US soldier in the desert during the military operation turning to nuclear explosion mushroom cloud covering his eyes

Book review: ‘Rational Fog – Science and Technology in Modern War’

Image credit: Oleg Zabielin/Dreamstime

While some scientific breakthroughs have helped improve our way of life, others have wreaked havoc that have gone as far as threatening it. But what are the convergences of knowledge and violence? ‘Rational Fog’ provides us with fascinating insight into this.

The violence and bloodshed seen throughout modern warfare would not be as catastrophic if it weren’t for the brilliant minds behind the very inventions that cause it. From guns to chemical weapons and atomic bombs there’s no denying these are genius inventions, but they all hold dire and fatal consequences for those who may be caught in the crossfire.

What does it mean for the scientists who develop such technologies of mass destruction? ‘Rational Fog: Science and Technology in Modern War’ (Harvard University Press, £36.95, ISBN 9780674919181) by M Susan Lindee explores the perplexities in enhancing our scientific and technological capabilities for military purposes. Are we exploiting science for decisions and actions that will only lead to fatalities? Do these scientists and engineers maintain a moral compass in an era of perpetual war?

Many scientists would prefer to distance their work from the fact that their very inventions end up killing people, but they find this difficult and have succumbed to the regularity of war, Lindee stresses. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists that otherwise condemn violence fall into the ‘spirit of militarism’ when war does break out. This is a tough game to be a part of as many scientists and engineers are aware that the moral costs mount alongside creating these technological and scientific advances.

To highlight these issues, Lindee doesn't just focus on a particular science, technology, or even war, instead she explores the relationship between knowledge and violence across a wide historical domain. Lindee explores the rationales behind the use and science of firearms and the uses of trenches, tanks, and chemical weapons during the First World War. She also delves into the production of atomic bombs across several nations and even highlights the emergence of and science behind defence-funded neuroscience and psychiatric projects – an investment in psychological warfare strategies. 

This brilliantly written book illustrates how the ‘fog of war’ goes beyond the front line, highlighting the collaboration between scientists, engineers, and governments alike in the production of such weapon systems. It compels us to consider how science has been developed and then governed by the military, and how such knowledge underlies the deadliness of warfare. She takes us on a journey through the years of modern warfare which constantly reminds us that although the science behind war has achieved incredible inventions and technologies, they have all come at the cost of human life.

Lindee speculates that the integration of scientific knowledge into warfare is a matter of the integral and systemic requirements of the defence state in question rather than a few bad actors. In fact, she argues, modern science was to some extent born militarised: “Not all knowledge was relevant to the state power, but states sought out knowledge that way.” This tells us that such knowledge is already embedded into the DNA of defence states, it’s just a matter of how they intend to use them.

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