H-Diplo Review Essay 281 on Lindee.  Rational Fog:  Science and Technology in Modern War

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H-Diplo Review Essay 281

20 October 2020

M. Susan Lindee.  Rational Fog:  Science and Technology in Modern War.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780674919181 (hardcover, $45.00/£36.95/€40.50).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Egle Rindzeviciute, Kingston University London

As you approach the Imperial War Museum in London’s borough of Southwark, you are met by two massive naval guns pointing to the sky, framing the entrance to this treasury of military history.  In Moscow, the entrance to the Museum of Central Armed Forces (MCAF) is surrounded by lush trees, between which an ICBM R-9A points the way to the clouds.  MCAF’s courtyard is crammed with countless gun machines and missiles, many of which for some reason are targeted at the museum’s own walls.  The message cannot be clearer: museums of war are museums of science and technology.  In turn, museums of science and technology store many objects that came into being to empower processes of colonization and the struggle for world power.  For instance, a mock-up of the first Soviet atomic bomb, RDS-1, occupies a central place in the exposition at the Polytechnical Museum in Moscow, while space and satellite technologies proudly occupy the galleries of the Science Museum in London.  There is no doubt: military industry is central and visible in museum artefacts.  However, its presence is mundane and its social effect is imperceptible. It is this combination of the centrality and diffuseness of military industries that is the subject of Susan Lindee’s new book, Rational Fog.

Rational Fog offers the reader a journey through some of the most prominent examples of the ambivalent achievements of human scientific and engineering ingenuity: machines and technical and organic systems of destruction.  Mainly focusing on U.S. examples, it walks one through the long history of modern, industrial warfare to ask the question: can science be trusted to deliver social progress?  The title of the book hints at the two sides of technoscientific progress: “efficiency and reason” on one side, and uncertainty, ambivalence and failure on the other.  The same duality informs Carl von Clausewitz’s idea of war as an attempt at rational action, which is, however, guided by foggy, distorted, and disorienting perceptions.  Lindee casts the history of modern scientific expertise as a process of groping in the fog of war.

The political, social and economic status of military research and development (R&D) is questioned by Lindee, who addresses moral questions about the actual cost of this kind of research, as well as the ethics of its procedures.  Lindee starts by quoting annual R&D budgets for defense, which appear huge in comparison to the funding available for academic social sciences and humanities.  Much academic research is not eligible to this funding because military-oriented research comes with a measure of secrecy which does not agree either with academic values or career structures based on publication and impact.  Military research happens outside public teaching and publication.  Lindee argues that military science and technology are not only a waste of “human ability and talent,” but also an immoral undertaking, a complex knowledge production machine that operates with the sole purpose of inflicting “injury” on humans (12-13). The diffusion of military technology to civil sectors does not completely redeem the damage.  Or, at least, the military spill-over should not make one blind to the origins and costs of technoscientific achievements.  These are the value presuppositions that inspired the study.  In Rational Fog Lindee goes on to offer a set of arguments to bolster her call for opposition to the militarization of technoscience, synthesizing the findings of recent histories of science and technology.

Many historians have written books and articles with the aim of exposing and detailing the destructive potential of technoscience.  The last two decades saw a fabulous array of books examining the epistemological, institutional and cultural elements of the late twentieth-century military industrial complex, ranging from nuclear technology to environmental and atmospheric engineering.  Moreover, the whole field of political and social history began to scrutinize the relation between technoscience, politics, and society as it embraced the so-called cultural and material turns.  Lindee’s book draws much of this work to re-articulate what is a pacifist argument, which is worth restating again, especially in such a lucid and clear manner as is done in Rational Fog.  Indeed, this book will serve as a good reminder for those familiar with the debate and a brilliant introduction for those who have not been converted to the Science and Technology Studies (STS) approach to the study of science in society.Thanks to the clarity of presentation, Rational Fog will certainly invite debates on international comparisons, particularly regarding the configuration of knowledge production in liberal and authoritarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Lindee draws on the work of Joy Rohde and other Cold War historians to show how social scientists were co-opted by the defense industry and dissimulated the military origins of their theories in the second half of the twentieth century (163). This made me think about Soviet social scientists in the 1960s-1970s, when many novel and interesting theories were developed outside universities in military design and research institutes.  It is interesting that in the Soviet Union the links between the academic sector and the military were not stigmatized during the Cold War (unlike links with the KGB, the internal intelligence organ).  While military collaborations were kept secret, they often were a “public secret,” used to confer additional symbolic capital on the individuals and institutions involved.[1]

At the same time, in Western liberal democracies, as Lindee shows, social sciences were particularly “vulnerable to this mixing” of the military and academic research (163).  This vulnerability remains: theoretical approaches are questioned or stigmatized on the basis of their association with military applications. A good case in point is the reception of systems analysis in the humanities, as well as the diverse theories and methods of cybernetics, management, and organization science and sometimes even accounting.  Although the intellectual origins of these epistemological and organizational techniques were diverse and although they could be deployed for different purposes in the military, private, and public sectors, they have been extensively criticized and labelled as forms of neoliberal technocracy and authoritarianism.

