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They’re Using You to Kill People

Is Scientific Reasoning the Deadliest Weapon Devised by Humankind?

PUBLISHED: December 3, 2020


<i>Rational Fog: Science and Technology in Modern War</i>. By M. Susan Lindee. Harvard UP, 2020. 296pp. HB, $45.Thomas Pynchon found an accommodating symbol in the Aggregat 4 (aka the V-2) rocket, a weapon that could not save the war for the Greater German Reich but became operational soon enough to kill thousands huddled under the throbbing sirens of London. The centerpiece of his 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, was the world’s first supersonic ranged weapon, arriving at its target before its pitched scream. The phenomenal violation of cause and effect signaled the story’s other reversals. An extensive “System,” as Pynchon termed it, built to manage two technoscientific wars of unprecedented butchery began issuing commands back up the chain, enslaving its human controllers. You might say, in a paranoid whisper, that the System had fostered a will of its own, a taste for vicarious survival that it satisfied through a growing mesh of incentives and exigencies in which people helplessly ensnared themselves. For our efforts, it gave us savage gifts, like the rocket, and deadlier toys to come. But as the war concluded, the System assumed control of everything we had ceded to it. For those living under the iron skies of the postwar era, history would no longer be constituted of doers and actors, only objects, tools, and targets.

Pynchon’s rocket was also never just a rocket. The erect havoc-bringer was a totem of our selfsame urges for sex and annihilation. M. Susan Lindee, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, begins her study of technoscientific warfare by observing that the eroticism of modern weaponry has mesmerized the public. The appeal is felt not only in the clumsy phallus of the missile, but in most entries into the “global technical armamentarium.” She remarks, “marketing images of drones and fighter jets’’ depict “gleaming metal surfaces that are almost sexual in their allure, so-called techno-porn.” We have come to see in the carbine, the depleted-uranium round, the M1 Abrams battle tank, what the chauvinist sees in his genitals: an organ of mastery that commands attention to its every nicety. Our war machines seem “to justify their own existence by virtue of how clever and beautiful they are—how ‘sweet’ the technical details and the physical form are.” 

Any weapon’s technical details, the mechanics of its death-dealing, are of course the product of the arcane and fastidious labor of experts—scientists and engineers, usually. Lindee’s plainest ambition in Rational Fog consists in what she calls an “audit” of the key moments in history when science was regrettably appropriated for warfare. Her unflinching examination abrades a naïve picture of science (one, Lindee reminds us, promoted by American institutions during the twentieth century) as “uniquely neutral, universalistic, and benevolent…a calling, not a profession.” The history of militarized science occasionally enlists an unwitting savant, like botanist Arthur Galston, whose work on plant cellulose was used for the development of Agent Orange. But for the most part, the great weapons of the ages were carefully developed by specialists who were well aware of their intended uses. The chlorine and arsenical gases that snaked through the trenches of the First World War (the “Chemists War”) were not possible if not for the acumen of scientists such as Fritz Haber and James Conant. The Aggregat 4 rocket would never have surpassed its countless failures without the aerodynamic wonder-making of the engineers toiling under Wernher von Braun. The drones buzzing lethally over Yemen would never have existed without the curiosity of RCA engineers like Vladimir Zworykin.

What “systems of power” have we used to recruit the “finest minds” to solve the technical problem of obliterating “bodies, minds, cities, and landscapes” at ever greater scale? Lindee developed an eye for spotting the perversions of institutions in her earlier studies of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), an American agency tasked with studying the effects of the atomic bombings of Japan but which acted as an instrument of an ascendant American empire. Expanding on this work, she argues that the universe’s trove of murderous secrets (the knowledge underlying nuclear devices, the aerosolization of toxic chemicals, or homing guidance for missiles, etc.) has been plundered by a vast network of organizations—government agencies, universities, national labs and private contractors—which together form a busy portrait of what a worried Dwight Eisenhower famously called “the military-industrial complex.” 

