“The obsession with military technology – from tanks, to atom bombs, to spy-flies – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
There is a scene in the first Iron Man film where a terrorist leader explains that Genghis Kahn was able to dominant huge regions and many people’s through the superior technology of the bow and arrow. The story that the terrorist leader tells seems obvious to us. An army with a better technology easily overpowered opposing armies with less powerful warfare technologies. The Iron Man character is a literal personification of this idea. However, that story may not be accurate, and the way we think about historical wars may overemphasize the role of technological developments in weapons of war.
Harari argues that our technological progress, our introduction of new ways to blow things up, spy on our enemies, and dominate a war, only dates back a few centuries at the most. Today we imagine that global armies and militaries have the most advanced technologies possible (and use military technology to explain phenomena we otherwise cannot), but that doesn’t mean we should apply that same framing to past human conflicts. We look at the incredible power that military technology has today and assume it always been the most advanced area of technological development. We assume that new technologies always lead to more battlefield dominance. However, this is a misappropriation of modern warfare technologies and techniques to the past.
Harari continues, “up to the nineteenth century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of organizational rather than technological changes.” Better ways to organize troops, to manage supply chains and information, and to command groups of people have been more important in war, Harari argues, than the things that armies used to kill each other. Our fascination with technological innovation leaves out the importance of better human organization, which ultimately may be the bigger factor.
I don’t think Harari needed to limit himself to time periods before the nineteenth century when suggesting that human organization outperformed technological improvements in warfare success rates. The Germans lost WWII in part because they were fighting a war with two fronts, and in part because they pushed into Russia during the winter time, and were limited by simple logistical challenges. Many have argued that the Japanese would have lost to the United States in a US ground invasion during the winter if we had not used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Superior technology doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the organizational capabilities to have that technology at the right place at the right time. Perhaps drones and nuclear weapons change this, but I think that strong organization still matters in determining whether those unsurpassable technologies are used in a reasonable and effective manner, though hopefully nuclear weapons will never again be needed in combat. At the end of the day, we like the flashy new tech, but what really drives progress may truly be improved organization – a lesson we can all think about in our daily non-warfare lives.