Lindee’s book will interest a very broad readership: military technologies are captivating and, as she writes, beautiful.  Military technologies combine the qualities of being grand and enigmatic and, at the same time, docile and extremely destructive.  They are, according to Lindee, “extreme products of human intelligence” (3) as well as part of institutional, social and emotional environments.  In this respect, Lindee suggests, technology should be studied as “forms of evidence” (3) of social and political processes.  Their material objective-ness, their presence in multiple forms, such as in strategy programs, technical designs, and lines of industrial production, constitute material archives of twentieth and twenty-first century societies. The military-industrial complex lends itself to archaeologists of knowledge.  As it leaves its traces, it conceals as much as it reveals.  Lindee, following Peter Galison and Olga Kuchinskaya, argues that military technologies generate “antiepistemology”: alongside visibility and enchantment, they are based on non-transfer of knowledge and carefully cultivated secrecy (16).[2] To demonstrate this, Lindee conducts “an audit” of how science and technology were produced with the aim of inflicting injury, as well as how it emerged through the actual practice of “military violence” in battlefield research (20). Lindee does not stop here, but goes on to ask about the responsibility of sciences that may not be directly involved in the production of injury. She questions technoscience’s power of doing, which could be deployed as an ability to undo (235-236).

The importance of what Lindee describes as “battlefield research” (142) is particularly relevant for this argument.  In its compact but informative parts Rational Fog presents the military research that took place on the battlefield, arguing that World War II was “the anthropologists’ war, and the psychologists’ war, and the physicists’ war, and the engineers’ war” (64).Their research created what Lindee calls “collateral data” (111). Indeed, this kind of military research began during World War I, when physiologists were learning about bodily responses to trauma and chemists experimented with about 3,000 types of chemicals, tested for battlefield use, of which 35 types were deployed in battle. The remaining stock were dumped in the sea (64, 72-74).  As Lindee put it, “human bodily injury in the twentieth century came to constitute a key form of evidence, in both science and politics” (158).  The same applies to injuries to nature.  Lindee references a few histories of physics, cybernetics and computer science which highlight the entanglement of the military-industrial complex and fundamental research, and a curious reader will find further interesting work available, especially the studies published in the last couple of years, such as, for instance, The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War by Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers on physiological research in World War I and Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Hamblin.[3]

Drawing on these vast historiographical resources, Lindee contrasts the volatile and turbulent sites of battlefield research with another type of location, the perceived non-places that were used for nuclear experimentation.  She points to the discourses that underpinned the idea of locating nuclear field laboratories – nuclear test sites and plutonium production plants, such as, for instance, Hanford – in sites that were presented as being fundamentally “isolated” (181). Isolation, however, was a quality that had to be actively produced.  The status of a locality as isolated and therefore suitable for nuclear (self)destruction was achieved by cutting out these localities from wider ecosystems, but also from the long-term future that would be marked with radioactive waste.  This belief in compartmentalization went hand in hand with a belief that the planet was able to absorb all waste (181-184).

As Lindee reviews the invention, making, and deployment of different means of armament, from guns to battleships, from gas to nuclear, or cognitive persuasion techniques, she argues that the making of them was both the result of intelligence and emotion (226-227). The growing industrialization of war transformed not only economic, political and social institutions, but also the emotional make up of science.  In terms of emotions and expression, Lindee argues, scientists were becoming less bohemian and more boring, bureaucratic, as they were integrated as experts in the military-industrial complex.  It would be interesting indeed to know more about whether different regimes of emotions could be linked with different practices of science.  One would expect that different personalities and emotional ranges drove some scientists to do field research on social transformation in Peru, to install a nuclear reactor in the ice caves of Camp Century in Greenland, or to settle down in an American suburb and teach in a campus university. Although military expertise is often related to the traditional and patriarchal values of masculinity and the suppression of emotion, the actual range of emotions in science, one would expect, would be as wide as the fields and methods are diverse.

