Arms limitation has been a hope of many states and leaders in the modern world, and indeed it may be seen that efforts at controlling the impact of war have largely mirrored the ability of war to impact upon society at large.
Within the Middle Ages the Catholic Church attempted to control not only the spread of war amongst Christians, but the tools with which it was fought; the use of crossbows, for example, was proscribed by the Church. The power of the crossbow and the ease of its use presented a destabilising threat to the societal order of the day and the Church, as the assumed international guardians of society, were alarmed by its potential. Despite the ban in 1139, the crossbow was too powerful a weapon to be ignored and was widely adopted across Europe for use against both heathens and Christians in the wars of the age.
As enlightenment spread in the centuries to follow, weapons control remained rather low on the agenda of most states, but the development of ever more powerful infantry weapons saw some interesting efforts to limit the destructive potential of war. The Puckle Gun, designed in 1718, saw an interesting effort to vary the brutality of its use depending on the beliefs of its target: the gun was to fire regular ammunition against Christians, but square shot for use against Muslim Turks – the potential for appalling damage presented by such ammunition seeming improper to use in civilised circles.
The limited wars of the late Renaissance and Age of Empire have been described as one of the greatest accomplishments of civilisation – by keeping war as a genteel game, with little impact on civilians, the horror of conflict was naturally diminished. When Louis XIV, in many ways the embodiment of this era, was offered the secrets of chemical weapons by an Italian chemist he not only refused but paid the man a pension for the rest of his life on condition that he never release the information. The enlightened despot could ironically be argued to have done much to contain the horrors of war through approaching conflict as a noble enterprise. This era of civilised militarism was shattered by the French Revolution, the ‘nation in arms’ that evolved in France had brought war onto a new scale; with armies of hundreds of thousands that could rely on the support of millions. The defeat of Napoleon was unable to put this genie back into its bottle, for whilst the crown heads of Europe may have hoped for a return to the past the new ways of war had been unleashed – and those who failed to grasp them would be doomed in future conflict.
In 1899 Tsar Nicholas the Second invited world leaders to join him in The Hague to discuss the commencement of a unified effort to curtail the huge expenditure on weapons across the globe. In the 84 years since the fall of Napoleon there had been a period of uneasy peace, but Europe was embroiled in an arms race that many could already see would end in a more apocalyptic war than any could yet imagine. The Hague Conference was spoken of as a means to avert disaster, ye for all the talk of progress it would be easy to interpret the Tsars actions as shrewd pragmatism; despite its impressive size and resources, Russia was a technological backwater – and the Tsar did not have the means to compete on an even footing with his European rivals; a halt in military development would have served Russia well.
Regardless of motivation, however, the Tsar’s proposals would have done much to prevent developing technologies and many of his prohibitions were indeed ratified. The use of unnecessarily destructive bullets, for example, saw the banning of such munitions as the Dum Dum bullet developed in India for the British. There had been hopes for greater control; such as the prevention of aerial weapons and the development of new propellants, but therein lay the problem: all proposals were voluntary. This was to foreshadow further issues; the ban on unnecessarily cruel bullets was not signed by the United States, whilst at the talks in 1907 British efforts at naval limitations were ignored by Germany, who was rapidly expanding her fleet in a direct provocation to Britain. The efforts of the Tsar may have been no more than an effort to defend his people, but did present a concerted effort to see warfare brought back under some semblance of control.
The Great War of 1914-1919 put efforts at arms control to the test, and revealed their true fragility. Constraints on the use of noxious gases, the bombing of undefended towns, and the shooting of prisoners were all universally disregarded (the last unofficially by all powers, but universally evident), and the unprecedented brutality of the war shocked all involved. The Vatican made particular efforts to curtail the slaughter and argued for both peace and a reduction in arms. The pope’s prescient arguments that the brutality of the weapons and the efforts at territorial gain would both lead to future conflict fell on deaf ears, and the war raged on to the point of exhaustion.
