War - what is it good for?

Armed conflict has led to mankind's greatest medical and scientific advances, argues Michael White
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Look around you. Where are you? On a train, perhaps? In an airliner? In your living-room? Wherever you may be, you are surrounded by the accoutrements of the 21st century - machines, cars, TVs, aircraft guidance systems, satellites. In your pockets you may have a mobile phone and a palmtop, in your stomach an antibiotic tablet. All are linked. Each has evolved from a common source. So have you. You are a child of technology, a child of war.

"War," the medical historian Professor Roy Porter wrote, "is often good for medicine. It gives the medical profession ample opportunities to develop its skills and hone its practices." This could be broadened enormously to encompass many other disciplines and technologies.

The horror of military conflict is ever with us. Our aggression is linked, psychologists suppose, with creative energy. It is the evil twin born from the same seed as our creative urge, the urge that motivates us to learn, to explore. But, through the ages, the many sufferings on the battlefield have serendipitously given rise to much that benefits the civilian.

The acceleration of technology through the impetus of war can happen in different ways. A discovery may stem from a single, inspired idea prompted by a random occurrence in battle. Another route begins with a piece of open research which attracts the attention of the military. The result is used by the military, later to find its way into civilian life.

One example is research under way at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. For some time now, chemists have offered a technique called Lasik (laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis), by which the ophthalmologist remodels the surface of the cornea to counteract simple aberrations in vision. Moorfields is working with a more advanced version and investigating the potential of implants that boost the "normal" visual range. These techniques may become useful also to produce "super vision", of a clarity far better than anyone has yet had. This work has obvious potential for military application, and the Ministry of Defence has been quick to pour money into the project. In return they will expect to have first pickings. Later, a version of the work will evolve into civilian research programmes.

Such feedback systems provide the backbone for a vast array of developments dubbed "dual-use technologies". In the US, this symbiosis is dominated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), established in 1958 as a direct response to the launch of Sputnik I. Its remit is to develop embryonic technologies that could be useful to the Defense Department, and it has been remarkably successful.

Darpa has been responsible for a stunning array of advances. Its most famous contribution is the internet, designed for the Pentagon, which wanted a communication network that could survive a nuclear war. Today, Darpa is developing a spectrum of ideas including new forms of computers, cybernetic sensors for use in android devices, high-resolution plasma screens for jet fighters, and nanotechnology.

Perhaps the earliest recorded example of military patronage comes from the 3rd century BC when, after entering a competition funded by his government, Archimedes designed a revolutionary catapult, used to devastating effect at the Battle of Syracuse in 265BC. Meanwhile, far from Greece, Chinese alchemists of the Han Dynasty labouring to satisfy the demands of their military leaders stumbled upon gunpowder.

Military patronage has saved nations from defeat, perhaps only temporarily. In 1915, the German government realised the country was rapidly using up its reserves of ammonia, essential to the manufacture of high explosives. They turned to science. Fritz Haber had devised a way of synthesising ammonia, albeit in very small quantities. The German government diverted funding into developing his system. By the end of the war, all German explosives were being made using his technique. Some say this prolonged the First World War by at least a year.

Now, ammonia is an essential component of fertilisers, powerful detergents and refrigerants. It is still synthesised using Haber's method and the fertilisers help grow the crops that feed hundreds of millions.

Yet this isn't the most profound example of military patronage. This honour goes to two projects from the middle of the 20th century. The atomic bomb and the space race were enormously expensive enterprises. It is no exaggeration to say that the technological gains from these endeavours changed the world. The knowledge accumulated by the team of scientists working to build the first atomic bomb gave us atomic power, lasers, fibre optics, mini-computers - a cornucopia of developments that underpin 21st-century life.

From the space race have come communication satellites, global networks, weather monitoring systems, resource-seeking satellites, medical breakthroughs, new drugs, new smart materials, digital technology, miniaturisation; the list is vast and impressive.

Scientific progress does not derive solely from military impetus, yet a military imperative is often a factor, and a formidable force. In the eyes of politicians and military leaders, there will always be a new enemy, a new reason to develop weapons, medicines, transport systems and communication networks. From these have come, and will continue to come, new modes of war. But happily, humanity has gained and will continue to gain things that are precious. Good as well as evil may flow from the darkest recesses of the human soul.

This is an edited extract from 'The Fruits of War: How Military Conflict Accelerates Technology' by Michael White, pub- lished by Simon & Schuster (£16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £15.99 (inc p&p) call 08700 798 897