What kind of lunatic would teach a killing machine to talk?
— We3 #1
If there’s one thing at which man has shown a prodigious skill, it’s in the determined progression of his weaponry. Remember Kubrick’s ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey: after the sleek black monolith imparts a heightened conceptual capacity, his first tool is a club he uses to bludgeon his competitors. Thus, he gains an advantage — evolution favors the swift and the clever. From that seed, in Kubrick’s misanthropic view, sprouts mankind.
Fast forward to the end of World War II — zooming past the Gatling gun and grapeshot, the V-1 buzz bomb and the armored tank, the submarine and the howitzer, all the machines men use to extend the reach of virtuous destruction — to the race between the United States and Germany, Oppenheimer and Heisenberg, toward becoming Death, the Shatterer of Worlds. (Oppenheimer got there first, but maybe Heisenberg’s heart just wasn’t in it.) That day in New Mexico, July 16, 1945, man finally had within his grasp the tools of Armageddon.
At Trinity mankind looked into the face of the abyss, and for the next several decades two superpowers spent billions to ensure when the apocalypse came, it would be with a fearful symmetry: destruction would be assured, absolute, complete. Two sides stood hand-in-hand on the precipice, ready to let the cockroaches inherit the earth.
If we’ve backed away from that evolutionary dead end, we’ve not retreated very far. The Bush administration has expressed a desire for thermonuclear “bunker buster” bombs; the United States Space Command’s “Vision for 2020” opens with the declaration — in a revealing Star Wars-derivative font — of its goal: “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment.” Reverence for The Bomb has eroded, with a brood of usable mini-nukes taking its place. Space is just another battlefield. The wars of the future will take new forms, but their essence will remain Kubrick’s ape, bashing in the heads of his enemies in “defense” of God, country, and way of life.
Which brings us to Morrison and Quitely’s We3. We3 is a covert team consisting of a dog, cat, and rabbit bred for the battlefields of the future, where war will be waged by generals with PlayStation controllers and VR helmets linked to soldiers whose blood beats far, far away. Military scientists have turned these former pets into animal-machine hybrids, cyborgs deployed on missions too dangerous or clandestine to risk human personnel. They do their job well and without question. They make perfect killers because, according to the military, they lack the moral faculties that make human soldiers so unreliable.
Despite We3’s success, the military brass, discomfited when the leader of We3, a dog named Bandit, speaks, decommissions the project. (In this scene it’s hard not to recall Donald Rumsfeld’s ill-fated press conference from December 8, 2004, when an infantryman asked the Defense Secretary, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” And it’s hard not to imagine Rumsfeld mumbling, “What kind of lunatic would teach a killing machine to talk?”)
Roseanne, the “Doctor Doolittle” of the Animal Weapons Project, is heartbroken by the decision. She knows her animals — Bandit, the dog; Tinker, the cat; Pirate, the rabbit — will be tossed out like any other obsolete weapon. Instead of letting that happen, she sets them free. The military sends ordinary soldiers after the mechanically-enhanced animals; the bloodshed that follows, and We3’s proximity to populated civilian areas, leads the generals to send in their newest weapon — We4.
Meanwhile, We3 just want to go home. But after being kidnapped, experimented upon, turned into an amoral killing machine, where can you call home? Where does the reluctant warrior go when the war ends? The question seems relevant as we watch young soldiers return from Iraq — some in body bags, others with sunken eyes, thousand-yard stares, and a flattened affect, with a lifetime of sweaty, desperate dreams ahead of them.
Bandit, Tinker, and Pirate learn what it means to be a “thinking bayonet,” in that simultaneously respectful and degrading name given to the weapons we carve out of living flesh. It is not a pretty thing.