Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Problems of the Age: 13: The Reaction of War Weapons on Civil Life

Problems of the Age: 13: The Reaction of War Weapons on Civil Life

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 07, 2010

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.


Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

XIII. – The Reaction of War Weapons on Civil Life

History. – It has sometimes been estimated that the destruction to human life through the invention of gunpowder has been greater in peace than in war. Certain it is that the implements and forces of human destruction which war invents and perfects have always been a striking menace to social life in times of peace.

War engenders a spirit of reckless hatred which manifests itself long after the battle-fields are silent. Men, during wars of long duration, become accustomed to its horrors. They look upon death with a spirit of indifference. Battle-fields become the source of desperation and a reckless despair. The wrongs, the sufferings of war make men often willing to continue its horrors when the struggle has ceased. Often, too, the contest of wars brings about such conditions of unhappiness, of want and misery that men become free-booters and plunderers because, they argue, society is dealing unjustly with them. The present war has developed, to a marvelous state of efficiency, two engines of human destruction with which the world may hereafter be compelled to combat. They are the airplane and the submarine.

Possibilities – It does not require a very vivid imagination to picture what the airplane might do in its lawless course of plundering and human destruction. If the hatred of the battlefield is supplanted by social hatreds, it is not difficult to imagine that an unlawful career by aviators may be developed in such a way as to threaten social destruction. It is already difficult to police the land in the cities and counties of our country. Murders, thefts, and wholesale robberies have been altogether too common in times of peace. Our industrial machinery is a most complicated affair, and it is so highly wrought that any destruction of it or any disturbance even in its workings may cause vast losses to property and great human destruction.

Let us take, for example, from among the vast number of aviators whom we shall train, the few that may become desperate and unscrupulous in the exercise of the powers at their command. It will be conceded that the opportunities of escape from criminal action will find in the airplane the greatest possible aid. Its mechanism has become so perfected that the air craft may be able to carry a considerable load of plunder. In comparison with it, the automobile, which has been used for all sorts of depredations, is insignificant. The great future danger, however, of the aircrafts, will be more in the direction of social warfare. The relations of capital and labor are growing daily more alarming. When it reaches a certain point, it becomes an explosive, and manifests itself in all sorts of violence. Great manufacturing plants and property of all kinds might be suddenly destroyed by dropping bombs from the aerial regions. We are compelled, therefore, to ask ourselves some very serious questions. Shall we be able efficiently to police the upper regions? If not, what protection shall be enjoyed against the dangers that the airplanes have the power to bring about in times of peace?

Coming Events. – It may be said that the suggestions here condemned are mere possibilities. But possibilities usually shape themselves on to a working basis. First men conceive the possibility of some scheme, even though it be malevolent; then conditions arise to make the possible the probable; – the next step is the reality. The old scotch Bard very truthfully and historically says that “coming events cast their shadows before.”

In past ages the world in times of peace has been made to suffer from free-booters whose piracy on the oceans has made man and money their prey in the illegal warfare which they have waged upon the oceans. History records the reign of terror instituted upon the oceans by such characters as Edward England, Fortunatus Wright, and Captain Kidd. These buccaneers were the terror of the Middle Ages. Civilization was advanced, and they were driven from their criminal life, and the seas made safe from their depredations. They ceased only when civilized powers were able, by united effort, to drive them away from their unlawful careers.

The civilized nations have invented a new danger. It will have to be fought in the future as the old dangers were fought and destroyed in the past. We know something, if only a little, of the wonderful advancement of the under-sea boats, and the havoc they have wrought in times of war. They are now so constructed that they are like a modern ship, and have from 800 to 1,000 tons displacement; the largest measure from 213 to 230 feet in length; they are driven by enormous engines of 7,000 and 8,000 horse-power, and carry great 19-1/2-inch torpedoes. If they are made to withstand the attacks made upon them in the war, what a wonderful power they will have for destruction in times of peace!

Illustration. – That one may know that the contemplation of dangers here enumerated is giving rise to serious speculations, I quote somewhat at length from the Calgary Herald, November 10, 1917:

While German submarine commanders are testing and discovering the virtually unlimited possibilities of the U-boat, there are indications that the groundwork is being laid for a period of piracy after the war. Surely, these commanders are glimpsing the ease with which they could prey upon the world’s shipping and make rich hauls in gold and merchandise.

I maintain that it would be very simple for a German submarine commander privately to carry on piracy for a considerable period without knowledge of his government. It must be remembered that the crew on a submarine craft is necessarily very small. That makes but few to share a secret. By appealing to their cupidity and their already well-developed spirit of lawlessness, a submarine commander would have little difficulty in winning over his crew to a scheme to enrich themselves at the expense of the world’s shipping.

Let us say, for example, that a submarine commander learns of the sailing of an American steamship to England with a cargo of gold. How simple it would be for the submarine to attack that ship at some favorable point on the ocean and make a getaway with a large portion of the specie. How could it be possible to trace the pirates? I think you will agree it would be difficult.

Then, again, there are the submarine commanders who will likely break away from their government and boldly enter the game of piracy. For instance, when a U-boat does not return to its government base, officials of the government will likely conjecture that the craft has been lost at sea. The missing U-boat can select a base on some isolated island or coast and operate for a considerable period without discovery. After two or three good hauls the commander and crew could well afford to sink the craft to the bed of the ocean, divide the booty and scatter to far lands and live forever in plenty.

Although these are only conjectures, they are likely to be realized in the near future in a manner that is calculated to jolt civilization. It will be a great boon to the civilized world if American genius in the near future discovers an antidote for the U-boat.

