Essay on Science and War:
It is a common, though the misplaced, belief that science is responsible for the frequent, highly destructive twentieth-century wars. This century has witnessed two extremely disastrous global wars. Even the debris of the first war had not been cleared when the second broke out. And this war proved more devastating than the first. It was towards the end of this war that America dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki completely effaced the two towns from the world map. Since the twentieth century is also the age when science has attained the highest state of its development, a suspicion naturally creeps into the minds of the people that there is some vital correlation between science and war.
But mankind used to indulge in fighting even when science was in its embryonic stage. Acquisitional instinct was as strong in Alexander’s mind as in Hitler’s. The absence of scientific weapons did not deter. Alexander from setting out on an ambitious program of world conquest. Nor was it the availability of those techniques that spurred Hitler to march his troops into Austria. The two were incorrigible power-maniacs. As long as there exist Alexanders and Hitlers in this world, there will be no end to war. Thus to hold science responsible for war is wholly unjustified.
Science has, of course, brought about a revolutionary change in the technique of war. Our ancestors marched to the battlefield on foot, on horseback, or elephants, and they fought with fists and cudgels; they hurled stones at their enemies. A little later, swords and bows and arrows appeared on the scene. Even these weapons involved the knowledge of scientific principles but this knowledge was direct and empiric. It does not need any insight. But modern war is a highly mechanized affair. We use Migs and Gnats, tanks and submarines, missiles, and anti-aircraft guns. There exist such ingenious methods of killing the enemy as the use of fatal bacilli and poisonous gases.
It was the discovery of gun powder and its effectiveness as a killer along with the use of motorized vehicles that changed the whole complexion of the war. With gun powder came the rifles and the cannon. Jeeps led to amphibians tanks. Since the latter was too strong to be pierced by ordinary bullets, powerful explosives were discovered to destroy them. And since it is impossible to exist when they are raining fire and death, fighting from behind the trenches and pill-boxes was devised.
Bombers and submarines were the next innovations. They are generally unmanned and are operated from a laboratory. Bombers fly at a fantastic speed, rain mighty explosives, and come back. Submarines, almost impossible to detect, prove even more dangerous. Sometimes they can explode an entire fleet. These instruments of war have rendered manpower useless. H. G. Wells once wrote about a war that would be fought with robots. His dream seems to have been realized. Yesterday’s fantasy is today’s reality.
The latest pests introduced by science are atom bombs and other nuclear weapons. They threaten the complete annihilation of this planet. But even the atom bomb is not the end. We now hear of the hydrogen bomb, the cobalt bomb, and the G. gas, which would be a million times more deadly than the existing weapons. In the Second World War, some American scientists were approached to discover gaseous products that wouldn’t kill but make the whole population blind. It was H. G. Wells again who once wrote about an anarchist who wanted to pour the live germs of cholera into the reservoir supplying water to a city and cause the death of thousands of innocent citizens. Even this has been unused in modern war. Battlefields just do not exist now. We kill from laboratories and die in dormitories. It is all a simple push-button-die affair.
It is often argued that war has given a great incentive to scientific advancement, particularly in the sphere of medicine. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. And war creates not only a necessity but urgency. If there exist bombers, there must be invented anti-aircraft guns. The production of an invulnerable tank must lead to the discovery of mightier explosives to smash it. Large-scale use will rapidly consume and exhaust natural resources. This has led to the manufacture of synthetic products. Synthetic yarns are today more popular than natural cotton and silk. For want of external food supplies during the war, some countries are faced with the threat of starvation. This has led them to make efforts to attain self-sufficiency in food. They try to raise the productivity of soil by controlling land temperature, using scientifically prepared fertilizers, by speeding up the maturing process. Scientists have even gone to the extent of producing synthetic food. A large number of soldiers used to be fatally wounded in the war. Their wounds would soon turn skeptic and they would painfully creep to a wretched death. Their pathetic plight made Sir Alexander Fleming work day and night and give to the world the wonder drug- penicillin. This and the subsequently discovered more powerful antibiotics have saved thousands of lives. Replacement of limbs and translation of various organs of the body have also been successfully tried.
Though war stimulates scientific progress, it would be wrong to think that but for war, there would have been no progress at all. War creates urgency but it also creates insecurity. And nothing very creative can be achieved when a scientist’s mind is not at peace with himself. If the scientists had been given peace and the requisites to facilitate work, their achievements would have been even more miraculous, more laudable.
There is another aspect worthy of consideration, too. If science makes war more dangerous, it also acts as a deterrent to war. All the nations are quite aware of the monstrous strength wielded by nuclear weapons. They know that in the event of another nuclear war breaking out, their very existence would be threatened. This dissuades even the most headstrong among the statesmen from declaring hostilities.
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