War Stars: The Superweapon & the American Imagination

With sufficient indoctrination it’s possible to convince otherwise sane individuals to endorse the most heinous of crimes as legitimate. Much of American history is defined by such a commitment to power. Often the criminal nature of these acts are concealed by a culture of institutional silence. A current example of this can be found in the casual, and in one instance humorous, treatment of a US drone bombing of a wedding convoy in Yemen. 15 civilians were brutally murdered in this attack. Writing for Tom Dispatch journalist Tom Englehardt commented that we “might imagine that such a traffic jam of death and destruction would at least merit some longer-term attention, thought, analysis, or discussion … but with the rarest of exceptions, it’s nowhere to be found, right, left, or center, in Washington or Topeka, in everyday conversation or think-tank speak.” Under the Obama administration unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as predator drones, have assumed the role of the new superweapon. Unlike the murderous ground wars that the Bush administration launched, drone strikes, it is argued, surgically eliminate “terrorists,” while minimizing civilian death. Putting aside the fact that the US has no legal right to bomb Yemen–the US did not receive UNSC authorization–this is a patently false argument as illustrated by the estimated 3000 people killed (416-951 civilians) by drones in Pakistan’s “tribal belt” since 2004. Valuable insight can be gained in understanding how this culture of violence was formed in H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination.

Beginning with advent of Robert Fulton’s Nautilus submarine and ending with the weaponization of space, Franklin explores how the development of US weapons of war coincided with a thriving culture of popular fiction and film, all characterized by what he called “the cult of the superweapon.” Under the “cult of the superweapon,” there was “a fusion of the ideology of emerging industrial capitalism, marked by its faith in mechanistic, teleological progress, with the ‘improvement’ of weapons as the means to achieve the goals of this ideology–for the individual, the nation, and the human species.” American technological, economic, and cultural imperialism exemplified the purest expression of this far-reaching ideology.

In Jack London’s fictional narrative The Unparalleled Invasion (1910) the ideology is honored when the United States carries out a genocide against China via a campaign of bacteriological warfare or as London coldly described it “the great task,” of “the sanitation of China.” Fictional works of this kind were not uncommon in American society which was at this period in history possessed by the fear of the “Yellow Peril.” Twenty eight years prior to London’s genocidal publication Chinese immigration was banned in the US through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Residue of this culture of racism persists to this day, most recently expressed in a late night television segment where a young child, perhaps innocently, suggested that the US deal with its national debt by “killing everyone in China.” Few in the educated classes would interpret this outburst as a consequence of Jack London’s legacy or the jingoistic culture he inhabited yet the similarities are not trivial to anyone who takes the intellectual task of self-interrogation seriously.

Accompanying these deeply disturbing facts regarding the proliferation of racist and genocidal fiction, was a considerably more grotesque escalation in the methods of warfare used against colonized populations. Italy was the first nation-state to use aerial bombing as a method of warfare in their destruction of Tripoli in 1911. Though it was understood that deliberate attacks on civilian populations violated the 1907 Hague Conventions exceptions were made when the victims of the aerial bombings were people of color. “… The [Hague] restrictions were designed to govern warfare among ‘civilized’ nations, not their campaigns against non-white colonial subjects or would-be subjects.” This principle of only bombing people of color carries a great deal of meaning in the context of US history given that all the aerial bombings that have ever occurred on US soil have been against Black people namely the 1921 bombing of a Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma (“between 150 and 200 black people, mostly women and children, along with 50 white invaders lost their lives”) and the 1985 bombing of the MOVE Organization in Philadelphia.

Doubtless, the most violent period in the history of aerial bombing occurred during the Second World War when the US carried out the policy of “strategic bombing.” Nothing was “strategic” about these bombing raids which mobilized Boeing Superfortresses to destroy densely populated Japanese cities. American General Billy Mitchell was the pioneer of this indiscriminate form of bombing. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the horrific US bombings during the Second World War, and succeeding wars, conformed quite neatly to Italian General Giulio Douhet’s “Fascist model of air war.” Under the fascist model of bombing, which was first practiced in the bombing of Guernica, Barcelona and Madrid, “air war is glorified as the perfection of sudden, total terror aimed primarily at the civilian population and leading, if practiced without compromise, to swift, sure, and complete victory.” In this context, the spontaneous destruction inflicted by drone strikes stand out as a quintessential contemporary example of aerial warfare under Douhet’s fascist model. As President Obama tastelessly joked at a black-tie dinner some years ago “Jonas brothers, I’ve got two words for you … predator drones. You’ll never see it coming.”

Of all the significant contributions of Franklin’s study maybe the most consequential is his commentary on nuclear weapons and the horrors they will inflict on the world unless alternative policies of international relations are championed with the aggressiveness and dedication needed in an age where the extermination of the human species has transcended the realm of science fiction novels. Quite apart from conventional Cold War narratives, Franklin exposes how the US, from the earliest stages of the post-war period, has consistently blocked any meaningful progress in the domain of nuclear non-proliferation. Following the rubric of “strategic deterrence” the US carried out policies to stimulate the arms race. In 1949, two months after the Soviet Union tested its first atom bomb, the US carried out what Franklin called “the most deadly escalation in the arms race,” namely the decision to “begin full-scale development of what was then known as the ‘Super,’ the thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, based on fusion.” These bombs carried “an explosive force equivalent to over three thousand Hiroshima sized atomic bombs,” enough to “threaten the extermination of the human species.” Added to this escalation was the fact that “the fusion bomb –by radically reducing the weight and exponentially increasing the destructiveness of warheads –also finally made nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) feasible ,” thus “[increasing] the likelihood of a holocaust beginning through error and escalating beyond human control.” Well into the 1980s, after a mass-based nuclear “freeze” movement had emerged, the Reagan administration continued to march the world toward the precipice most notably in his 1986 declaration that “the United States would no longer abide by the SALT II limitations [with the Soviet Union],” and his decision the following year to “gut the Anti-Ballistic Missile accord upon which the whole structure of SALT rested.”

Considering these inconvenient facts, one would hardly know whether to laugh or cry when presented with serious reports about Iran constituting the primary threat to the “international community” and world peace. A mere four days ago, on December 17th, the US test-launched a nuclear capable ICBM. Fortunately, for the elites in Washington the intellectual class was disciplined enough not to report this test, perhaps because they were aware that it would disturb the narrative of deceitful “mullahs” who must be watched over in case they are harboring any violent fantasies about destroying their paternalistic overlords. Writing for Truthout David Krieger described the scene: “… Under cover of darkness, the Air Force launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was a test of a nuclear-capable missile. Despite the claims of the Air Force, such tests do not make us safer or more secure – only more terrifying to others.” If there’s any lesson to be taken away from the unfolding of the “American imagination,” engagingly portrayed in Franklin’s study it’s precisely this, that the terrifying instruments of violence and war not only represent a wholly inadequate and immoral method of dealing with others but, if left unchecked by democratic forces, will likely signal the death of anything deserving to be called a civilization. In 1913 H.G. Wells published his critique of the emerging cult of the superweapon The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. In this novel he criticizes those who “did not see the atomic bomb until it burst in their fumbling hands,” and continued to “[fool around] with the paraphernalia and pretensions of war.” Wells’ critique is more urgent today then it was when he first wrote it and unless his challenge is revived and acted upon we will most likely be delivered to the same grim fate as his literary characters.



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