Lindee’s carefully arranged history depicts the assembly of this politically invulnerable superstructure, whose interests finally seem to achieve independence from the feckless individuals who compose it—a proper Pynchonian System. In a subtle turn, Lindee shows that the rational underpinnings of modern science supplied the cognitive procedures this system was built upon. The mechanistic philosophy that galvanized Enlightenment science conceived of the universe as a titanic orrery, which stimulated thinkers who believed a certain turn-crank rationality could set all of humanity’s concerns to order. Glorious systems, built of simpler systems, would make government, industry, trade, and daily life more efficient and productive. Max Weber famously observed that this way of thinking (“instrumental rationality,” he called it) could not interrogate its originating values and often did not repay them. Humanity could build a global system dedicated to making our means of death and destruction unimaginably effective and lucrative. But nowhere between the gears of war would anyone find the will or reason to stop.

“Modern science,” Lindee tells us, “was to some extent born militarized.” As early as the Renaissance, the fledgling institutions of science were circumscribed by the state and catered, as a matter of organizational survival, to its worst proclivities. Lindee mentions that “Galileo was known best in the Ottoman Empire for his essay on gunnery,” but one also recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s detailed and impractical sketches of organ guns and ballistae most likely used to dazzle his benefactors. The usefulness of scientific expertise to state power remains a major factor in the scientist’s continued prestige and job security. In the twenty-first century, as we hear the academic humanities gasping in the drowning pools of austerity, the physical sciences, bolstered by the patronage of the DoD, DARPA, the NSA, and other agencies, will be the last disciplines put to the water.

The revolutionary technology that blessed the marriage between science and the state was almost certainly the gun. The weapon was probably enabled by the alchemists of ninth-century China, who, seeking immortality, instead discovered that saltpeter, when mixed with sulfur and charcoal, could be refined into an explosive powder or propellant. The prototypes, “fire spears,” were “heavy and awkward and could not send fire very far,” but they heralded the “true gun” fashioned by Chinese gunsmiths around 1200 CE. Guns, along with the bubonic plague, migrated to Europe through trade routes in the early fourteenth century, after which the kingdoms and nascent states of Europe would begin “modifying them aggressively and expanding their styles and uses.” 

At first glance, the early gun would seem to present the technical problem of how to destroy a human body with a high-velocity projectile (for example, a ball, bullet, or shell), which could be resolved through applications of chemistry and straightforward classical mechanics. But Lindee argues that the gun elicited tougher problems from human behavior. “While it might seem as though a gun would ‘naturally’ dictate its own use—as though a gun has an automatic, transparent, proper way of being held, aimed, fired, and understood—this is not what happened.”

The solution would involve the contortion of human bodies and emotions around the proper use of firearms. In sixteenth-century Belgium, military officers like Maurice of Nassau would contemporize the Roman technique of “systematic drills” that would obtain in virtually every state military afterward. Constant drills fused man and gun, artillerists and cannon, into a seamless whole capable of “loading, reloading, and firing under difficult, life-threatening circumstances.”

The project of calibrating these “sociotechnical systems” is made practically infinite by the tendency of ingenious solutions to engender new conundrums. Historians and anthropologists have suggested that at least since the Napoleonic Wars infantry have engaged in “mock firing,” by which riflemen simulated firing but were secretly abstaining for obscure reasons. The evidence for this phenomenon is often indirect (though many soldiers have described such behavior in interviews), but Lindee presents the “remarkable data” found in the meticulous records taken by the Union army after the battle of Gettysburg.

27,574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield…. Of these nearly 90 percent, 24,000 muskets, were loaded with shot when they were recovered. Of these loaded muskets, about half were found to have been loaded more than once. Of these, 6,000 had between three and ten rounds stuffed into the barrel. One weapon had been loaded and not fired twenty-three times.

Ranks of riflemen ideally formed what historian Geoffrey Parker evocatively named the “production line of death.” But the human component of this system introduced negative variables (mock firing only one of them) with emotional and moral dimensions that, again and again, needed to be rationalized. When the nineteenth century’s breech-loaded firearms necessitated wider spacing between riflemen, “military leaders and theorists” began promoting notions of “elan” or “esprit de corps” among the brothers in arms, keeping them closer in heart if not in body.

These efforts had limited effect, but they have obvious analogues with the honor codes of contemporary military regimentation and the valor solemnized by conservative subcultures. These protracted efforts to impress into the psyche the “technical, material, institutional, and emotional systems” around the gun were arguably too successful, at least in the United States, where they have bled over into civilian affairs, making the gun something of a sacred object in American culture.

The rise of what Lindee calls “technoscientific warfare” coincided with a growing propensity to instrumentalize human beings, rationalize the systems of war making, and expand standing armies across the world. The system grew in uneven spurts. New and large armies required consistent supply lines and dependable equipment; by the late eighteenth century, finicky artisanal guns were becoming obsolete. The French military engineer Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval and his allies began introducing “cool rationality” into almost every aspect of gunnery, especially its production.

Engineers with the [French] service were trained in the best European schools of military engineering, with skills in mathematics, technical drawing, and administration. The service also managed military relationships with private French cannon foundries and musket makers, and state-owned workshops. In theory, this group should have been able to realize their vision of rational gun production, a vision that included interchangeable parts and even, to some extent, interchangeable workers.

Mobilization efforts like these aimed to resolve what Lindee describes as the “profound problems of logistics,” but in effect they implicated larger portions of society in the machinery of war. If industrial workers became essential to military production, then they also became legitimate, even necessary targets. Lindee argues, “the logic of mass production was also the logic of total war and eventually the logic of indiscriminate urban bombing.” Almost two centuries after Gribeauval’s innovations, the term civilian “was promoted most assiduously at the very moment that air power made the existence of such a person incoherent.” The term, even as it was incorporated into international law, was one of meek protest.

In the expanding annulus of “rational violence” we find the horror within Rational Fog. A ravenous perfectionism, the course of rationalization sights evermore inefficiencies. New and plentiful armies suffered greater casualties from disease (during the Mexican–American War, disease claimed more lives than battle by a ratio of 110:15), which necessitated new protocols in “battlefield health,” championed by statistically literate figures like Florence Nightingale, who thought of wartime medicine as a challenge in “rational resource management,” Lindee writes. 

And yet a maturing military science would require its facilitators to “build a detailed picture of the human body as a target” (emphasis in original). The obstinance of nation-states during WWII would call for “terror bombing” of cities, which positioned human emotions, particularly those of large metropolitan populations, as strategic and scientific targets. It wasn’t long before human “mental states” were considered “defense resources,” spurring the military’s Cold War interests in behaviorist farces like “brainwashing” and “totalism.” Likewise, the CIA would research ESP, psychokinesis, map dowsing, divination, and other “supernatural and paranormal phenomena.” 

When Lindee’s project reaches the twentieth century, you can sense her feeling the cold hull of some malignant juggernaut, left to its own devices in the neglected corridors of civil function to expand and multiply. She cannot find its edges. It has grown too big, too unwieldy, into something so monstrous one dares not imagine its capacity for destruction.

Military rationalization consummates in the creation of institutions, agencies, and bureaucracies that subordinate the human subject. Many such organizations were formed in the years surrounding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two devices implemented, codenamed Little Boy and Fat Man, each employed profound discoveries in nuclear fission to evaporate tens of thousands of lives in what the Japanese remember as the “unforgettable fire.” These uranium and plutonium weapons, respectively, were also the payoff to an enormous mobilization effort centered around the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), an endeavor comparable in size to the modern US automobile industry. In the end, Lindee writes, the Manhattan Project, as we know it today, involved “thirty-seven institutions. It employed 120,000 people, including twenty of the world’s top thirty-three physicists. Producing the bomb cost $2 billion (almost $32 billion in today’s dollars) and took three-and-a-half years.” 

Human infrastructure of such scale isn’t so easily dismantled once its original purpose has been fulfilled; it invents new rationales for persistence. A recently surrendered Japan was at the mercy of the Allied victors, particularly the rivalrous United States and Soviet Union, whose scientific and military institutions wished to study every effect of the weapons that would define the imminent conflict of the superpowers. The two “experimental cities” became “the focus of significant scientific research by Japanese and US physicists, geneticists, psychologists, botanists, physicians, and other experts,” who now saw “burned and bombed cities and destroyed human bodies [as] crucial scientific sites for the production of new knowledge.” The MED had prepared to “report tracked signs of the bombs’ energy and the physical damage caused by blast, radiation and fire.” Meanwhile, a host of other scientists spent the next few years studying the different aspects of atomic devastation:

Physicists replayed the bombings in the Nevada desert in an effort to calculate radiation dosimetry. Psychologists tracked emotional responses in the survivors. Geneticists looked for biological changes in the next generation, the offspring born to survivors in the decades after the bombings.

