The Mother of Invention

We are all too familiar with the terrible waste of war: lives cut short, property and lands ruined. But as the United States concludes its “drawdown” in Afghanistan, a report on the disposal of leftover equipment imparts new meaning to the concept.

Due to the prohibitive expense of shipping it all back to the U.S., the military is leaving 12 to 14 million pounds of stuff in that country. Afghanis who looked forward to acquiring a lucrative share of the $7 billion of treadmills, air-conditioning units, armored trucks, mattresses, barbed wire, shipping containers and more, are being bitterly disappointed. For instead of selling these still-useful items, as they are, on the market, the Americans are destroying them first, so that their components aren’t used to make roadside bombs and other weapons. The result: mountains of scrap metal. The “graveyard of empires” has turned into a scrapheap of the Pentagon.

Of course, the immense detritus retains some value; the mangled metal can be melted down for future use. But its value as a symbol of the wastefulness of war is arguably greater than any final market value as scrap.

One could object that the metaphor is misleading — that the American intervention in Afghanistan has not been a waste and that to define it so would be unfair to the over 2,000 U.S. military casualties and untold civilian casualties suffered there since 2001. Even if the outcome is that either the Taliban will have their way, or that with continued U.S. military and economic support the conflict will grind on indefinitely, that does not mean it was for nothing. Even if flourishing American-style democratic institutions are not to be found among the many things we leave behind, it can still be said that much of the country has been preserved — thus far at least — from the ravages of a Taliban takeover.

From a more pragmatic military point of view, Afghanistan has served as a testing ground for weapons technology, notably drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They have since become an integral part of the 21st-century U.S. military, saving the lives of pilots and ground troops in the war on terrorism. (To be sure, the cost in unintended civilian deaths caused by the unmanned planes has plagued their use throughout the war, and the technology has a long way to go before those numbers come down.)

Nor are the technological benefits limited to the military. Drones are already finding myriad civilian applications: in police work, hurricane research, search and rescue, and spraying and monitoring crops. Some say it will revolutionize pizza delivery, too.

Such has been the story of so many modern inventions. The Nobel Prize for Peace was established by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Many say it was to compensate for developing these destructive forces. But dynamite has found constant use in such constructive tasks as mining, digging canals and making roads.

Atoms for Peace was a guilty afterthought to the Manhattan Project, whose primary objective was building an atom bomb before Hitler got one, and then using it to force the Japanese into swift capitulation. Only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki did the idea of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes enter the picture.

Similarly, jet engines, Global Positioning System (GPS), the internet (which we might prefer to do without), walkie-talkies, radar, night vision — all came to us as military innovations.

The invention of the wheel was likely intended for battle vehicles; see Pharaoh’s chariots, or the ancient juggernaut, whose human sacrifices were crushed to death under the wheels of the huge chariots.

The prophet Yeshayah (2:3) foretells the time of Moshiach when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…”

While this might describe the conversion of weapons for death and destruction into gadgets for civilized society, it is hardly an argument for war or cause for celebration —  certainly not what we long for in the coming of Moshiach. It would be far better if all these technologies were developed without the bloody impetus of organized killing; that the mother of invention should not be the necessity of war, but the vision of peace.

The continuation of the passuk explains the intent: “…nation against nation will not raise a sword and they will not learn war anymore.” Not that they will go on making more advanced swords and spears to fashion into more advanced plowshares and pruning hooks, but that they will no longer make those weapons, as Moshiach will judge their disputes and make war unnecessary.

Until then, war remains a terrible waste, whatever the market value of the leftovers.