Of Guns and Grotius

By Kellman, Barry | Journal of National Security Law & Policy, September 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Of Guns and Grotius


Kellman, Barry, Journal of National Security Law & Policy


INTRODUCTION What is law's responsibility when a new technology transforms the conduct and consequences of war? Does law have responsibility for war at all? If so, then it would seem important to understand the wellsprings of the law that asserts responsibility for war. This was especially vital to European legal theorists during the emergence of explosive weapons warfare.

War, for all its horror, remained essentially unchanged for a very long time up through the Middle Ages. Arguably, the last true breakthrough in warfare had been the invention of the bow. Before that, weapons were for pounding or piercing within the length of the human arm. By harnessing the power of a bent shaftand taut string, the bow transformed warfare. But that was at least twenty thousand years ago.1 In the meantime, countless empires killed countless people with myriad capabilities for pounding and piercing each other. Yes, there were innovations: the catapult was one of the biggest, but it was, in terms of design and use, just a very big bow.2

If Sargon, Ramses, Alexander, Caesar, and a crowd of other ancient tyrants were magically transported centuries into the future to witness Swiss rebels fighting against their Habsburg overlords in the Battle of Laupen (1339), they would have readily understood the battle waging before them. Alexander would have recognized the 19-foot iron-tipped pikes that the Swiss wielded - they were a virtual copy of the sarissa that was standard issue to his Macedonian troops.3 Caesar would have appreciated how troops lined up in tactical formations resembling a Hellenistic phalanx. Certainly there had been progress. The tyrants would have been impressed that improved metallurgy had enabled far sturdier yet lighter and more flexible armor that adorned even the Habsburg steeds. They would have likely ignored the seldom used tubes, called gonnes, that propelled shot with very impressive penetrating force - it took forever to load just the right amount of black powder and pellet, and aiming the tube was difficult especially if you wanted to avoid getting your head blown off. These tyrants had surely seen fads on the battlefield. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

How different their impression would have been just over a century later when the impregnable walls of Constantinople, having stood for a thousand years, crumbled in two months in the face of Turkish big gonnes. Suddenly, fortresses could be destroyed from a distance. The entire operation of warfare, which had stayed essentially constant for thousands of years, would in a few decades be transformed. The terrible tyrants of the past would be awestruck at the force that Charles VIII of France led into Italy 1494. Large by medieval standards and constantly escalating thereafter, the force was organized into various capacities for gunfire, assault, and artillery, with a supply train to carry all the necessary equipment - altogether a stunning manifestation of military execution. In battle, combatants were far from each other, using some explosive weapons that could crumble walls and other weapons that killed whole groups of men at a distance. Another accomplishment that these terrible generals might have admired would have been the massive industrial capacity that had produced all these weapons.

A telling difference between this new warfare and its historical antecedents would have been the escalating death toll. It was only the beginning.War's most lethal and most destructive centuries, by far, comprise the explosive weapons era - dated here as the five centuries between the Fall of Constantinople/end of the Hundred Years' War (1453-1454) and the detonation of nuclear weapons that ended World War II (1945). Certainly in Europe and likely worldwide (in part due to European colonialism), more people died from organized violence during the explosive weapons era than in any period in human history. "The transition from mechanical- to chemical-powered warfare was one of the major watersheds in man's history. …

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