From the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
A TV documentary series, "The Century," with Peter Jennings, shown recently in Britain on the History Channel, reviewed some of the most significant aspects of the 20th century. One segment, on the development of the atom bomb, made a point well worth stopping to think about.
Late in the Second World War, the generals and the politicians made a tactical decision with chilling implications: they switched from striking at military targets (without regard for the "collateral damage" this might inflict on civilians) to the deliberate, premeditated mass murder of civilian populations. They were able to make this switch, which they did quietly and without fanfare, because TNT-based weapons technology—delivery vehicles included—had evolved so rapidly under the lash of war. As one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project put it, with the atom bomb the government's interest shifted from simply making a new weapon for winning the war to making a new weapon. Having gained the ability to manufacture and deploy large numbers of bombs quickly and efficiently, the government began to go in for destroying not merely military targets but the economic infrastructure on which weapons manufacture and deployment was based—indifferent to the fact that this meant targeting ordinary non-combatant populations for annihilation.
Winning the war was the justifying obsession where TNT bomb technology was concerned. But the interest in developing a weapon of unprecedented destructive capabilities—initially by the scientists themselves, so horrified by the Nazi war machine, who proposed it as a "humane" alternative to a war of incredibly vast destruction—set up a drive to test it under battlefield conditions. If you could use something so powerful, why should you not use it? The generals and the politicians had become so blunted to the emotional impact of directing a process of mass murder that the human implications of this radically new tactical emphasis escaped them: some involved in the Project reported having "misgivings," but their vacillations were easily neutralized.
Only Leo Szilard actively went on the offensive, campaigning against the new weapon as an error of judgment on the part of the scientists; but the government, having accepted the initiative of the scientists, wrapped in its humanitarian rationale, stonily turned them out when they did protest. Truman, along with his generals, was already moving so fast that it was quite impossible for the protesters to catch up with them, and the decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima raced arrogantly ahead on the assumption that what the protesters had to say regarding policy did not matter politically or militarily. And very few of them turned against the Project or their connections with the government's war effort. Edward Teller, in fact, even went on to invent that great pseudo-scientific monstrosity, the hydrogen bomb, "800 times more powerful than the atomic bomb" which had so appalled its own creators.
The only possible use weapons of such numerically huge destructive ability could have was to terroristically murder (or threaten to murder) enormous numbers of people—still, of course, on a military justification. The convenient tactical switch of emphasis had become a strategy expressing the highest degree of insanity. All of it had become possible because the process of technological development had gotten so thoroughly socialized that the designers and users of bomb technology could almost innocently devise weapons of mass destruction entirely in the absence of exposure to the latter's effects. In ancient times, generals and politicians practising the "art" of war had had firsthand experience of its impact; turning the human imagination to inventing better weapons, evil though it was, at least registered a direct, emotional sense of awareness. The monsters who clawed their way to the top in Imperial Rome nevertheless retained some basic sense of humanity in their behavior, if only because it was still not yet technologically possible to go off the deep end.
With the Second World War, however, the separation between warmakers and civilians had become a sort of proscenium arch made of steel, complete with war rooms and theatres of combat. Emotionally, the warmakers showed that ruling classes had finally lost the ability to relate to the effects of their own efforts. Since almost no wars in history have ever been decided on by the people who were called on to fight them, this represented a radical step forward in the emotional implosion lived daily by warring élites: their peculiar occupational hazard. These élites could no longer relate humanly and emotionally to their targets. With the Manhattan Project, war stopped being hell for those who decided to have a war fought by other people, to whom they gave orders; with the result that the outcome of global thermonuclear war would at last show the world there really was a Hell after all: the planet Earth. The blunting emotional impact of mass murder had finally attained schizophrenic proportions in the minds of the warmakers.
Thus, the capitalist class of today, corrupted as they are by this emotional sickness, have acquired an absolute and terrible decision-making power that autocrats and emperors could once only have dreamed of even as the relative numbers of the warmakers among them have dwindled to extraordinarily tiny proportions. Capitalist intelligence has entered a world that no longer recognises its own origins in human intelligence, with which human beings are naturally endowed to promote the survival of our species. But the capitalist class will only recognise those fragments of that larger intelligence as long as these support their power or promise to extend their advantage. Since capitalists in general all have this warmaking sickness that only "breaks out" in the highest circles, where it assumes such forms as the military-industrial complex, we humans down here below can expect to find no security in their adopting responsible policies on warmaking.
War is the problem, and capitalism promotes—encourages—the situations that result in war. We do not need capitalism, but we do need to protect ourselves from their unsanitary habits by bringing the world back into line with ordinary human emotions. The only solution to war is a system of society that people control, one in which élites cannot appear. The only way to lay the foundations for this is to eliminate the twin contagions of capital and wage labor, on which the whole structure of capitalist élitism has come to rest.