These zealous acquisitions started “a technically driven program of knowledge production” that would deepen our understanding of nuclear weaponry. We would learn, among many other things, that the most lethal effects of nuclear devices vary with the yield of the bomb in question. For smaller weapons (around 1 kiloton) the prompt radiation kills the most people farthest away from the detonation. For higher-yield bombs (greater than 100 kilotons) the heat is more lethal than the other effects that the weapon produces.

Such intricate knowledge is assembled in the foreground of broader social and political agendas. Though her analysis often leans on the lumbering giants in her intellectual vicinity (Thomas Kuhn, Daniel Kevles, Jared Diamond), Lindee shares Foucault’s sensitivities to the catalysts of knowledge. She reminds us that human science generally has addressed a tiny fraction of the questions within its purview (some scientists propose “we know only about 5 percent of what could possibly be known in geology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics”). What we do know, then, reflects our priorities. 

Lindee writes that “social trauma” caused by the bombs “was known, seen, and recognized, but US leaders and scientists did not immediately see that trauma as a resource for making new knowledge about the psychological and social impact of trauma.” It fell mostly to Japanese organizations to compile these and other nugatory damages.

Seventeen years after the bombings, US Army psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton reported that during massive foreign assessment programs the Japanese felt like “‘guinea pigs,’ not only because of being studied by research groups (particularly the American research groups)….but more fundamentally because of having been victimized by the first ‘experiment.’” Lindee affirms these impressions by noting that in the formal correspondence of the ABCC “the Japanese mind (unlike the Japanese body) was portrayed as irrelevant” to American experts, who often held the common racist belief that the “Japanese were uniquely stoic.” The researchers were more interested in the Japanese victims’ capacity to “stand in for other populations,” particularly those of the United States.

The irradiated ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arable land for the careerism of the scientists, officers, and apparatchiks who objectified those cities, and careerism is simply an internalization of an institutional logic, a conformity reinforced through esteem and remuneration. This arrangement is designed to align human behavior with the broader interests of organizations, which, in Lindee’s telling, are the prime movers, vying over “credit for ending the war” and the largest bounty of state power that comes with it.

The US Navy naturally stressed the importance of the naval blockade in crippling Japan’s economy. The Army Air Force officials who desired an independent military branch tailored the available data to suggest that the atomic bombs did not contribute nearly as much to ending the war as the bombing campaigns did. Conveniently, this was a major implication in the voluminous literature of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), created by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson in 1944 and described by historian Peter Galison as “the greatest damage-assessment program in history.” The MED, not to be outdone in hyperbole, declared in its 1946 report (described by an otherwise reserved Lindee as “openly propagandistic” and “relentlessly self-congratulatory”) that the atomic bomb was “the greatest scientific achievement in history,” which justified its incredible monetary and human costs.

Lindee’s most illustrative case of institutional tenacity is the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), the new name given to the ABCC in 1975, when it became a joint research institute of the US and Japan, tasked with finding the “mutagenic effects” in the progeny of the survivors of the atomic bombs. The RERF scoured the relevant genomes for half a century, and while rates of certain cancers were heightened in survivors, no such findings were reported in their children: “the genetic effects [remain] undetectable at a statistically significant level.” Apparently futile enterprises like these involved saving “atomic bomb survivor teeth, bloods, and tumors — for what seem at times to have been almost spiritual and philosophical reasons.” The preservation of “precious biosamples” that have little to no therapeutic value for future generations (and distract from more important long-term assessment programs) seems perplexing if we assume RERF was established to improve the welfare of mankind. But Lindee knows to disregard the drab titles and grandiloquent mission statements of organizations (doubly wise for any group related to the US military), and to infer purpose from their behavior. Lindee concludes that RERF was actually established to create a “resource for radiation risk” that had general application beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lindee writes, “The survivors were surrogates for future populations that would be exposed to radiation. As one administrator involved in the studies put it in 1956, they were ‘the most important people living.’” Any findings (including none at all) would be of great value to the US government’s preparations for the nuclear age. The vague purpose of RERF was a function of this profligacy, and it found what seems like immortality (the institute continues research to this day) in the preserved tissue that offered a “chance to study the survivors forever.

