That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. (1.1.4)
We're going to spend pretty much the whole book thinking that the Martians are an unstoppable power. (Which to be fair, they are for most of the novel.) Still, it's worth noting that Wells gives us a little hint at the beginning that there's something even better than the Heat-Ray. (Nuclear weapons? No, Wells won't write a story about nuclear weapons until… 1914!) What's even bigger than the Martians is the force of nature, the unstoppable march of time and evolution. That's why when Mars is dying, the Martians are forced to change or die.
The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. (1.1.5)
Whether or not we agree that "life is an incessant struggle," there is something interesting about this notion being shared by both Martians and humans. This isn't quite the same as "might makes right" but it seems pretty close. There's a sense in which life is founded on a test of power, and if you're not as powerful as the next person (or species), then tough luck.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. […] Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (1.1.6)
Through much of the first chapter, Wells kind of calls out his readers. It's like he's saying, "You might say that you believe in charity and mercy (and other nice concepts), but really, look at the things you do." When we read this, we're put in the position of someone who can't really argue. (Even if the bison did make a comeback later.) It's like Wells is setting up power as the basis for life, but that message changes at the end of the novel.
He met a waggoner and tried to make him understand, but the tale he told and his appearance were so wild – his hat had fallen off in the pit – that the man simply drove on. He was equally unsuccessful with the potman who was just unlocking the doors of the public-house by Horsell Bridge. The fellow thought he was a lunatic at large and made an unsuccessful attempt to shut him into the taproom. (1.2.11)
When we think of power in War of the Worlds, we think of the Heat-Ray and Martians beating up humans. But there are also a lot of power issues among humans. For instance, there's this scene in which Ogilvy is trying to find someone to talk to about the Martian cylinder and no one will listen. We could easily phrase that as an issue of power and authority. As far as the waggoner and potman are concerned, Ogilvy doesn't have the power to get their attention.
Such an extraordinary effect in unmanning me it had that I ran weeping silently as a child might do. (1.5.23)
Weakness is the flipside of power, and it's pretty much the exclusive property of humans in this novel. There are at least two scenes of people who can't do anything but cry. Now, we like crying – we're crying right now, which should excuse any typos we make – but when crying is the <em>only</em> thing you can do, well, then you don't really have the power to do anything else. Here, all the narrator can do is run and cry. Later, the artilleryman will similarly find that all he can do is sit and cry (1.11.24).
"It ain't no murder killing beasts like that," said the first speaker. (1.9.15)
In this quote, we see one of the sappers discuss how it's perfectly okay to kill Martians because they are just beasts. How does this relate to power? Well, you can only make these sorts of defining statements when you occupy a position of power (or in this case, think you do). Here, the sapper thinks of the Martians as one of the animals ("beasts") that humans have dominion over.
The ordinary traffic had been stopped, I believe, in order to allow of the passage of troops and guns to Chertsey, and I have heard since that a savage struggle occurred for places in the special trains that were put on at a later hour. (1.12.38)
Once again, we see the power struggle between people. There is the "savage struggle" between people trying to get onto the trains, but there's another use of power that we should recognize: the government is able to interrupt the ordinary traffic and put through their own troops. Of course, it's not like the government consists of some alien monsters that have this power. This government is (more or less) democratically elected. Their power over the people derives from the people themselves. It's kind of a weird situation. When you're in a community (like a country), you give up some of your power so that you have a more powerful force help you.
The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede – a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind. (1.17.1)
In one of his patented big picture overviews of the situation, the narrator makes a direct comparison between the mass of people who have no power and the armies that used to terrorize large parts of the world. So why doesn't this huge mass of British people have the same power that a smaller group of Goths and Huns had? Are the British powerless simply because they don't have the right technology? Are they powerless because they have no rules and order?
"Aren't you satisfied it <em>is</em> up with humanity? I am. We're down; we're beat." (2.7.28)
The artilleryman (who else would be "satisfied" – meaning that he's both certain that this is true and that he's quite content about it) is very willing to admit that people have no more power in this situation. Curiously enough, he's also one of the most optimistic characters we meet during this invasion. Why is he so happy to give up? Well, we find out later that he's lazy, so there's that. We might also notice that, as just another soldier, he didn't profit so much from the old way of life. He had to follow orders because he had no power. What he plans for the future now is a world where he has <em>all</em> the power.
He had swept it out of existence, as it seemed, without any provocation, as a boy might crush an ant hill, in the mere wantonness of power. (2.9.3)
This is interesting. Why did this one Martian destroy Leatherhead, a little town that wasn't going to help the humans win the war? That's where the idea of the "wantonness of power" comes into play. ("Wantonness" is never good. It means unnecessarily cruel or overblown.) When the Martians have all the power, they might say just what the sapper said a few quotes ago: there's nothing really wrong with killing humans because they're not really important.