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November 30, 2007

Rods from God


(This post is based on a book in-progress, titled:

“Visible Wars and American Nationalism:

Militarization and Visual Culture in the Post-Cold War Period.”)

by Wendy Kozol

Despite long-standing debates about the viability of missile defense technology and the ramifications of “weaponizing” space, a range of websites — from the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency, to lobbying or advocacy groups, like — use powerful visual rhetoric to sustain the economic, political and military investment in this still questionable technology.

Computer-generated pictures, diagrams, and video scenarios depict satellites and sensors orbiting in space around a peaceful globe. Threat and defense are completely disembodied.  There are no “viewers”; no “people” making decisions about when to send out interceptors; and no face of the “enemy.”  Devoid of any constraining conditions, everything functions to plan 100% of the time.  And, because every “kill” is a clean kill, free of impact on populations or environments, nobody ever gets hurt.

This illustration, appearing on the Global Security website, extends U.S. military technological power to a wider universe by positioning planets and stars in the composition.  The beauty of the blue planet, so common in popular discussion of Space travel, provides the color scheme for the picture by bathing the technology in the same reassuring tones.

Against the racially empowering function of threats from rogue nations, pictures like this imagine American interceptors destroying enemy missiles in Space.  The illustration prominently foregrounds the American flag on the satellite, while a laser emanating from the satellite furthest in the back successfully hits its target.  A small white light in the background appears as the attacking missile, thus diminishing the threat while emphasizing the omnipotent power of the satellites to protect not just America, but the entire globe.

Importantly, missile defense advocates also rely on moral claims to justify these defense systems (which these “almighty” and “heavenly” visual objects reinforce, as well).  For instance, “Rods from God,” is the nickname for an Air Force Space Command missile defense program.  Technology and religion combine in this label to invoke an image of omniscient power by the U.S. military to protect the nation and its allies from space.

In claiming Space as an extension of national territory, the Air Force Space Command describes themselves as the “guardians of the High Frontier.”  Mobilizing an imperialist logic of military dominance, such references invoke a moral geography based on a mythic ideal about the founding of the United States.  As General Lance Lord, former head of the Air Force Space Command states in this NYT article:

“Space superiority is not our birthright but it is our destiny. . . . Space superiority is our day-to-day mission.  Space supremacy is our vision for the future”

Unlike spectacles of violence and suffering more typical of war imagery, Space is a blank screen for clean technology that never hurts and always protects.  Images from the war on terror — including photographs of suicide bombings, American casualties, Haditha, and of course Abu Ghraib — have provoked enormous attention and an occasion for many to critique American Occupation policies.

When we ask the question, how is it that people can look at pictures of suffering and then look away, perhaps it is because they are finding something easier or more comforting to look at.

Wendy Kozol is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Oberlin College.  She teaches courses on feminist theories as well as visual culture.  Among her publications, Wendy is the author of LIFE’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism.  I warmly welcome Wendy to BAGnewsNotes.

  • tina

    Until we can hit a suicide bomber with one of these satellites, or are willing to use them to shoot down passenger jets, hard to see how much good they will do. That’s the genius of “assymetrical warfare”. When was the last time a terrorist attack was carried out with an intercontinental ballistic missile? That’s right…never. Terrorists can easily work around this technology…biowarfare also comes to mind. Spike the water supply. Smuggle the ingredients of a dirty bomb in a container. Would not some of the astronomical costs spent on missile defense be better spent on averting these threats? You know, you almost don’t think they really care if people die.
    The emphasis on defense also distracts from the discussion of the potential use of this technology for offense. From our armchairs we destroy whole nations whenever they get uppity, without deploying troops or involving the public. What a fantasy!
    I think we are pursuing military dominance so hard and at such a high cost because we know our the time of our economic dominance is already in the past. Once China calls in the bills, America will be a third world country. We know this, and so create ways to destroy or threaten so nobody will ever come to collect. When the dollar is no
    longer almighty, look out Asians. The wounded beast is dangerous.
    Might work for a while. As a real plan, though, even I can think of better ones.