We can trivially extend Lindee’s succinct insight into RERF (“both the institution and the data are imagined as endless”) to the other organizations she submits to inquiry. The MED preceded the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, whose functions were partly assumed, in accordance with the act President Carter signed into law in 1977, by the Department of Energy, now a permanent fixture of the federal government. The National Security Act of 1947 established the US Air Force as its own arm of the military; the careerists in the Army Air Forces were guerdoned at last. The USSBS would eventually conclude its operations, but it would also become the scholarly foundation for larger bureaucratic endeavors to disperse the US population through the interstate highway system (rendering the country less vulnerable to bombing campaigns and nuclear weapons).

The conclusive reasons why the United States government decided to detonate atomic bombs over two densely populated Japanese cities are probably lost in the wash of history. Lindee presents the “modern synthetic consensus” that proposes the weapons were used “to end the war, scare the Soviets, and justify spending $2 billion on the bombs.” However, the systemic determinism that Lindee so convincingly envisions would suggest—and perhaps only suggest—that the choice was a consequence of priorities belonging not to any decision maker but to a vast system, one that had become more than the sum of its human appendages. All those people had to die so something else could live.

A haunting passage in Gravity’s Rainbow follows the troubled conscience of Franz Pölker, a German engineer working at the Peenemünde proving grounds where the A4 rocket was troubleshot for years before its use. Pölker reminisces about his wife, Leni, who once confronted him about his work: 

“They’re using you to kill people,” Leni told him, as clearly as she could. “That’s their only job, and you’re helping them.”

“We’ll all use it, someday,” Pölker responds, “to leave the earth. To transcend.”

Rationalization of course has two meanings: one that operates in society, and another that works upon the human psyche. At the juncture of these definitions, Rational Fog helps us understand why Pölker cannot even name the poisoned fruits of his labor, and why he and most technical experts enthralled to the military-industrial complex offer such banal justifications. Lindee relays the work of sociologist Jeffery Schevitz who interviewed scientists working in “weapons production” during the Vietnam War. Engineers trying to “confuse enemy radar” were, they explained, simply making it “less likely that American planes would be shot down.” Other experts shrugged, “my particular protest isn’t going to make too much difference.” Some defied the outrageous war in “other ways, for example by putting peace bumper stickers on their cars or by bringing up the antiwar movement at lunch with other scientists.” One electrical engineer who worked on “proximity fuses,” which, he acknowledged, were made exclusively to increase the “kill-ratio” on a weapon, insisted: “If we don’t make this device our competitors will.” Charles Schwartz, a physicist disgusted by the imperial belligerence that his field empowered, provided similar examples of physicists claiming, “I take DoD money, but I am just doing basic research, not work on weapons,” or, “I am fooling the DoD by taking their money for my research.”

The only thing that distinguishes scientists and engineers from other labor forces is their degree of specialization, making them both essential and harder to replace. It stands to reason, then, that such workers must be especially disciplined by a “hidden curriculum” (a term Lindee borrows from pedagogy) that regulates “social compliance, submission to authority, disciplined time-management, and rule-following.” Like in any organization or sector, deviance from this curriculum is punished (depending on the transgression, through ostracism, termination, or prosecution), while compliance is ensured through powerful inducements: social recognition, purpose, decent money and, for the exceptionally obedient, power over one’s lessers. The deadening machine language of rationalization (“If I don’t, someone else will.” “What difference does my protest make?”) can be seen as the system speaking through its subjects, who barter away their voice, if only momentarily, for dull clichés that evade the disgust, rage, and self-hatred that comes from honest but pointless reflection.

The capturing of expert conscience is for Lindee a clincher in the long process of military rationalization:

Technical expertise is now so thoroughly militarized that there is no way out—not for experts, scientists, political leaders, or the public. An enterprise with explicit commitments to the welfare of mankind has also produced anticipatory and actual human injury on a grand scale, not as a matter of individual choice, but as a matter of structure.


Such pessimism puts Lindee in the company of intellectuals (among them John Ralston Saul, John Gray, and Justin E. H. Smith) who have argued that the history of rationality is one of self-corruption, where rational designs precipitate irrational effects. As Pölker observed, “Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide.” Certainly, instrumental rationality is owed its dues. But, much like science, it fosters a perilous confusion about the premise of its great successes; delve to the very core of any rational system and you will find a human ethic. The brutal operations of technoscientific war issue from a belief in slaughtering people and endangering the species for the advancement of state interests. If the twentieth century saw the assembly of a system around this ethic, then the twenty-first century may well test our resolve to reach deep into the grinding maw and tear it out. 



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