See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Literal warfare

New book demystifies the shady history of lethal weapons.

Posted By on Wed, 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Jenkins analyzes historical documents ranging from speeches by President Woodrow Wilson to scientific journals to show that the deployment of these weapons was part of an effort to build America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 letters@metrotimes.com.

Tags:

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

More by Patrick Sullivan

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit