was excellent so long as he was the victor, it had it's drawbacks in the not unlikely event of his being the vanquished. The notion of humane treatment for the foe was born. Years of use sanctified the idea; it became the custom. Yet, the horrid thought pops up that help for the helpless sprang from love of ourselves, not of others; from fear of retaliation. The same situation effects the noisome idea of gassing noncombatants. It is contrary to our developed sensibilities, it will produce retaliations; it is not a safe method of war.

Shortly after the Spanish War Colonel T. R. Roosevelt wrote a book called "The War in Cuba." Mr. Dooley, in discoursing on it said, "I have but one suggestion to offer the Colonel. He should have called his book, "Alone in Cuba."

The same remark might justly be applied to those who now proclaim that the airplane should be the sole means of waging future wars. They think that they will be alone in the air. So far as a major contest is concerned, this notion is absurd. The enemy will be there, too, and it will be a case of dog eat dog. When planes attacked us in France, we hid and prayed; now we shoot back and with an ever increasing effect. There is an old saying in the army that no pursuit is so hot as that of an unresisting foe. When the foe fights back, ardor slackens. Have you ever notice the fervent manner in which a terrier chases a cat until the cat turns? Then how often he remembers that he has an immediate engagement elsewhere.

Air attacks will be numerous and bloody; such is the nature of combat. They will be no more conclusive than are the independent attacks of any of the other arms. As for bombing raids against cities, London still stands, and the inevitability of reprisals will tend to reduce still more this messy business. The airplane is here to stay. It is a great arm, but it has no more replaced all others than did gunpowder.

That fecund mother, Necessity, who at Troy produced the wooden horse, begot of the machine gun that horse's modern prototype, the tank; an identical twin to all of her preceding military offspring; the counter to the latest form of defense.

At first the tank, despite innumerable ills of childhood, enhanced in this case by premature birth, was a success. It was a surprise. As it waxed stronger it still prevailed, to a degree, due to it's inherent worth. It has been likened to an armored knight. The first emblem of our tank corps was such a warrior. The similarity is too apt. So long as the knight combined movement with invulnerability he prospered. When he sacrificed mobility for protection, he passed on.

In the World War, infantry with their machine guns were impotent against tanks. Only direct hits by artillery, bad going, and above all, engine trouble, stopped tanks. Now every arm has it's quota of antitank weapons which are quite effective. The terror of surprise is gone. In a major war, tanks will fight tanks. A land Trafalgar will be brief, bloody, and pyrrhic in it's results.

By land and sea it is the same old story of guns and armor. We shall always have battleships, and we shall always have tanks and land destroyers, too, in the form of armored cars. Also we shall have losses. Utopia is not yet. The tank is vastly potent and rigorously limited; it is not and never has been a life insurance policy for tank gunners and drivers. It has no more the power to replace the other arms than had the long bow.

General Forrest said, "War means fighting and fighting means killing." When that grim time comes again, remember that all arms are potent, none is paramount.

We are always well aware that our efforts to prove the fallibility of weapons as a key to victory are wasted on students of history. Unfortunately, the lure of the bizarre tends to make mankind as a whole disregard it's teachings. Nor is this a phenomenon confined only to things military. When sages point to the sublime inevitability of the cycles of history in morals, politics, dress, and so on, they are told, "True for you, but things have changed. We have the radio now and women vote." Similarly in matters military when we point to the endless cycle of holds and blocks we are told, "That was all true in the days of Napoleon, but now we have gas, tanks, airplanes, or what will you."

So far as we know, few, if any, victories are traceable to weapons.

Caeser destroyed the poorly armed Gauls and he did the same to the armed Legions of Pompeii.

In 1866, Prussia defeated the less well armed Austrians; in 1870, she destroyed the better armed French.

Advertisements to the contrary notwithstanding, Big Business does not owe it's bigness to a filing system (a business weapon).

Already in this article we have made use of part of Napoleon's magnificent definition of genius. Here it is in full. He says, "Genius is the ability to utilize all the means at hand for the accomplishment of the end sought."

The thought applies equally to weapons. We must use them all. To us it seems that those persons who would scrap the old and rely only on the new are on a mental parity with the poor man who pawns his shirt and trousers to buy an overcoat, only to find that it is burdensome in summer and not wholly satisfying even in January. Wars are fought with men, not weapons. It is the spirit of the men who fight, and the spirit of the men who lead, which gains the victory. In biblical times this spirit was ascribed, probably rightly, to the Lord. It was the Spirit of the Lord, courage, which came mightily upon Samson at Lehi that gained the victory. It was not the jawbone of an ass.