The experience of the Great War shocked much of Europe into greater efforts at arms control; the League of Nations was founded to arbitrate international disputes, and presented a greater sincerity in its efforts than the Hague Conventions might have done. In addition, efforts at arms control continued – the Washington Naval treaty presents the greatest example; as it banned the creation of large warships. It would become apparent, however, that these efforts had a fatal flaw – as with the Hague Conferences no thought was given to the enforcement of measures. Flagrant violations of the treaties were met with words, not action, as well-intentioned states refused to risk the lives of their citizens to combat those who held their efforts in low regard. The disastrous consequences of a failure to take immediate action were writ in the blood of the victims of the next world war.
The irony of each effort at arms control is that it is worthless without powerful military support – this is a paradox that even in the modern world we have yet to surmount. The United Nations demands consensus before action can be taken, and its most decisive action – the Korean War – was only possible as a result of a convenient Soviet abstention. It is easy to blame failures to control the spread of arms on the lack of means of enforcement, but there is a further element of control that receives less attention but is perhaps the more prescient concern – whether or not any of the states involved truly want to reduce their arms.
The moral arguments of the 12th century church of the evils of the crossbow are echoed in the efforts to ban gas and chemical weapons almost 800 years later, and were to ultimately have the same negligible effect on warring nations. When a kingdom found itself in a war for survival, it was only natural to use every weapon available – a military would be failing its people if it refused to use every means at its disposal for victory.
In this idea may be found the greatest barrier to arms control; would a state be willing to face destruction rather than take action to defend itself? This dilemma is easy to face in peacetime, but rather more difficult in war – the only example of such an action being taken that I am aware of is Hitler’s refusal to allow the use of Nazi Germany’s battlefield chemical weapons at the end of the Second World War, for reasons known only to himself the release of these ‘Weapons of Despair’ was never permitted.
The imminent threat of a large-scale war prompted the Hague Conventions, and the shock of the World Wars led to much effort to prevent future conflict in their aftermath, but in the wars themselves, the rules were different. The Vatican, as a neutral state, could well afford to demand peace, but the combatant states were trapped in a life-or-death struggle and bent every fibre of their beings to the annihilation of their enemies in order to attain victory. Efforts to prevent the use of weapons could well be seen as a cunning ploy for a weaker state to hamstring their enemy, and the hopes of good-will at a negotiating table presented a far less attractive means of gaining peace than the obliteration of threatening armies.
In the hot blood of total war, all weapons may be seen as necessary, even those that would assure the deaths of millions. In this is the greatest obstacle to arms control, and one that may yet be insurmountable; rational discussion of the morality of weapons is a luxury only afforded to those in times of peace. When the threat of near-instantaneous obliteration appeared to states after the Second World War, any hopes at learning from that conflict were set aside as states rushed to develop their means to defend themselves.
The Cold War represented this all-too-human trait in microcosm; weapons were developed in every theatre to give even the most infinitesimal of advantage in a war that would have lasted less than a week if developed. Central to planning in most instances was the use of gas, nerve agents, and nuclear weapons of every size. For each of the potential belligerents the possible war was one in which every life of the nation was at risk – so every tool was seen as necessary. The eventual thaw saw weapons such as cluster bombs and mines be banned internationally, to universal acclaim, but it is worthy of note that such a ban was only seen as acceptable once these weapons were no longer necessary tools of national survival.
War between major powers has only been prevented in the last 72 years by the spread of the most powerful weapons mankind has ever developed – the use of nuclear weapons has been debated endlessly since their initial deployment, and threatened on more occasions than might have been prudent. Nonetheless, these weapons have effectively deterred any major conflict and for that we may be grateful. The nuclear arsenals of the major powers contributed to a longer period of arms build-up than had ever been seen before, but in so doing they also ensured that in this instance the posturing would not spill over into war. The nuclear arms race was also to provide the peace enforcement that previous efforts at arms control lacked; the weapons that nuclear states relied upon as a means to defend themselves in case of attack also prevented the chance of such an attack to begin with, and by deterring large-scale war also removed the necessity for the development of the weapons of large-scale war. In the paradoxical fashion of human development, it took the creation and proliferation of the most apocalyptic weapons in human history to finally allow for concrete efforts to enforce arms control.