A short history of long-distance warfare

Dealing death from a safe distance has been the aim of fighters since the earliest times, James Rogers analyses what it tells us about humanity

A 15th-century manuscript depicts soldiers using crossbows during the Battle of Crecy in 1346

Humans are pretty good at killing. From sharp rocks and blunt clubs to long-distance bombers and remote-controlled robots, the quest to kill in new and ‘improved’ ways has long captivated humanity’s creative capacity. Yet at the heart of these developments is something revealing and rather disturbing.

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With each new epoch of weaponry and warfare has come a separation of the human from the visceral heat of battle, from face-to-face fighting, and from the very act of killing. There are exceptions, of course: in any era of conflict, humans might still find themselves in hand-to-hand combat, but this is most certainly not the norm. Instead, over the longue durée of human history, countless attempts have been made to produce weapons that allow us to become more detached from those we kill.

There is a very prosaic reason for this. We distance ourselves from killing so that we do not incur the risk of being killed ourselves. Some may call this cowardly, yet it is no secret that societies and states have sought to save blood and treasure by protecting their fittest, fastest, most highly trained and brightest young fighters.

If you can kill from a distance, with superior weapons, it negates the need to risk the sacrifice of life. This has been key to survival throughout history. Still, is this the only reason we seek weapons that distance us from the practice of killing? Or is there something less instinctive and more cognitively driven that explains why we choose to develop and then hide behind ever more advanced weapons?

Nataruk: one of the earliest massacres in history

Let’s step back 10,000 years or so, to a time around the end of the last ice age. By the fertile and frequented shores of a lagoon in Kenya, 21 miles west of Lake Turkana, early peoples fished, drank fresh water and, as indicated by fragments of pottery from the area, foraged and stored food. This was a seemingly serene place, but don’t be fooled: according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, this was also the site of the world’s earliest recorded mass killings. Down by the banks of the lagoon, 27 foragers were brutally murdered by a rival group in an attack dubbed the ‘Nataruk Massacre’. The history of this incident tells us a lot about the early human experience with weaponry.

The Cambridge archaeologists found the remains of pregnant women with their hands bound behind their backs, and of children whose bodies were peppered with arrowheads made from jet-black obsidian. They also found evidence of sharp-force trauma caused by spear-like weapons, and male skulls that had been smashed by blunt force, possibly using clubs or rocks.

This was the earliest documented evidence of humanity’s dark side in brutal action. A whole clan of people – a small society, with myths and customs now lost – was annihilated by a ‘superior’ group, certainly one with superior weapons. But why?

It appears that the indiscriminate killing of rivals was an important survival strategy during this period, pitting one clan against the other. Perhaps there was rivalry over land, food or culture. This does not sound unfamiliar to modern ears: wars have been fought over less. And early weapons – spears, arrows and clubs – allowed our human ancestors to commit these ‘crimes against humanity’. Those who had the more advanced weapons, and the preponderance of force, were able to kill off rivals and survive. This lesson was not lost throughout human ‘progression’.

War in the medieval era

Now let’s jump forward to medieval Europe. Picture noble, chivalrous knights high on horseback, decked in chain mail and brandishing swords. Charging valiantly into chaotic, bloody battles, safe from the brutal melee below they thrust down and impale enemy footsoldiers. The training of knights began young. A teenage squire would accompany a knight into battle as a flag bearer or to hold a shield. As the boy got older and was strong enough to hold a heavy, full-length metal sword, he would be given the chance to prove his worth in battle. If he survived, he would be made a knight in his own right.

The crossbow was a great leveller: cheap, easy to use, powerful, accurate

During the era of the crusades, though, a new threat to this noble (often wealthy, and usually Christian) system emerged. The crossbow had been around in China since at least the fifth-century, when Sun Tzu’s The Art of War touched upon the energy bound up in bow and trigger. But in the 12th century the crossbow began to cause concern in Europe. It was likely brought to Britain during the Norman conquest, quickly spreading across Europe to become the weapon of choice for continental armies.

The crossbow was a great leveller: it was cheap, easy to produce, even easier to use and, most importantly, deadly powerful and accurate. This meant that any society, even those outside Europe and deemed uncivilised, could build large armies of crossbow-wielding ‘heathens’ and – for the first time, it seemed – challenge the dominance of highly trained, wealthy (and expensive to replace) elite knights in shining armour. This brought fear to those in power. Such a weapon could not be left unregulated.

As historian Ralph Payne-Gallwey explained, the crossbow was “considered so barbarous” that it was banned by Pope Urban II in 1096 and again by Pope Innocent II during the Catholic Church’s second Lateran Council in 1139. The punishment for using such a weapon “hateful to God and unfit for Christians” was anathema – excommunication by the pope. There is a key, telling caveat here, however: it was acceptable, and even encouraged, for Europeans to deploy the crossbow against those who weren’t European elites (and usually not Christian).

The crossbow would be the ideal weapon for the ‘civilised’ to kill the ‘uncivilised’ at distance. Richard the Lionheart was, for instance, an expert with the weapon, and would take potshots at the ‘ungodly’ for sport. In 1189–91, during the siege of Acre (on the northern Mediterranean coast of what’s now Israel) and while suffering from a fever, the king would “enjoy the pleasure of shooting bolts” at Turks and infidels to cheer him up. His action were sanctioned by the pope and by God because of the race and religion of his targets.

Perhaps, then, Europeans were not so civilised or chivalrous. Indeed, as European nations grew stronger from the 15th century and established themselves at the centre of the self-proclaimed civilised world, it became common for distancing weapons to be used unsparingly against ‘others’, even if those ‘others’ refused to take part in this sanitised, detached form of war. The rise of the modern gun is one example of this.

By the 16th century, more-powerful guns replaced the bow as the most effective distance weapons

When describing guns in the late 16th century, a French solider remarked that they were deployed by those “who would not dare look in the face of those whom they lay low with their wretched bullets”. If we explore the history of firearms – from early handguns to cannons and machine guns – it’s clear that these weapons allowed humans to kill with ever-greater ease and without human-to-human contact. Perhaps this is part of the allure.

Gunpowder and ‘fire lances’ (spears with pyrotechnics attached) have caused fear in battle since their first use in China in the 10th century, allowing armies to terrorise their enemies from distance. These warriors would even tie fireworks and spears to animals – usually oxen – sending them in a panicked flurry towards the enemy in an attempt to strike fear. In the 13th century, trade with Asia along the Silk Roads brought gunpowder into European and Ottoman ranks. Though early weapons using gunpowder were inefficient, dangerous and cumbersome, by the 16th century more-powerful guns were being produced, and they replaced the bow as the most effective distance weapon.

The coming of the gun

Not everyone took kindly to such ‘advances’, however. Societies in Persia and across Islamic north Africa did not welcome the modern guns that came flooding in from the European continent. An example was the Mamluk sultanate, ruling from Cairo from the 13th century. This ancient Islamic society considered guns to be out of step with traditional ideas of a warrior’s honour.

Furusiyya was the Mamluk equivalent of the chivalry and, as historian Shihab Al-Sarraf has written, it put an onus on nobility and skilled training for “close combat” and “the art of war itself”. Killing, if necessary, was to be done face to face and as a last resort. That’s not to say that they didn’t own both guns and cannons, but the Mamluks refrained from using them in battle. According to historian Alexander DeConde, the Mamluks believed the gun to be unfit for use because of the “unchivalrous and immoral character of the weapon”.

There are those who dispute this – who claim that the Mamluks were unprepared and untrained for modern war – but the fact is that in 1517 the Mamluks placed guns and cannons on the battlefield against an invading Ottoman force, yet still did not use them against their foes. There is a lesson here, one that we have seen before.

In time, the inability or moral refusal of the Mamluks to harness superior weapons ultimately led to their downfall. The society that did not use the gun would be annihilated, from distance, by stronger Ottoman forces that did. The victors were those who embraced the disturbingly distant and easy method of killing. Indeed, the Mamluks were just one of many states to suffer defeat during the 16th and 17th century, in part because of their rejection of firearms. The Iranian Safavid dynasty was reluctant to use such weapons, and were defeated in battle by the Ottomans in the 16th century – until they themselves adopted these weapons. And the British and French colonial campaigns in Africa – such as the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, in which the British used the Gatling gun (a proto machine gun) – provide reminders of how guns have been used to wipe out foes en masse and at distance. Yet, when it comes to weaponry, what goes around comes around, and it was not long before the world’s victorious empires would be turning these weapons on each other.

A mid the trenches of the First World War, ‘no man’s land’ was a space between opposing enemies where all humans feared to tread. Some chose to face execution rather than raise their heads above the parapets. ‘Cowardice’ was punishable by firing squad. But what made these armies stop in their tracks and dig into the earth for safety? What made soldiers lose their minds, refuse to fight, and flee the field of battle – even though that act would also mean death for the men involved?

Soldiers aim a Maxim gun during the First World War. The large-scale carnage wreaked by machine guns in this conflict caused world powers to seek more 'civilised' ways of waging war (Print Collector/Getty Images)
Soldiers aim a Maxim gun during the First World War. The large-scale carnage wreaked by machine guns in this conflict caused world powers to seek more ‘civilised’ ways of waging war (Print Collector/Getty Images)

The answers were perched on the lips of trenches, surrounded by sandbags: machine guns. Fast, accurate, and powerful, these were ideal weapons when facing lesser and weaker armed forces. One of the first, invented around 1884, was the Maxim gun, named for its American-British inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim.

With a rate of fire surpassing 500 rounds per minute, it was used to annihilate whole armies during the British and German colonial campaigns. Yet when these empires ultimately met each other on the battlefields of Europe, the machine gun would not be their saviour. Instead, it would cause the deaths of millions of their youngest, fittest and brightest. More than 41 million were killed and wounded in the First World War, including more than 300,000 Americans. And in the postwar era, other rising world powers – especially the US – looked to make war more ‘civilised’, turning to new weapons of ‘morality’, ‘distance’, and ‘sterile precision’ to help make war safer, winnable, ‘better’.