  • tina

    By the way, Wendy, welcome…and great post. Very 1950s, this image. I still have a National Geographic magazine with a cover story, “The Friendly Atom and You”. Shudder. Interesting graphics of the “friendly atom”, but no pics of kids hiding under their desks, of course. Yes, this is very 1950s.

  • nightbird

    Is the phallic symbolism a bit over the top? Yikes.

  • Darryl Pearce

    …ugh. The first thing mentioned in the Air Force’s “Rods from God” article is “Star Wars”? Only in the United States do we understand current events so filtered through the lens of our entertainment.
    Further, orbits around our little blue planet are already polluted with all kinds of dangerous flotsam. After a “war in space” I fear such shrapnel will be an effective barrier trapping us here.

  • donna

    Actually, the appropriate movie reference is “Real Genius”. If you haven’t seen it, oh, please do — it’s a treat…
    I’ll get the jiffy pop!!
    “So it goes from God, to Jerry, to you — to the cleaners?”

  • MonsieurGonzo

    ref : “very 1950s…
    Willy Ley => FRAU im MOND (Woman in the Moon) Fritz Lang, 1929
    The Hero : The literal meaning of the word is “protector”, “defender” or “guardian”
    => The Virtue of the Weaponed Hero : “…the association of hero and killing tool is a very old one. It is ingrained in our culture, almost to the point of being part of our genetic heritage. All of the great heroes of the Western tradition, all the way back to Achilles, have been defined by their arms…
    …During the Middle Ages, weapons began to have names and identities, almost personalities, of their own : Beowulf’s magic sword, Roland’s Durendal with relics of the saints on its hilt, Charlemagne’s Joieuse from which the Franks took their battle cry “Monjoie,” and most famously Arthur’s Excalibur are part and parcel of every myth of every hero of the past…
    …herein lies the problem for most people who blame Hollywood’s fascination with guns for the violence in society today, and especially violence among children. They see Hollywood as a grand monolithic structure that glorifies violence–especially gun violence–and they posit all sorts of reasons why this menace to society would want our children to kill each other, whether it be greed, stupidity, political efficacy, or the like.
    They don’t take into account that these [images] are popular. And not only among children. There is a reason for that: [images] that glorify violence–that portray weapons as heroic–fuel a drive that goes back so many generations that it is indivisible from the dreams and desires of most humans. The fairy tales that people read to their children, the animated Saturday morning programming, songs, poems, even the nursery rhymes children memorize are inhabited by the most basic of weaponed heroes –and they are just the beginning.
    Mythology follows, with its inherent fascination for children and adults alike. No child, indeed no person at all, can be truly sheltered from the weapon-hero association without seriously stunting her or his understanding of Western culture. And I don’t think they should be. The association–the exploration of the hero and the killing tool of choice–can be rewarding, enriching, and revealing.
    This is because heroes can be righteous. They can teach “morality”–whatever that might be for the culture they represent. For the Greeks, filial piety and elite values were handed down with weapons from father to son. In the Middle Ages, sexual avoidance and abstinence accompanied really good sword skills. Weaponed heroes can embody characteristics that most humans, regardless of cultural bias, would recognize as good qualities. They can use their might in the service of right. They can right wrongs and fulfill justice and protect the innocent. They can be loyal and courageous in the face of desperate odds. They can have personal honor and integrity and teach all of these things to willing and eager minds.
    -Humanist, July, 2001 by Almira F. Poudrier

  • gasho

    If this illustration is from a book in progress in 2007, it’s funny that it seems to be drawn with colored pencils, instead of created in a more sophisticated computer based program. This makes it appear innocent and gives it a softer edge.
    How often are ICBM’s raining down on Earth, anyway. We do see a successful intercept in this image, but what about the other satellite that’s firing in the opposite direction – is there another missle coming from somewhere else at the same exact time?
    Tina points out the crux of the situation – asymetrical warfare can’t be faught this way. A Dirty bomb plot needs international detectives, not anti-missle systems to foil it. The people this appeals to are the ones with the millitary contracts who get to spend a Trillion dollars building these interstellar pea shooters.
    Feed the people. Cut the crap.

