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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, How the Pentagon Snatched Innovation From the Jaws of Defeat

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In the early 1950s, my father ran a gas station on Governors Island, a military base in New York harbor. In those years, it would be my only encounter with the suburbs. And there, for maybe a dime on any Saturday afternoon, I could join the kids from military families at the local movie house for the usual Westerns or war movies preceded by either a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon space adventure serial. Those films were old even then, but the future still looked remarkably new to me. They were my introduction to space and the wonders of the weaponry to someday be wielded there, including disintegrator pistols, flash rays, and other techno-advances in death and destruction.

Though such serials, if you see them today, couldn't look campier, they seemed to me then like promises of a future almost beyond imagining. And we, the children of the 1950s, were being promised much, including, for instance, that we would all someday have our own individual jetpacks to travel the skyways of the great spired cities of the future. (Imagine traffic jams in the clouds, as I did then!) And in the 1960s, of course, many of us were prepared to join Captain James T. Kirk on the deck of the starship USS Enterprise and imagine "boldly going where no man has gone before" among the many alien races of the United Federation of Planets and beyond. The crew of that spacecraft, too, wielded or faced a remarkable range of weaponry in the 23rd century, including phasers, lasers, plasma cannons, and even Ferengi energy whips.

Aside from Star Trek-like "communicators" (think smartphones), the actual future, the one most of us are living in at the moment, has been something of a letdown by comparison. Its grim wonders include: thousand-year rain storms instead of jet-pack traffic jams, and one not particularly spired city that recently went almost completely underwater without any of the charm of Atlantis. But don't think that somewhere out there people who, in their own youth, were influenced by Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk, and undoubtedly the Star Wars movies haven't been trying to do something about this. Take historian Alfred McCoy's word for it, they have -- and they've had techno-weapons, including space-based ones, endlessly on their minds. At least since the 1960s, the Pentagon has, in fact, been pouring taxpayer dollars into the planning and testing of Buck Rogers-style techno-weapons and the possibility of bringing space war and all its "wonders" to planet Earth.

We're talking about the same outfit that successfully developed robotic killers, the global assassins that now patrol the skies of the Greater Middle East daily, killing terrorists, insurgents, and plenty of civilians in the bargain (and so acting as a brilliant recruiting tool for just those insurgencies and terror groups). In his new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, just published this week, McCoy takes us on a grim and gripping tour of the present state of the Pentagon's wonder weaponry and its plans for a future that will take us far beyond today's one-way drone wars into a world in which the United States may look ever less like Buck Rogers or Captain Kirk and ever more like some of those malign aliens they confronted. Tom

The Pentagon's New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion
Or Buck Rogers in the 21st Century
By Alfred W. McCoy

[This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy's new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.]

Not quite a century ago, on January 7, 1929, newspaper readers across America were captivated by a brand-new comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It offered the country its first images of space-age death rays, atomic explosions, and inter-planetary travel.

"I was twenty years old," World War I veteran Anthony "Buck" Rogers told readers in the very first strip, "surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh... when suddenly... gas knocked me out. But I didn't die. The peculiar gas... preserved me in suspended animation. Finally, another shifting of strata admitted fresh air and I revived."

Staggering out of that mine, he finds himself in the 25th century surrounded by flying warriors shooting ray guns at each other. A Mongol spaceship overhead promptly spots him on its "television view plate" and fires its "disintegrator ray" at him. He's saved from certain death by a flying woman warrior named Wilma who explains to him how this all came to be.

(Image by Roland N. Anderson Collection)   Details   DMCA

Mongol airships fire disintegrator rays to destroy America.
(Buck Rodgers, 2429 A.D., 2-9-1929, Roland N. Anderson Collection)

"Many years ago," she says, "the Mongol Reds from the Gobi Desert conquered Asia from their great airships held aloft by gravity Repellor Rays. They destroyed Europe, then turned toward peace-loving America." As their disintegrator beams boiled the oceans, annihilated the U.S. Navy, and demolished Washington, D.C. in just three hours, "government ceased to exist, and mobs, reduced to savagery, fought their way out of the cities to scatter and hide in the country. It was the death of a nation." While the Mongols rebuilt 15 cities as centers of "super scientific magnificence" under their evil emperor, Americans led "hunted lives in the forests" until their "undying flame of freedom" led them to recapture "lost science" and "once more strike for freedom."

After a year of such cartoons filled with the worst of early-twentieth-century Asian stereotypes, just as Wilma is clinging to the airship of the Mongol Viceroy as it speeds across the Pacific, a mysterious metallic orb appears high in the sky and fires death rays, sending the Mongol ship "hissing into the sea." With her anti-gravity "inertron" belt, the intrepid Wilma dives safely into the waves only to have a giant metal arm shoot out from the mysterious orb and pull her on board to reveal -- "Horrors! What strange beings!" -- Martians!

(Image by Roland N. Anderson Collection)   Details   DMCA

Space Warrior Wilma is pulled from the Pacific into a Martian space orb.
(Buck Rodgers, 2430 A.D., 2-27-1930, Roland N. Anderson Collection)

With that strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century moved from Earth-bound combat against racialized Asians into space wars against monsters from other planets that, over the next 70 years, would take the strip into comic books, radio broadcasts, feature films, television serials, video games, and the country's collective conscious. It would offer defining visions of space warfare for generations of Americans.

Back in the 21st Century

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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