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People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex by Hugh Gusterson

The military industrial establishment has become a veritable addiction of American society…were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to go on, substantially unchanged until some other adversary could be invented.
— George F. Kennan

If you’re the hawkish, Hummer-driving patriot-type who thinks of Iran and North Korea’s recent ramping up of their nuclear capabilities as inexcusably defiant, Hugh Gusterson’s People of the Bomb might offer a shocking alternate explanation: Since “evil” doesn’t necessarily preclude reason, could Iran and North Korea simply see the fall of Saddam as a sobering consequence of being nuke-free in the age of gun-barrel globalization?

Although Gusterson’s description of his book as an “ambitiously polyglot offering” is certainly valid, his arguments often fall into one of two categories: anthropological “fieldwork,” or Foucault-influenced studies of the deceptive language used in building a dominant discourse on American militarism — and the means by which holes in the “official story” can be punctured. Gusterson argues that American military dominance is often successfully sold to the public as self-evident, humanitarian, or arising from providential destiny, not conscious political decisions.

The first two chapters are devoted to quasi-anthropological studies of Livermore laboratory scientists Sylvia and Ray, whose views represent the Reagan-era status quo of “mutually assured destruction” deterrence. Gusterson surveys and analyzes Ray’s puzzling, often contradictory reactions to popular movies with anti-military themes like Splash and Short Circuit. Bogus academic folly? Well, quite frankly, some of Gusterson’s “reader response”-influenced studies tend to be dull and over-intellectualized. Yes, people often have different reactions to the same stimuli, and as a result, we can have no conclusions, only ongoing dialogues.

Sylvia’s greatest fear, contrary to the apprehensions of most government officials, stems not from the irresponsible use of nuclear power by some bellicose kook; she fears an accidental nuclear explosion. This finding seems directly at odds with Gusterson’s research in a subsequent chapter devoted to the psychology of nuclear testing (supposedly a necessary, soothing ritual for scientists.) These testing rituals, whether real or virtual, create a sense of human mastery over nuclear power and, we’re told, allay fears of catastrophic accidents. Surprisingly, Gusterson never addresses the gulf between these two conflicting results.

Gusterson’s linguistic and textual analyses are, however, quite accomplished. He includes a chapter-long close reading of cold war paranoiac Dean Acheson’s 1949 speech. This radio oration is one of history’s most complex and effective examples of the Orwellian political ambiguities and semantic wrangling used to naturalize US military aggression. The speech makes a cagey end-run around the peace-based UN international policy toward a more anti-isolationist policy — shifting the bulk of interventionist power from the UN to the US-led NATO. Sound familiar? The cynical history buffs responsible for George W. Bush’s UN-dodging, pro-preemption speeches must’ve made a careful study of Acheson’s shady masterwork. Bush, much like Acheson, suggested that divine forces of history, not politicians, placed us in an interventionist stance. Military solutions are buffered by terms like “peace” and “security.” Where Acheson used marine metaphors to suggest an end to pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist complacency, one immediately thinks of Bush’s “Oceans no longer protect us” cant. Although our Chimp-in-chief’s ventriloquists evidently forgot that Pearl Harbor, not 9/11, proved that oceans no longer provide homeland security.

Gusterson also ably examines how the military and the media de-humanized the human cost of Hiroshima and the first Gulf War. The military and scientific community artificially naturalizes nuclear weaponry by using birth and child metaphors (i.e. the “little boy” nuclear bomb dropped on Japan), while victims of nuclear holocaust are treated as scientific data. During coverage of the Gulf War, soldiers were described as “collateral,” while actual collateral is anthropomorphized (tanks are “killed,” etc.). The most effective way of countering this misleading language, Gusterson tells us, is through Foucault’s idea of “effects of truth,”(images of the shattered bodies themselves).

Creating alternate realities through subversive language also fits into Gusterson’s discussion of the nuclear “apartheid” between Western powers and Third World countries, and the hypocrisy of the US’s nuclear Orientalism: The Pakistans and Irans are deemed too irresponsible to develop a nuclear arsenal, but “parent” countries like the US and Israel have self-evident rights to stockpile nukes. This official line is not only threatened by many past US nuclear-related blunders, but also by our embarrassing history of high-profile nuclear-warmongers such as Curtis LeMay, Douglas MacArthur, Barry Goldwater, and neo-con Reaganites contemplating “winnable nuclear war.” Then again, if you give the Chomskyan “madman theory” any credence, America’s outspoken apocalypse-minded fringe has always been an integral part of the US’s peace-keeping scare-tactics. .

Problem is, many of Gusterson’s studies were completed pre-9/11, with unforeseen historical developments embellishing, and often undermining his arguments. He includes a chapter-long critique of Sam Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and its profound influence on George W. Bush’s administration – recognizing Islam as a natural enemy, but taking an isolationist stance in world affairs. As we know, after 9/11 Bush began using “Clash of Civilization” language — especially the loaded word “crusade” –when selling war in the Middle East to his 700 Club base. Making a reader-response amendment to Gusterson’s outdated arguments, you’d imagine the author explaining Bush’s current Buford Pusser-style foreign policy being shrewdly sold as an extension of Clintonian militarism — which called for “the spreading of freedom and democracy around the world.”

Gusterson also introduces us to the think-tank myopia of security studies experts. The pro-nuclear opinions of these sheltered wonks almost perfectly coincided with those of the Reagan administration. They naturalized the Cold War — viewing it as a perpetual fact of life — while hopelessly distrustful of Gorbachev’s reformist ambitions. But after the unexpected end to the once-threatening bipolar model of superpower standoff, security studies experts quickly re-imagined the Cold War narrative as a “comforting symmetry,” and began constructing a more anarchic picture of global conflict — coining the bankable term “rogue states.”

And today, more than ever, Livermore nuclear scientists are flush with taxpayer dollars. The Bush administration is still pining for the warped Reagan dream of militarizing space, while “mini-nukes” are being developed to smoke out state-less, spiderhole-dwelling warlords. Gusterson leaves us with the idea that US nuclear dominance-as-defense has become the reconstructed “natural” order of the day. The utopian dreams of anti-nuclear critics like Gusterson, Jonathan Schell and many others, advocate worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons as the only truly fail-safe policy. Although realistically, unless there’s an unexpected Green Party putsch in Washington, this country’s dominant discourse on nukes and militarism will probably be, at best, limited to whether nuclear weapons should function as deterrents or as pre-emptive instruments of global restructuring. Any heretical dovish discourse calling for peacetime economic conversion of military industries, or faith-based multi-lateral nuclear abolition, will likely be relegated to chicken-wired “free speech zones” and academic echo chambers.