Wars have been fought throughout history. What has determined the outcomes of these wars? One answer is the bravery-or cowardice-of the individual soldier. Another factor that determines the outcomes of these wars is the skill of the commander.
The outcomes of battles and wars, however, have often been decided by the kinds of weapons used by one side or the other. On some occasions, weapons have given an advantage to the attacker. At other times, the advantage has rested with the defensive side.
The first weapons were muscle powered-from rocks or spears thrown from the hands of Cro-Magnon men to swords in the hands of Roman legionnaires to lances and longbows in the hands of medieval knights and archers. Innovative generals added mechanical devices. The ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, for example, put sharp blades on the wheels of their chariots. Many ancient and medieval civilizations used catapults to hurl pieces of rock or metal over city or castle walls.
Animal power augmented human power. For instance, in 217 B.C. Hannibal invaded Italy with elephants. The Romans learned the value of cavalry when fierce Goth invaders on horseback crushed the Roman infantry at Adrianople in A.D. 378.
Horses were effective, however, only in the open field. They were useless against the last line of defense-the wall. Cities became self-contained fortresses when surrounded by high walls. Ramparts allowed defenders to fight from above. The Byzantines, for example, sprayed “Greek fire”-an early form of the burning liquid of the flamethrower-on attackers from the walls of Constantinople and also used it in naval battles.
Gunpowder made war even destructive. Gunpowder first used in the West in about 1320, although it had been invented in China centuries earlier. By 1500 any army worth its salt had muskets and cannons. At first, the cannon seemed to be the ideal offensive weapon. Kings such as Louis XI of France used cannons to destroy the castles of upstart nobles and to help create powerful and centralized national states. But, cannons could also be put to defensive use, such as to destroy attacking armies as easily as they were able to destroy fortifications.
At the start of the 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte used combinations of attacking artillery, infantry, and cavalry with dazzling success. He battered the enemy lines with heavy guns, sent his infantry charging in to break the foe, then crushed the retreating troops with his cavalry.
Later in the 1800s, railroads, though not weapons, became a powerful factor in how war was fought. First used extensively in the American Civil War (1861-1865), fought between the North (Union) and the South (Confederacy), railroads made it possible for reinforcements and supplies to reach battling armies quickly. At the Battle of Bull Run (July 1861), for example, reinforcements brought by rail enabled the Confederates to turn defeat into victory.
The American Civil War was one of the first great conflicts fought in the Industrial Age. Factories mass-produced guns, bullets, and other necessary goods such as uniforms, shoes, and blankets. The Union’s greater industrial capacity was an important factor in its 1865 victory.
World War I was directed by generals who at first tried to imitate Napoleon. There were long artillery barrages to soften up the enemy, followed by mass infantry charges. However, the machine gun, combined with barbed wire barriers and trenches, gave the advantage to the defenders. Huge infantry attacks resulted in Huge infantry attacks resulted in unprecedented slaughter. World War I ended only when one side collapsed from exhaustion.
World War II (1939-1945) brought a shift back to the offensive. Using large numbers of tanks and airplanes, Hitler’s German war machine quickly crushed Poland (September 1939) and France (May-June 1940). The tide of war turned against Germany not so much because of new defenses against the tank and the plane, although radar did help. The Allies won the war in large part because they were able to produce more offensive firepower than the Germans. Against such force, the Axis Powers were doomed.
World War II in the Pacific ended with the use of the most fearsome weapon ever developed-the atomic bomb. In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For a few years, only the United States had the atomic bomb. Today a number of other nations have also developed nuclear arms.
The existence of nuclear weapons throughout the world is an unsettling development. Their destructive power would seem to give the ultimate advantage to the attacking side. Yet, as history since 1945 has shown us, nuclear weapons have become the ultimate defense by deterring either side from attacking. By their potential to kill, these weapons have helped keep peace.