Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Terrors and Marvels: How Science and Technology Changed the Character and Outcome of World War II

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Terrors and Marvels: How Science and Technology Changed the Character and Outcome of World War II

Article excerpt

Shachtman, Tom. Terrors and Marvels: How Science and Technology Changed the Character and Outcome of World War II. New York: William Morrow, 2002. 360pp. $26.95

Tom Schachtman's brief history of the influence of science and technology on World War II needs less "gee whiz" and more John McPhee. As in the war itself, the author's strategic decisions are critical to the book's successes and failures. The successes can be quickly acknowledged. The book is well written.

Shachtman shows a good familiarity with the oral histories and memoirs of the most prominent scientists. He is interesting when identifying personalities and providing biographical material to enliven the narrative. He also correctly treats most of the significant scientific-- technical developments of the war: the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum for command and control, navigation, and target acquisition; guidance systems for such ordnance as acoustic torpedoes and proximity-fused shells; nuclear weapons; signals intelligence; jet propulsion; and chemical and biological warfare.

Now I'll drop the other cyclotron. Terrors and Marvels does too little with too much, and it suffers from Shachtman's attempt to be international and chronological. Except for the fact that somehow the Allies "did better science" than the Axis (all those refugees from Nazism certainly helped), the author offers little explanation of how all these Allied wonder weapons, crypto dominance, and radar-sonar devices came about. If Shachtman had written separate chapters on his prize weapons, one would be far the wiser about the scientific and political dimensions ot technological innovation. He is blissfully ignorant of a decade of writing about the process of military-technical innovation in the twentieth century. The book has no compelling theme or interpretive core. Although this reviewer usually grimaces when graduate students invoke such deities as Thomas S. Kuhn and Michel Foucault, this book would have benefited from more theoretical structure. Terrors and Marvels might also have profited from more attention to innovations that did not involve the gallant struggles of Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry to convince knownothing politicians and generals to adopt their latest schemes to win the war. Storytelling conquers all. From the perspective of military logisticians and commanders, innovations in food processing, materials research, automotive engineering, computer technology, synthetics, and chemical explosives were war winners too. …

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