As awful events unfold in Israel and Gaza, it’s likely that historians will view Hamas’s surprise attack as analogous to the epic failure of France’s Maginot Line in World War II. Immediately following the surge of terrorists across the border on October 7 came the question: How did it happen, especially given that Israel’s “Iron Wall” on the Gaza border was considered the most technologically advanced barrier in the world and was paired with the similarly high-tech “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense?
Future after-action analyses will likely yield some unexpected answers, but the odds are that one lesson learned will be about what we might call the seduction of technology. The completion of Iron Dome a decade ago was followed by social media videos of successful interceptions of incoming missiles. Adulatory press coverage also followed the completion in 2021 of the $1 billion, 20-foot-high, 40-mile-long Iron Wall along the Israel-Gaza border. It was a marvel of “defense in depth,” combining conventional technology, including a concrete wall that extends a classified depth below the surface to prevent tunneling, and cameras, radars, sensors, and drones. Back in 1940, France’s $3 billion (in today’s money) Maginot Line was also a marvel of technological prowess and “defense in depth.”
Walls have been a fixture of defensive fortification in the Middle East for eons. Indeed, the 10,000-year-old wall of Jericho is “one of the oldest known” fortifications. So military experts are no stranger to the vulnerabilities of either tall or “smart” walls. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that too many in our time were not only distracted by other priorities, both military and civilian, but also lulled into overconfidence by technology.
For years, Israel has been (deservedly) hailed as the “world’s Innovation Nation,” including by its own consulate. Much of the press coverage earlier this year on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence focused on the outsize technological prowess of this small nation. Israel boasts the “largest percentage of scientists and engineers per capita” and myriad world-leading tech companies, from startups to giants. It will be unsurprising if we later learn that overconfidence in technology characterized many policymakers and strategic analysts. This is no knock on the Israelis; we live amid a global pandemic of magical thinking when it comes to technology, not least in the military domain.
In a seminal book, The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300–2050—the title of which speaks to the enduring nature of this subject—authors MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, military historians and veterans of the U.S. armed services, unravel how technology has infused thought processes around warfare, especially in recent decades. Published in 2001, one month before 9/11, the book offered a cautionary conclusion that the “present strategic pause—like the blessed European armed peace from 1871 to 1914—is unlikely to last.”
Knox and Murray quote Clausewitz, as do most military historians, citing a particularly popular aphorism that the “best strategy is always to be very strong.” But this truism, they observe, can lead to a belief that technology can offer a “crushing advantage,” while the reality is that “advantages that produce lasting victory have appeared only rarely in the history of war.” Instead, they note, history shows that “political, social, and economic changes” bring true military revolutions rather than the “predictable, domesticated technological asymmetries.” Knox and Murray note that many who have written about technology revolutions in military affairs have “displayed an astounding lack of historical consciousness.” Technology, they conclude, “seduces all who examine the military past.”
Technology also works a psychological seduction. While it’s the essential engine of economic growth and long-term prosperity, technological progress can engender naïve optimism about the prospects for creating conditions for a kind of permanent peace. In the Internet’s early days, pundits saw it as a force for nearly unadulterated good. A century ago, analysts made similar predictions about the telegraph, a revolution in many ways more consequential than the Internet because it enabled light-speed communication after thousands of years during which information moved no faster than the speed of a horse. Writers of the day were rhapsodic: “It [is] impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all nations of the earth.”
One more example of technological seduction: in the first decade of the twentieth century—a time of technological efflorescence similar to our own—the revolutions in chemistry, electrification, and transportation inspired Norman Angell, a British parliamentarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to wax euphoric that technology-driven globalization would render “great-power conflict obsolete.” More than a few wars followed. Nothing about science and technology promises to end humanity’s capacity for evil-doing and warfare. As historian John Keegan observed, war is “always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself.”
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke coined one the favored maxims of technology forecasters: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While technology can provide decisive advantages in commerce and war, it’s never magic. Instead, awe of technology can lead to a subtle myopia, which becomes obvious only in hindsight. Once the current conflagration in the Middle East is behind us, perhaps luck and sober leadership will bring another “blessed armed peace.” But for now, we’re looking at a test not of technology but of ancient skills of military resolve and, ultimately, statesmanship.
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