How can we understand our world, if we have hardly a clue about the mini-worlds where planning for our future takes place? Just the other day, the Washington Post had one of the odder reports of the year. According to journalist Rick Weiss, demonstrators at protests in Washington DC and elsewhere have been independently reporting large "dragonflies" (with a bizarre "row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails") hovering near their rallies. ("'I'd never seen anything like it in my life,' the Washington lawyer said. 'They were large for dragonflies. I thought, is that mechanical, or is that alive?'")
Is this the micro-equivalent of UFO madness? Folie ÃƒÂ Philip K. Dick? Are these actual dragonflies, which do look robotic, or advanced "spy drones" loosed by some unnamed agency in search of homeland-security troublemakers?
As a matter of fact, militarized insects have been on the Pentagon's drawing boards for quite a while. Most recently, the British Times reported that the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was developing cyborg moths, implanted with computer chips while still in their cocoons, that might someday soon flutter into an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan and beam back video and other information. (The Post's Weiss quotes DARPA program manager Amit Lal as saying: "You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support.... [T]his science fiction vision is within the realm of reality.") And don't forget those Pentagon-funded neural-implant experiments involving blue sharks in hopes that they might someday be turned into stealth spies of the oceans.
The first robobug, the "insectothopter," was developed by the CIA back in the 1970s. It "looked just like a dragonfly and contained a tiny gasoline engine to make the four wings flap," but it couldn't handle the crosswinds. Three decades later, no agency will fess up to siccing robobugs on crowds of American demonstrators (as the Cleveland Indians sicced gnats on the Yankee's Joba Chamberlain in a crucial recent playoff game). And some experts agree with Vice Admiral Joe Dyer, former head of the Naval Air Systems Command, who claims: "I'll be seriously dead before that program deploys,"
Whatever the truth of the hovering "dragonflies," planning for new weaponry and supportive technologies no less strange, no less futuristic, no less implausible (if it weren't actually happening) is indeed underway -- and the number of Americans who know anything about it, or the uses to which such new militarized technology is likely to be put, runs to the vanishing point. The other week Tomdispatch.com's Pentagon correspondent, Nick Turse--whose new book, The Complex, on the military-industrial-academic-entertainment-everything complex, will be out in the spring--spent time behind the closed doors of a Pentagon-approved conference that had in mind nothing less than planning weaponry, strategy, and policy for the next hundred years--yours, mine, and our children's.
For two days, he hobnobbed with key players and planners in "Urban Operations," or more familiarly UO, as well as Pentagon power-brokers, active duty and retired US military personnel, foreign coalition partners, representatives of big and small defense contractors, and academics who support their work, all gathered at the "Joint Urban Operations, 2007" conference to discuss weaponry so futuristic that you last encountered it in science fiction films.
While noshing on burnt eggrolls and chocolate-chip cookies, these Pentagon-supported planners are also considering hand-launched tiny spy drones, "sense through walls" technology, weaponry so "precise" that it can take a floor out of a building, leaving the floors above and below largely intact, and the far reaches of "non-lethal weaponry." For these men, the fighting in Baghdad today is the future of American warfare in the burgeoning slum cities of the developing world over the next century.
As Turse concludes in his piece "The Pentagon's 100-Year War": "With their surprisingly bloodless language, antiseptic PowerPoint presentations, and calm tones, these men are planning Iraq-style wars of tomorrow. What makes this chilling is not only that they envision a future of endless urban warfare, but that they have the power to drive such a war-fighting doctrine into that future; that they have the power to mold strategy and advance weaponry that can, in the end, lock Americans into policies that are unlikely to make it beyond these conference-room doors, no less into public debate, before they are unleashed."
So buckle your seat belt, prepare for G-force, and blast off into a future only a military planner could possibly love.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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 Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt