Literal warfare

New book demystifies the shady history of lethal weapons.

Mar 5, 2003 at 12:00 am
Heard about the latest drinking game? You turn on CNN, set up a bottle of tequila, and take a long pull every time a talking head utters the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." After 10 minutes, everyone is under the table. Great news for binge drinkers, maybe, but those who remain conscious in front of a television will quickly notice a disappointing shallowness to these discussions of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The most burning unanswered question: How did the planet get to the point where a handful of religious fanatics or an unbalanced dictator could conceivably lay hands on weapons that can wipe out whole cities?

Those who suspect that good answers to this question will never appear on CNN will want to take a look at The Final Frontier, an ambitious attempt by University of Cambridge researcher Dominick Jenkins to demystify the hidden history of the most lethal weapons on earth.

It's hard to present Jenkins' complicated thesis without being reductive. Basically, though, he argues that scientific, military, and political elites in the United States used imaginary threats of foreign invasion — starting with the fantastic notion that early-20th-century Germany might cross the Atlantic to bomb New York City — to justify the creation of a series of high-tech horrors, from chemical weapons to nukes.

Jenkins analyzes historical documents ranging from speeches by President Woodrow Wilson to scientific journals to show that the deployment of these weapons was part of an effort to build America into "an imperial republic surpassing Rome." But in seeking global power and protection against imaginary bogey men, the United States uncorked the scientific genie and helped make attacks on our cities a real possibility. Now, Jenkins says, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are being used to justify another expansion of American empire.

Jenkins makes some compelling points, but only the most patient reader will give his argument a full hearing. Why is it that leftist academics who routinely analyze the language of others usually write so badly themselves? The Final Frontier is poorly organized, badly edited, and loaded well past the water line with post-structuralist lit-crit terms — a drinking game hinging on the book's use of the phrase "meta-narrative" would certainly inflict massive alcohol poisoning. The bottom line: If this is the left's best answer to Bush's imperial presidency, the planet's in a lot of trouble.

Patrick Sullivan writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].