Monday, 22 February 2010

War, Science, Civilisation


While significant, the war’s greatest consequences for knowledge did not lie in practical policies like the Reconstruction Training Scheme but in anxieties about the purpose for university-based knowledge. Knowledge was seen to be the foundation for a civilised ideal in which humanity was bonded by rationality. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, 20th Century wars were each met with shock that civilisation, as Paul Valéry put it, was “mortal”.[1] Revelations of the torture of humans in the name of Nazi medicine were disquieting for the future of science, even though Nazi research was regularly discredited as not “true” science. The Canberra Times, reporting on Nazi science in 1933, implied that genuine science could only function in a democracy.[2] The result of a neglect of true science in Germany, The Argus too-hopefully reported in 1939, would be a reduction in their technological development and military efficiency.[3] In July 1939, in the “hush” before the war started, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that science, rather than violence, created “true living space”, improving the living standards of people and enabling peace. “Give scientists a chance”, he said, contrasting science’s civilising capacity to:

The barbaric method of forcibly imposing one population upon another and of exterminating or subjugating the vanquished is hopelessly inefficient and out of date.[4]

Latour’s contention that science and rationality were deployed in modernity to instate a false peace, based on a world of naturalised commonalities is evident in Churchill’s newspaper article here. Science had established the “common make-up of genes, neurons, muscles, skeletons, ecosystems and evolution which allowed them to be classed in the same humanity” so that every conflict could be positioned as a result of superstition, passion, prejudice and barbarism, antithetical to the civilisation that science’s objective sameness allowed.[5]

Later, in 1953, Winston Churchill, like so many others, reflected on science differently:
These fearful scientific discoveries cast their shadow on every thoughtful mind.[6]
Research to develop an Atomic Bomb had been conducted in several countries in a clear race that would see knowledge win the war. The United States had invested $2 Billion in nuclear research and development. A media release, prepared after the first successful atomic bomb test in New Mexico (but not released until after the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945), shows that the researchers believed that this knowledge, like all true science, would further civilisation:

Mankind’s successful transition to a new age, the Atomic Age, was ushered in July 16, 1945 before the eyes of a tense group of renowned scientists … Mounted on a steel tower, a revolutionary weapon destined to change war as we know it, or which may even be the instrumentality to end all wars, was set off with an impact which signalised man’s most ambitious estimates.[7]

The Atomic Bomb had shown in the most dramatic way possible that knowledge could win a war. Newspapers were still expressing jubilance at the imminent end of the war after the initial bomb (“The attack on Hiroshima was successful beyond all expectations” read The Argus) when the horrible reality of the bomb trickled through.[8] “Japs say all living things Seared to Death,” read another Argus headline on the 9th August, the day of the follow-up bombing of Nagasaki.[9] By September, the Sydney Morning Herald’s war correspondent told Australian readers in graphic detail why “Hiroshima reeks of Death.”[10] Democratic science, it seemed, had not ensured humane civilisation in the way anticipated. Civilisation itself seemed uncertain so that post-war reconstruction required more than practical measures to resume a normal national economy: it required, so many thought, intellectual leaders, including scientists, who would also reconstruct the foundations for humane democracy.


[1] B. Latour, "War of the Worlds: What About Peace?," in The Cultural Studies Reader 3rd Edition, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge, 2007).
[2] Anonymous, "The Making of Peoples," Canberra Times August 2 1933.
[3] Anonymous, "Germany Less Scientific: The Effect of Nazidom," The Argus, 23 October 1939.
[4] Winston Churchill, "The Hush of Europe: Hitler's Chance to Ponder: July Lights and Shadows," Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1939.
[5] Latour, "War of the Worlds: What About Peace?."
[6] Anonymous, "Probabilities of War Pass: Churchill Says Tension Less," Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1953.
[7] War Department Washington D.C., "Media Release, Atomic Bomb Test July 16," in Philip Baxter Papers (Sydney: University of NSW Archives, 1945).
[8] Anonymous, "Ultimatum to Japan Is Expected "Surrender or Be Annihilated"," The Argus, 9 August 1945.
[9] Anonymous, "Japs Say All Living Things Seared to Death," The Argus, 9 August 1945.
[10] Antony Whitlock, "Hiroshima Reeks of Death," Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1945.

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