During the 20th century, wars became progressively more cruel and lethal. From the use of chemical weapons in trench combat during World War I, to the use of nuclear weapons in the final days of World War II, to the “ethnic cleansings” in the Balkans, the last 100 years witnessed some of the most brutal armed conflicts waged by mankind.
The History Channel’s documentary, The Century of Warfare, offers 26 50-minute episodes, composed entirely of archival footage. From the outbreak of World War I to the recent 1990s Balkans conflict, the series’ narrator (British actor Robert Powell) describes the major battles that ravaged our world and took millions of lives.
The Century of Warfare
Regular airtime: Not Rated
US: 24 Jun 2003
These wars not only shaped geographical boundaries, but also influenced political ideologies and cultural products. Unfortunately, in The Century of Warfare, the broader effects take a backseat to the generals. Most of the conflicts appear as a series of events promoted by a handful of persons (typically, the ideological roots of Nazism are completely overlooked in favor of a focus on Hitler). Similarly, the human suffering and large-scale destruction produced by these brutal wars are often trivialized or ignored. But none of it is trivial. The series illustrates that, for the last 100 years, a conflict has raged in some part of the world every single day.
In The Century of Warfare, great men modify history through technology. Each conflict is characterized by the weapons used, and each shows how war has promoted scientific and engineering research. The first chapter, “The Violent Century,” directly addresses the importance of technology in warfare, without condemning the scientists and engineers who designed the weapons used to support the war efforts. The creation of combat airplanes at the beginning of World War I meant that armies were no longer restricted to small regions, allowing the strategic bombardment of cities. Even more dramatic is the case of nuclear weapons: during the Cold War, the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” was born, meaning that the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed by trying to maintain the most up-to-date nuclear arsenals.
The following six episodes focus on World War I, called here as the “first technological war” in human history. After this, 13 episodes are devoted to World War II, and the final six episodes present the many wars that have erupted across the globe since the mid-1940s, from the Cold War to Vietnam and Korea, to African and Latin American civil wars, to the recent ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.
Although all these are clearly different conflicts, The Century of Warfare suggests that the conclusion of each war provides grounds for the next one. The series argues that the wars afflicting our world today are the undesired and unforeseen side effects of previous confrontations. By the last episode of the series, one is left wondering whether, even with a global commitment to peace, there will ever be an end to warfare.
Consider the transition between the two World Wars. With unnerving footage of trenches filled with dead bodies suffocated by chemicals, The Century of Warfare shows how World War I was so atrocious that, when Germany and the Austrian Empire were defeated, the U.S. and most European countries agreed to do whatever was necessary to avoid armed conflicts in the future. This resulted in the birth of the “League of Nations” (precursor of the United Nations) and the enforcement of the “Treaty of Versailles” (to restrict Germany’s military power). Because of these efforts, World War I was heralded as “the war that ended all wars.”
Ironically, the desire for peace in Europe was a cause of World War II. Germans saw the Treaty of Versailles as an insult to their pride, and Hitler exploited these nationalistic feelings in his rise to power. Similarly, the conclusion of World War II led to the escalation of tensions between the Soviet Union (a U.S. ally during WWII) and the U.S., which saw Soviet expansionist policies as a threat.
As a consequence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created; its aim was to prevent an invasion from the Soviet controlled Warsaw Pact forces. This ignited the Cold War, which lasted nearly 50 years and played a major role in the development of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Likewise, thousands of Jewish people who survived the Nazi holocaust migrated to Palestine, which greatly increased the religious tensions in the Middle East and led to decades of armed confrontations and terrorist activities. The end of the Cold War in the mid-1980s saw the fall of Soviet Union, which destabilized East European countries and led to the war in the Balkans.
While The Century of Warfare is far from comprehensive, it shows how technology shaped wars during this period, and argues that the major conflicts that afflicted our world were interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect. However, the title seems inaccurate. Barely three years into the new millennium, we have already witnessed the Al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S., the American retaliatory attack against Afghanistan, and the U.S.-U.K. coalition’s “preemptive” invasion of Iraq.