Rational Fog convinced me that the link between the organization of the epistemology of rational fog, the materialization of “extreme intelligence” in military machinery, and their relationship to gender and the emotions is worth systematic exploration.  This fits well with emerging research in the history of masculinities and the history of the emotions, both of which have been the subject of considerable study in the last twenty years.  The challenges to, and transformations of traditional, patriarchal masculinities evident in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in the fields of the military, policing, and order maintenance, explored in the work of Francis Dodsworth, Matthew McCormack, Susan Broomhall and David Barrie.[4] One aspect of this story is the challenge that technology posed to the role of physical masculinity, for instance, as ironclad battleships and guided missiles. The rise of industrial warfare, as presented by Lindee, was part of the gender revolution too.  It could well be that the military machines that Lindee is criticizing derive much of their symbolic power from their ability to serve as a prosthesis for old-fashioned masculinity.  However, as this machinery is increasingly electronic and complex, it is precise and easy to operate it becomes a problem again, as it can be and has been operated by women.  Ultimately, even military technology makes the traditional male identity irrelevant.  This was shown very clearly by the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich in her study of the role of women in the Red Army during World War II, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985, in English 2018).  [5]

These are just some of the many important themes that are covered in Rational Fog.  Having read this book with pleasure, I was left wondering what constitutes “extreme intelligence”?  Why are we conditioned to perceive military technoscience as extreme?  Is this a cultural convention rather than recognition of an actual threshold for understanding?  I was also wondering about how the Popperian idea of science as organized scepticism can be integrated in the military industrial complex: does the model of integration resemble the organization of strategic research in ideologically constrained authoritarian regimes, as David Holloway proposed, where scientific thought could thrive in archipelagos of critical freedom?[6] I was also wondering about the fog side of industrial war research, as it is somewhat less extensively discussed than rationality.

I would like to finish with a comment on the important precautionary argument advanced by Lindee, that the creation of technoscientific knowledge contains the potential for injury, that knowing how to do it means knowing how to undo it (235-236). This strikes me as somewhat optimistic, if not mechanistic reasoning.  In principle, Lindee is not wrong: if one knows how the economy functions, one could possibly bring it down with the right means.  But we do not know and probably never will.  Economies, societies, and even organisms are not finite, but emerging systems that are evolving in complex ways.  Even man-made technologies work and fail depending on many environmental factors, not all of which can be anticipated with a great deal of certainty.  Some of the worst technological accidents like Chernobyl have demonstrated this.  And the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown that parts of late modern societies are much more resilient and, indeed, social and able to care than it is often thought, despite much research evidence that this is the case.  To be sure, some technological developments could be instrumentalized for warfare or the infliction of violence, for instance as viruses, or environmental engineering.  However, there is some fog there too.  World economies, societies, and ecologies are so interconnected that the task of evaluating the cost-benefits of undoing, as well as its long term impacts, could prove impossible. There are limits to the instrumentalization of technoscience, as well as limits to its significance in social and political contexts.  Sadly, as history shows, politicians are more than capable of undoing many things they do not understand.


Dr. Egle Rindzeviciute is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Kingston University London, the UK.  She is the author of The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World (Cornell University Press, 2016) and the editor of The Struggle for the Long-Term in Transnational Science and Politics: Forging the Future (Routledge, 2015), with Prof. Jenny Andersson.  Dr. Rindzevičiūtė has published articles in such journals as Modern Intellectual History, Slavic Review, The International Journal of Cultural Policy, Current Anthropology and History of Political Economy.  She is member of the editorial board The International Journal of Cultural Policy, the P.I. and director of the AHRC research networking project Nuclear Cultural Heritage: From Knowledge to Practice (2018-2021).


[1] Egle Rindzeviciute, “The Unlikely Revolutionaries: Soviet OR and Systems Analysis,” in The Decisionist Imagination, edited by Nicolas Guilhot and Daniel Bessner (Oxford: Berghnan Press, 2018).

[2] Peter Galison, “Removing Knowledge.” Critical Inquiry 31:1 (2004): 229-243; Olga Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014).

[3] Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers, The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Jacob Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] Francis Dodsworth, The Security Society: History, Patriarchy, Protection (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); David Barrie and Susan Broomhall, eds., A History of Police and Masculinities, 1700-2010 (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War (London: Penguin, 2018).

[6] David Holloway, “Innovation in Science—The Case of Cybernetics in the Soviet Union,” Science Studies 4:4 (1974): 299-337.