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The irony of gunpowder

Few inventions have shaped history as powerfully as gunpowder. It significantly altered the human narrative in at least nine significant ways. The most important and enduring of those changes is the triumph of civilization over the “barbarians.” That last term rings discordant in the modern ear, but I use it in the original Greek sense to mean “not Greek” or “not civilized.” Historian Kenneth Chase has represented such people as nomads from “the Arid Zone”— the Eurasian steppe and the North African desert. They were often what anthropologists call pre-state communities, usually governed by tribal or kin relationships. Their containment made possible what sociologist Norbert Elias called The Civilizing Process (1939) and what psychologist Steven Pinker has recently captured in his magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined (2011). The irony, however, is not that gunpowder reduced violence.

Gunpowder existed in China for centuries without having much impact. When it appeared in Europe, however, in the 13th century, it began its slow transformation into an agent of historical change. In the 14th century, Europeans experimented with various powders and guns, seeking to harness the power of this chemical mixture for military purposes. In the 15th century, siege artillery began to systematically destroy the city walls that had harbored civilizations for thousands of years. In the 16th century, small arms appeared on the battlefield to challenge the dominance of the heavily armed and armored mounted knight. In the 17th century, mobile field artillery transformed land battlefields. As guns gained purchase in sieges and on the battlefield, larger changes in war and society followed.

First, powder in guns — the first internal combustion engines — introduced the world to a Chemical or Carbon Age, during which carbon-based fuels transformed everything, from warfare to power-generation, transportation, manufacture, and communication. Second, gunpowder reversed the dominance of fortifications over siege technologies, making states more vulnerable to each other but not to the “barbarians.” Third, gunpowder made missile weapons deadlier than stabbing and hitting weapons, instituting modern war at a distance. Fourth, gunpowder dethroned the mounted knight and elevated the gunner, ending a cavalry cycle going back to the Roman empire and eroding the nobility of the sword, whose eclipse Don Quixote so lamented. Fifth, gunpowder added field artillery to the combined-arms paradigm of infantry and mounted warriors, that had dominated land warfare in the Eurasian Ecumene since the age of the chariot. Sixth, gunpowder replaced the European feudal order with monarchical states and centralized power, hosts for Elias’s “civilizing process.” Seventh, the ammunition consumed by gunpowder weapons transformed the logistics of war, anticipating modern tooth-to-tail ratios of one-to-ten. Eighth, cannons empowered the European side-gunned sailing ship, which projected Western exploration, discovery, conquest, imperialism, and colonialism over 35% of the world’s landmass.

For the greater part of human experience, barbarian forces conquered civilizations. The slow introduction and assimilation of gunpowder and its weapons in the West eventually robbed the barbarians of the existential threat they had posed for millennia. Image: Guns by Paeparadox. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.
Gun hunt shotgun by Paeparadox. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Ninth, and most importantly, gunpowder permanently settled the ten-thousand-year contest between civilization and the barbarians. This ninth and most significant impact of gunpowder is also the most ironic. At least since the inhabitants of Jericho erected walls to protect their city around 8,000 BCE, human populations have been dividing themselves into more or less “civilized” groups. The more civilized communities formed states based on cities and other infrastructure such as roads, harbors, and fortifications. Less civilized communities held onto the life-styles of their ancestors, hunter-gatherers, and pastoralists governed by tribe and kin. The civilized and barbarian communities often bumped into each other, by accident or design, and fought asymmetrically. The barbarians tended to rely on mobility, stealth, and skills developed in hunting and fighting. Soldiers of the state relied on fortification, armor, heavy weapons, and field engineering. Civilizations had the better record over the millennia, only because their fortifications deterred many attacks, halting the barbarians at the gates.

But repeatedly in human experience, barbarian forces conquered civilizations. Germanic tribes conquered Rome. Aryans may have conquered Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley. The Xiongnu defeated Han China in 200 BCE, and the Mongols repeated the achievement more durably in the 13th century. Those same Mongols, still tribally organized, also spread their conquest to the West, controlling at one time the largest land empire the world has ever known. They threatened Europe in the 13th century, but postponed their invasion to return home and elect a new Khan. By the time they returned, Europeans had strengthened their fortifications and begun their adoption of gunpowder, which the Mongols may have brought on their first incursions.

But the slow introduction and assimilation of gunpowder and its weapons in the West eventually robbed the barbarians of the existential threat they had posed for millennia. After the 14th century, the barbarians might challenge Western military forces, they might defeat them in the field from time to time, and they might even adopt gunpowder weapons from the West. But they could not manufacture in quantity the weapons and ammunition that gave Westerners their new military advantage. As Hillaire Belloc put it so pithily during the British imperial adventures in Africa: “Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun and they have not” ( page 42, H.B. and B.T.B., The Modern Traveller).

Even when a Maxim gun fell into the hands of the barbarians, they could not replicate the machine in bulk or produce its ammunition. Without the infrastructure of civilization, the barbarians no longer posed an existential threat to the “developed states.” The American Indians who defeated George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876 probably had more guns than the soldiers they attacked, but none of their own making. Not just gunpowder weapons, but the ability to refine and manufacture them and their ammunition in industrial quantities, allowed the forces of the United States to finally subdue, disarm, and civilize the Native Americans — for better or for worse.

The irony of this historic shift in the world-wide balance of power is that the developed world in the 21st century still faces barbarians at the gates: terrorists, pirates, warlords, and criminals. And the weapons of choice of those barbarians are all based on gunpowder. Be they guns or bombs or explosive vests or “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs), the weapons that continue to empower the barbarians at the gate and in our midst flow from the very technology that immunized civilization against barbarian conquest. Still, the threat of gunpowder abides, 800 years into “the civilizing process.”

Featured image credit: Moscow russia soviet union by Peggy_Marco. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Matt Oaks

    The fact that the Indians were better equipped with weapons as the battled Custer is something that is not well represented. It’s an important fact. Will Hutchison’s book Artifacts of the Battle of Little Bighorn has some very interesting photos and history that make that battle come to life. More so because you can see the things that were used and by whom.

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