What happens when our military machines are not only unmanned but autonomous?by AC Grayling / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
On Wednesday 25th October 1854, the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers and 8th and 11th Hussars combined to create a cavalry unit known as the Light Brigade. Led by James Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, they undertook an action so disastrous that it entered the annals of heroism and—courtesy of Alfred Tennyson—poetry. A series of mistakes made the Light Brigade, with the earl galloping at its head, charge the length of a valley directly into the mouths of more than 50 cannon and 20 battalions of Russian infantry. It is a part of the Crimean War just as memorable as Florence Nightingale walking the wards of Scutari Hospital, shedding the beams of her lamp into the painful nights.
The Light Brigade was shot to pieces; there were 278 dead, missing and wounded; 335 horses were killed; only 195 men survived with their mounts—less than half the force. Cardigan, who miraculously survived despite galloping the length of the “Valley of Death” in both directions, hacking at Russian troops as he went, afterwards took himself aboard his yacht in Balaclava harbour and had a champagne dinner.
Marshal Pierre Bosquet, a French commander who witnessed the action, famously remarked, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.”
This incident offers a number of startling contrasts 163 years on, over a century and a half in which war has continually evolved. Back then, in the mid-19th century, a group of lords, pursuing the traditional aristocratic occupation of war-making, were leading men born to the plough, the sheepfold and the forge—or, increasingly, the factory—into the mouths of cannon.
In 1914, the British Army was still divided on class grounds between officers and men. But the First World War was not a galloping war: weapons had changed, and machine guns and cavalry did not mix. Tanks were introduced late on in that conflict, but their full impact on the battlefield was only felt in the Second World War, where their mobility shaped battles in the Western Desert and on the Eastern Front, and—of course—their speed enabled the Wehrmacht’s initial Blitzkrieg.