Science and warfare

Today, 4th August, marks 100 years from the start of the First World War. It seems appropriate, therefore, to offer a reflection on the relationship between science and war.

It is often said that science is morally neutral. It is only the uses to which the products of science are put that are good or evil. But what happens when scientists are drafted into a nation's war effort?

Medicine has always been a part of warfare, as war has always generated a need to care for sick and injured soldiers. But the First World War marks the first use of modern science, as we understand it, as a deliberate part of the war effort. In his paper, Chemical warfare and medical response during World War I*, Gerard J Fitzgerald describes WWI as 'the chemists' war'. World War I was the first war in which chemical weapons, specifically developed to be deployed on the battlefield, were used. If the First World War was the chemists' war, perhaps it is fair to say that the Second World War was the physicists' war, with both sides working to be the first to develop atomic weapons. So can the intentional development of such destructive weapons really be considered to be 'morally-neutral science'? Undoubtedely, much of the research that led to the possibility of developing chemical and nuclear weapons was morally neutral - scientists conducting research for no reason other than to advance human knowledge or to find ways to improve industrial processes. Those working on wartime weapons projects might well have considered the work they were doing to be morally good - working for the defence of their nation and people, and/or developing something that would shorten the duration of the war, and thus reduce the loss of human life overall. Others, of course, would see such weapons, capable as they are of mass and indescriminate killing, as evil.

Within Christian ethics, questions about what is and is not morally acceptable within war are addressed by the just war tradition. Just war principles state that, once war has begun, those involved have a duty to use force proportionately (that is, only as much as is required to respond to the threat faced), to limit the damage done, and to protect civilian populations from harm. Whether or not the scientific weapons developed and deployed during the two world wars met these criteria can - and is - debated. What is certain, however is that from the beginning of the 20th century, science had become central to western, industrial society, and it remains so today. Inevitably, then, science is likely to continue to play a part in any theatre of war.

Not wanting to conclude on a negaitve, it must be said that the First World War also produced many positive advances in medicine, science and technology. The treatment of injured soldiers led to advancements in orthopaedics, cosmetic and reconstructive surgery (both of which would further advance during the Second World War), and psychiatric care. The first blood bank was created during World War I. The use of aeroplanes in the theatre of war created a need for wireless communication between planes and the ground, and this led to the development of radio systems that helped to enable the growth of commercial aviation. Stainless steel was created during research to find a more durable metal for guns. And, in Germany, the need to treat those suffering from malnutrition led to the use of ultra-violet lights to treat children wtih rickets, and the invention of the vegetarian sausage!


*American Journal of Public Health, 2008; 98(4): 611-625

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