In 1918, the first pilotless aerial attack weapon was developed by the US to reduce the need to risk soldiers on the battlefield

Introduced in 1918, the first pilotless aerial attack weapon was developed by the United States to mitigate the need to put its young soldiers at risk on the battlefield. Often called an early drone or cruise missile, the creators of the Kettering Bug referred to it as an ‘aerial torpedo’. The intention was to provide the US military with a weapon to comply with the ‘Over, not through’ principle that emerged after the First World War. The idea was to bomb enemy factories with pinpoint precision, the hope being that an enemy’s war-making capacity could be destroyed from the air without any human having to face that foe (or its machine guns) on the battlefield.

The ‘Bug’, as it came to be known, was one part of the project to remove the human from war. It was an unmanned device, set on rails, that would speed up along and take off from a ramp. When its engine had gone through a pre-set number of revolutions, the wings would detach and the Bug would plunge to earth “like a bird of prey”. In reality, the short range and unreliability of this futuristic machine made it of very little strategic use, but it marked the start of a search for high-tech solutions to the risks and dilemmas of ground warfare that had been triggered by the destructiveness of the machine gun. Such ambitions continue today within American warfare. The modern robotic drone is simply the latest manifestation of this drive to remove the human from harm’s way and to ‘perfect’ or sanitise warfare.

Modern warfare and death from afar

So, how does this ambition manifest itself in modern warfare? Today, when looking to recruit new drone pilots and sensor operators, the United States Air Force focuses on the perceived virtues and high-tech capabilities of the drone to draw in new blood. Recruits can be as young as 17 years old. Being part of the team that controls a state-of-the-art flying robot is badged as an exciting opportunity, but also a worthy one.

The argument is that drones are ‘better’ than conventional weapons. Not only are they high-tech, futuristic and powerful but – thanks to their pin-point precision missiles, ability to loiter for long periods, and sophisticated video equipment – they can also distinguish between friend and foe on the ground, purportedly killing the ‘bad guys’ and saving the good.

What is important about the drone, of course, is that the pilot and operator are not physically near the conflict they are involved in. They are vital to success, and the drone itself is in the region of combat, yet it does not have a pilot inside. Instead, the drone’s controllers are usually thousands of miles away from the actual ‘battlefield’. At the end of the day they commute home. So they are able to deploy deadly force globally without risking their own lives – one of the unique selling points of the drone. US political and military elites can choose to confront perceived threats around the world without directly risking the lives of young Americans. Nevertheless, not everyone agrees that this form of warfare is of benefit to humanity.

Those of conscience, such as Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, argue that armed drones undermine the moral standards and humanity that American society holds dear. In 2013, Tutu stated in an open letter to the editor of the New York Times that such policies are equivalent to apartheid, emphasising the dehumanising characteristics of the weapons that kill at such distance. Yet the robot campaigns continue apace, allowing one side in a conflict to kill another without any risk or fear of death. Like the arrow and spear or the crossbow and gun, they allow a dominant force to prevail and a weaker enemy to be extinguished – all without having to uncomfortably look an adversary in the eye.

At least 542 lethal drone strikes were launched during the leadership of US president Barack Obama, and drone strikes continued under President Donald Trump, while also being used in new and ever-more-indiscriminate ways. The death toll of non-combatants from US drone strikes is uncertain: official estimates number in the hundreds, and unofficial estimates in the thousands. But this is the point. The aim is to kill at such a distance that we cannot count the number of those we kill, let alone know their names, their beliefs, their intent.

A worrying trend to note about the future of war is that the United States is no longer alone in this practice of remote killing. Not only have at least 18 state actors acquired armed drones, but the use of a drone is now open to anyone with the ability to turn an off-the-shelf quadcopter into an airborne improvised explosive device. As a result, we have entered a new, long-desired epoch of warfare – one in which distancing weapons can take lives without risking that of the aggressor. Think back to the machine gun, though – surely the question we must ask is: will such ‘advances’ come back to haunt those who first promoted their use?

What does all this tell us about humanity, and about war? It is the future that the human race has long been building towards: to kill, yet to never really feel what it is like to take a life. To remove the need for face-to-face combat, the risk of visceral battle, from the killing loop. Throughout history our developments in weapons technologies have allowed us to carry out the exercise of killing in an increasingly detached, sterile and disconnected manner.

This is not to say that killing is ever ‘clean’. For those on the receiving end, it is always heinous and horrific. But it is easier to carry out the act at a distance as we are disconnected from the process. With our enemy at a distance, it also makes it easier for us to dehumanise our foe, to believe racially inspired myths. And it becomes easier to conduct killings that were once only carried out as a last resort and for survival.

James Rogers is assistant professor in war studies at the University of Southern Denmark and visiting research fellow, Yale University. He is on Twitter: @DrJamesRogers

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This content first appeared in issue 15 of BBC World Histories magazine