  • Asta

    How very pretty is this field of weaponry, poised golden and shining in the luminous space filled with twinkling stars. The military-industrial complex has discovered the power of accessorizing.

  • jtfromBC

    the next paragraph following MonsieurGonzo last verse
    “But, and I believe more importantly, these stories can also be fulfilling and enriching because weaponed heroes are dangerous by their very nature. Achilles, for example, was full of wrath, full of vengefulness, so self-centered that he was destructive to both his own people and his enemies. Hercules was a violent child who killed his lyre-teacher in a fit of madness, a violent adult who killed his wife and children in another rage. Roland got himself, his best friend, and Charlemagne’s entire rear guard killed through his pride and stubbornness. And the generic medieval heroes–the King Arthurs of the world–could have been knights in shining armor but often also the oppressive tax-collectors for their feudal lords and armed warriors coercing unarmed peasants”.
    Seems rather contemporary reviewing the last 6 or 60 years.
    In his final days Mr Hitler considered the German people unworthy of survival, Curtis Lemay lamented the fact there were no more cities to fire bomb in Japan and there was MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) the Cuban Crisis and now the potential of “small” nuclear tipped missiles raining down on another fantasied evil state.
    Not all demented warriors live in caves but some are within our midst in suits and others in fatiques.
    “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein.

  • Scarabus

    Nice to participate in a blog where serious reflection is as heavy as knee-jerk snark. Anyhow….
    Gasho, the colored pencils are surely deliberate. It’s about *illustration* of reality, not *confrontation* with reality. Much easier “sell.”
    I’ve always believed that the “selling” of the current strategic disaster was made easy by the fact that the American public (and their congressional representatives) had experienced “Desert Storm” most insistently as a video game. You know, see a target on a video screen, and watch the weapon strike an abstract video image. Never see the blood, life-destroying injury, death, widespread anguish.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    ref : “very 1950s… Seems rather contemporary…
    mon ami JT, i think you may have mis-interpreted the point of my post; i was making no judgement on this advertisement for weaponizing outer space, or the efficacy of this “defense system” = Maginot Line in Space delusion against asymmetrical or unknowable threats (frankly, i think that is tediously obvious ~ i mean…
    When we ask the question: How is it that people can look at pictures of suffering and then look away [?] perhaps it is because they are finding something easier or more comforting to look at.
    …Professor Kozol’s conclusion is stated in the form of a rhetorical question, n’est-ce pas? :)
    So, why beat a dead horse, here. The point i was trying to bring to the fore was that Kozol’s thesis: postwar [the weaponed hero]; and the comments, “very 1950’s / contemporary” don’t do the subject historical justice : there is nothing new or ‘postwar’ about the cultural appeal of the mythology of heroic weaponry.
    Professor Kozol needs more depth, in my opinion; for some reason, she wears ‘postwar’ blinders, and so fails herself to see the root appeal of these images. Why? hell, i dunno {grin}
    Perhaps her root intention was foremost to make a snarky statement about Americana, not real scholarship; and so she shrouds her pen = sword in this (in my humble opinion) rather un-scholarly pop-culture book about Postwar American Pop Culture ~ as if these images were entirely existential ~ coming “from out of nowhere,” connected to nothing: invented by Americans!
    indeed, pass the popcorn, Professor! (^_^)

  • jtfromBC

    MonsieurGonzo, I understood your point más o menos, I quoted this paragraph simply to present my own agenda, the hero’s dark side or when the good hero guy becomes a bad hero guy.

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