Department of English

Spring 2009 Edition

Tragedy in Technology

Erica Wardell
Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Doctor Christensen

The early 20th century proved to be a time of immense progress in both the medical field and in weaponry. Numerous improvements were made, including tetanus and typhoid fever vaccinations, improvements in surgery and new use and development in X-ray technology. Doctors and scientists also reached a new milestone as they improved amputation and the use of prosthetic limbs. New weapons such as grenades, machine guns, flamethrowers, tanks, and poison gas are only a few examples of the weapons which found use in World War I. These advances in medical technology and the improvements in weaponry have greatly contributed to our thriving medical world and the efficiency of our armed forces. The irony, however, appears in the tragic results of these improvements. World War I’s military advances went hand in hand with the atrocious number of soldiers being physically and mentally wounded and killed for their country’s cause, and surprisingly advances in both weaponry and medical technology contributed. Concurrently, when soldiers returned from war, they faced “shell shock,” amputated limbs, and other injuries which alienated them from society and caused them much pain and heartache.

World War I was among the deadliest wars in world history. Between nine and ten million soldiers died in the four and a half year war. An estimated 19.5 million soldiers were wounded between all participating nations (Michael E. Hanlon). Over fifty-five percent of mobilized soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. In Great Britain, over 250,000 suffered total or partial amputation due to combat injuries and the effects of gangrene. Weapons technology takes the blame for the inconceivable amount of injuries, deaths, and mental suffering in the Great War, but the even more heinous tragedy, ironically and unexpectedly, lies in the advancement in medical technology.

Weapons technology had vastly improved prior to the First World War, resulting in chlorine and other poisonous gases, tanks, and several high-powered explosive devices. Similar weaponry had been utilized in other wars, but new technology allowed for sizeable advances in these weapons, which in turn caused more damage than ever previously reported. Complex weapon technology made warfare a more intense and traumatic experience, resulting in many soldiers returning home with physical and psychological damage. Historian John Keegan wholly illustrated the effect of weaponry in World War I when he remarked, I constantly recall the look of disgust that passed over the face of a highly distinguished curator of one of the greatest collections of arms and armour in the world when I casually remarked to him that a common type of debris removed from the flesh of wounded men by surgeons in the gunpowder age was broken bone and teeth from neighbors in the ranks. He had simply never considered what was the effect of the weapons about which he knew so much, as artifacts, on the bodies of the soldiers who used them. (Understanding the Great War) This comment clearly demonstrates how destructive and violent the weapons used in World War I proved to be. Though advances in weaponry helped the Entente Powers win the war and protect their families and countries, awful and violent scenes were no rare experience for soldiers on the front line of duty.

World War I saw the development and exploitation of an especially distressing new weapon called chlorine gas. Chlorine gas was a new technology invented by the Germans, derived from the previously formulated tear gas and other such gases. Chlorine gas is a poisonous gas that enters the lungs and almost immediately starts to destroy the respiratory organs, giving the effect of drowning (Michael Duffy). In the poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by famous war poet Wilfred Owen, the horrific scene of a chlorine gas attack is depicted. He writes,

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, though the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. (lines 9-16)

The event in this poem portrays the awful experience of a soldier in combat watching his fellow comrade suffer an agonizing death due to the effects of poison gas technology. This and countless other accounts have been given that depict terrible scenes soldiers encountered every day on the battlefront. The weapons utilized in the Great War not only proved physically destructive, but they also taxed soldiers mentally. Large quantities of soldiers left combat suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (then called “shell shock”). During World War I, shell shock was believed to be the result of being buried alive or exposed to heavy bombardment, but doctors later disposed of the term, attributing the change to the fact that soldiers who had not even been on the front line developed the same symptoms.

Symptoms ranged anywhere from severe diarrhea to ruthless anxiety. There were stomach cramps, facial tics, nightmares, and even blindness. Most cases seemed to be in some way related to an action taken during combat. Soldiers dreamt, sometimes in mid-conversation, about knifing the enemy or repeatedly shooting the foe. Ernest Joes, president of the British Psych-Analytic Association, commented that soldiers were indulging in behaviors that had previously been deemed cruel or sadistic and there was a state of conflict in the mid, creating neurotic disorders. Men suffering from this mind-controlling disorder, primarily caused by new and technologically advanced weapon use, received no sympathy. While physically broken soldiers received careful and compassionate medical attention, those suffering from broken minds were shunned. Their problems were ignored and while great medical strides took place in amputation and surgery, doctors gave no thought to the mental illnesses that commanded the minds of countless young soldiers. Soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were seen as losing masculinity. The once strong, brave men that handsomely and courageously left for duty were now losing their reputations. One medical officer stated that the patient “must be induced to face his illness in a manly way” (Bourke). Regular men reported for duty expecting to return home as heroes, but according to society, only those who came home “whole” were considered heroes. A large number of soldiers returned “broken,” either mentally or physically, and faced detrimental blows in their appeal to women, employers, and even every day encounters with society. Because of technological advances in weaponry, the lives of these soldiers changed dramatically, in countless cases seeming ruined.

Moreover, for the first time in history, soldiers from all over the world were able to be saved on the battlefield and returned home through improvements in amputation. Amputation became a common practice in the Great War and while it saved men’s lives, it also meant that many soldiers have to face the excruciating consequences of amputation, which were not always limited to physical impairment. Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled” illustrates the experience that numbers of wounded soldiers faced after returning home from war. He remarks,

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark…

Legless, sewn short at elbow…

Some cheered him hoe, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

Only a solemn man who brought him fruits

Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul…

To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes

Passed from him to the strong men that were whole… (line 1, 3, 36-38, 42-43)

This poem describes the experience of a typical wounded soldier returning from duty in World War I. Young men left for battle awaiting the praise and glory that would accompany them when they returned strong, brave, and victorious. Instead they were shunned for having, as Owen describes, “a queer disease” (line 13). Motivation for joining the war derived from the need to prove masculinity and to impress women. Those who did not leave for war were seen as unpatriotic, weak, and effeminate. Unexpectedly, however, the brave men who left for war did not receive the honor and glory constantly advertised by society in general. Like Owen states in his poem, “the women’s eyes/ Passed from to the strong men that were whole.” Rarely before had soldiers returned from war with missing limbs and with such intense psychological damage. This was a new experience and society did not know how to approach it. Medical technology intended to save and prolong lives, instead ruined them in many ways. Instead of helping soldiers through these difficult times, society pushed them away and treated them not as the heroes that they were, but as a “queer disease.”

Although medical technology phenomenally improved in the early 20th century, it came at a heavy price. The death toll in World War I was unfathomable and a shocking number of the soldiers who lived were left wounded physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Society was not ready to race the new challenges that medical and weapons technology would bring to their war veterans. Medical technology in World War I brought new advances that successfully prolonged like, but it returned glory-seeking soldiers home to rejection and disapproval. While the incentives for going to war derived from a search for glory, honor, and masculinity, the consequences incongruously included death, physical, mental, emotional, and psychological distress, and a lifetime of rejection from society.