Deadly Gases. – Among other dangerous inventions of the present war, the production of deadly gases for military purposes may be made in times of peace a source of human destruction which the hatreds of the present war are likely to encourage. Where secrecy in crime is required, the poisonous gases may have the most baneful effects. It is easy to imagine that in times of strikes, manufacturing plants may be made wholly useless from the dangers which these gases would create when secretly circulated throughout the buildings. It is the testimony of history that crime has been fostered by means of those devices which war has created. What gases may do is perhaps best explained by Howard J. Allen. Writing for the New York Tribune from Paris, he says, in the issue of that paper of October 7, 1917:

Of all the unspeakable cruelties of this war the gas is probably the most inhuman manifestation. Both sides are using it with growing efficiency. You never know when you are to encounter it in some terrible and heretofore unknown form.

One new wrinkle invented by the Germans is called “mustard gas” by our+ soldiers. While it cannot get behind the mask, it is so strong that it permeates the clothing. Whenever a man’s body becomes moist from perspiration or rain the gas attacks him and burns off his skin.

The British have made a gas the purpose of which is to compel the enemy to remove his mask. It is a powerful emetic gas. It affects the Germans with nausea, so that they cannot keep their mouths covered. If they uncover their faces for six seconds the amount of inhalation is fatal. They die at once, or, as is sometimes the case, twenty-four hours later from heart disease. We are told that the Germans declare the use of this gas unfair on the part of the British. Men laugh when they tell it.”

Revelation. – “Mine indignation is soon to be poured out without measure upon all nations, and this I will do when the cup of their iniquity is full” (Doc. and Cov. 101:11).



  1. What an interesting outlook from a 1917/18 perspective. I have known that from the very beginning the airplane was considered for its military perspective and that one of its earliest uses was during World War I. I had not, however, considered that people’s first impression of the airplane was strictly as a weapon. I wonder what Dr. Tanner would think of President Uchtdorf’s numereous references in conference talks to aviation and airplanes to illustrate gospel principles.

    I am also intrigued by the views Dr. Tanner expressed with the reality of today. Certainly airplanes are used for military purposes and, in the wrong hands, missiles to crash into tall buildings. On the other hand look at the wonderful and beneficial civilian use of the airplane. The use of the submarine has also beneifited science. I don’t know of too many rogue submariners who have become pirates, though. I guess we continue to have concerns about poison gas in the wrong hands.

    I hope I’m not asking an obvious question, but who was Dr. Joseph Tanner and what was his background?

    Comment by Steve C. — October 7, 2010 @ 7:21 am

  2. Steve, there is some background in the comments to the Preface post. He’s probably best known for being the husband of Annie Clark Tanner (author of A Mormon Mother), but that doesn’t exactly define his career, does it? 🙂 Sometime before this series runs too far, I’ll try to write up a compact biography that helps us all understand why his ideas were selected for the priesthood course of study that year.

    And I very much appreciate your noting that there was some grounds beyond paranoid fantasy for his suspicion that war weapons could be turned against a civilian population. I was afraid that was so “out there” that everyone would scoff beyond what is warranted. He may have been overly pessimistic, but not entirely wrong. IMO.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 7, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  3. Being somewhat of a contemporary of Heber J. Grant, Dr. Tanner probably did not survive to see the horrors of WW2 with nuclear weaponry, etc. It would be an interesting exercise to papraphrase his thesis using modern weapons, rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea and terrorist groups. No, it wouldn’t be interesting, it would be sleep-depriving.

    Comment by CurtA — October 7, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  4. The use of airplanes as getaway vehicles seems fanciful 90 years on, but as the “Barefoot Bandit” recently tracked down and captured in the Bahamas, shows, it’s not completely unknown.

    And, I suppose, we could add DB Cooper and Brother Richard F. McCoy to that list, although their use of the airplane wasn’t quite what Bro. Tanner had in mind.

    His concern about rogue use of aircraft by civilians was echoed by concerns during the interwar period about the military use of aircraft against civilian populations. Stanley Baldwin, the British PM, said it most succinctly in a speech in 1932: “The bomber will always get through.”

    He didn’t know then that radar would be invented, or that there weren’t (and wouldn’t be) enough airplanes or bombs in Germany to wipe out England’s cities anyway. Or that nobody, whether English or Iraqi, could be shocked or awed into surrender by an aerial bombing campaign using conventional weapons.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 7, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  5. This was really enlightening. One of Dr. Tanner’s fears seems to be related to labor unrest, and that these weapons would be used by disgruntled workers.

    Some of this I suspect is related to what I suspect was a much higher incidence of violence in the 19th century than our present day. This time frame (1918) is also the high point in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) and union violence was considered by business and government to be a real threat. In reality, it would appear that more union members died as a result of police action or thugs hired to intimidate the unions than the other way around. Certainly there was some sabotage from union members of machinery or business property, but personal violence seems to have tipped against union workers.

    Relatively speaking, I think our society currently may be less subject to personal violence now than at any time during the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century (not counting actual wars, of course).

    Still, an eerily prescient anticipation of modern terrorism, but I don’t think that was Dr. Tanner’s real fear.

    Comment by kevinf — October 7, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  6. Kevinf: I also found his remarks about labor unrest interesting. I couldn’t help but think that part of his concern had to do with events in Russia and the revolution. He’s writing this at a time when the US is going into a Red Scare, so I’d venture to say that that was also on his mind.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 7, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  7. Steve C, good point. I had not thought about that, but then again the anti-labor sentiment was often linked to fears of communism even this early in the 20th century. That was perhaps part of the reasoning that allowed for the violent reaction to union organizing, such as the attack on union workers on the steamship Verona in Everett, WA in 1916. That attack left around a dozen workers dead or missing, and one policeman and one deputized thug (described as “businessman” in the local press at the time) also dead, probably by friendly fire.

    Comment by kevinf — October 7, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

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