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Look back to an age of slaughter to see how much has changed

Iraq is still in an uneasy stalemate and the anticipated rate of reconstruction of infrastructure is very slow, despite the early letting of contracts.The present state of prolonged 'asymmetrical'warfare was not the anticipated outcome.Why?

In the 1970s two books were published about the future of war; both were intended to close the gap between old-style Second World War memoirs, and the science fiction threat of nuclear war.

Despite this intention they both featured detailed accounts of complex weapons systems and displayed an apparent indifference to the political will and social order necessary for their use. Needless to say, neither book foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, let alone the two Iraqi wars, but they also failed to notice something far more important - the paralysis that had overtaken the military realm. Obsolete ships and aircraft that remained in service for 30 or 40 years were just one sign.

The military had become little more than a collection of peripheral issues - the production of fighter aircraft as a means of providing employment; the status of women and homosexuals in the service, and so on. During the Cold War all this had taken over from the imperatives of war itself.

No one saw this happening. Edward Luttwak's 1971 Dictionary of Modern War defined armed conflict as 'the use of force between groups that do not belong to the same law-enforcement system'. But he continued to see warfare as 'a permanent manifestation of the social life of nation states'. In the same way, David Langford's 1979 War in 2080: the Future of Military Technology, while straying deep into the science fiction of ecological, interplanetary and interstellar warfare, never doubted that governments would have the power to mobilise entire populations as they had in the past.

The change that has been wrought in our perception of war between the last decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st has been remarkable. Today it has already become clear that the degree of social control developed for the great wars of the 20th century no longer exists. We can see now that the state of military preparedness of the great powers during the era of total war was historically anomalous. Today we could no more go to war as we did in 1914 and 1939 than we could reinstate the slave trade.

Daniel Pick's 1994 War Machine: the Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age is the nearest to a text that explains Afghanistan and illuminates Iraq through the study of the great fear of all industrialisation and mechanisation that spread and grew from the 17th century and continues to be fed to this day.Here, as nowhere else, the American Civil War meets the Great War, and Clausewitz meets Sigmund Freud, in the light of science, energy, industrial production, the organisation of labour, the mechanisation of agriculture, pesticides, food supply and the power of public opinion, too - all harvested and manipulated into an ever-thickening mixture of new fears and ancient dreads to legitimise the demands of total war.

Therein he finds all the carnage of Jutland, Passchendaele, the Eastern Front and Hiroshima laid out in precursive narrative, with battleships, tanks, aircraft, bombs, rockets and every variety of destructive mechanism foreshadowed in fiction and social prophecy.

Indeed, he does it so compellingly that the reader begins to reflect on its contemporary equivalent: the connections popularly made between fox-hunting and murder; vivisection and torture;

meat-eating and cannibalism; pornography and rape. In the age of slaughter, all the mechanisms and practices of modern life were predicated upon military conflict: in our age of disorder, the assailants are no longer in uniform.

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