The Nature of War
Democratic Communique is coming out with a special issue this month that focuses on war and media. I urge you to check it out. (Thanks to the editors, Robin Andersen and Tanner Mirrlees.) I have a piece in the issue about the ways the discourse of “war” in news, pop culture, and weapons industry PR has taken on a host of biological metaphors. I call this discourse “biomimetic war,” and it is one that, in the end, tacitly extends military jurisdiction to the governance of life itself. Here I want to give a snapshot of some of the more provocative aspects of the piece, including some video. A good part of the essay looks at innovations at DARPA that have caught public attention such as the weaponizing of insects and other animals. The essay then extends out into public and popular life as it tracks how these image-metaphors have translated into a rather coherent image of future war.
Some TVM readers may be familiar with DARPA’s HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems) project, an effort in the last five years or so to put a chip on an insect in order to fly it around by remote control. On the right (Cyborg Insects) is an early press release hosted by New Scientist magazine. These efforts have seen remarkable success with untethered flight and even the ability to extract electricity from glucose in the insect’s blood. In addition to weaponizing living bugs, the Air Force has established a mini-drone program it calls the uAVIARI (Micro Air Vehicle Integration and Application Institute). See the press release to the right (Air Force Nanodrone). The Army has its MAST (Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology) program represented by the video press release from weapons contractor BAE Systems (Army’s Mini-Drone Swarm). This kind of research progresses along two tracks: weaponizing existing life forms and using “nature as inspiration” for new robotic weapons systems.
For me, the discourse, rather than the research, is the most fascinating aspect of these projects, however. Relatively speaking, these are rather modest projects, but they have seen a tremendous amount of public attention, mainly from popular sciences magazines. As a I want to excerpt a representative bit from an early National Geographic Explorer episode aired called “Nature’s Secret Weapons.” This was aired in 2002 during which the programs described above were in incubation.
A kind of arms race has raged over the earth for millions of years. And from these titanic struggles have emerged superb fighting machines. They are the lords of the air, specialists in all-terrain combat, and armed with uncanny senses to detect and kill. Today, we find ourselves looking to nature’s armies for inspiration. For in these troubling times, we face a different kind of threat, from an enemy lurking not just on the battlefield, but in our own backyards. A revolution in technology is changing the way we wage war in the 21st Century, and it’s based on nature’s secret weapons.
Such treatments appeared in outlets from Wired magazine to Popular Science and Fox News. To really understand the narratives underpinning these reports, however, one must examine the images of future warfare that have been cultivated in popular culture and, in particular, sci-fi. The initial inspiration for the HI-MEMS project came, incidentally, from a sci-fi book by Thomas Easton called Sparrowhawk, and these ideas seem to have established a feedback loop between the arms industry and public notions of future war. The reference points are too numerous to recount here, but one might say that biomimetic weapons really took hold in the late 1990s as an image in films like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Lost in Space, and The Avengers. In the early 2000s, Minority Report‘s spiderbots became an icon that would show up later in the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 in 2012. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen even introduced a bug-sized sentinel that hunts the protagonist. By the time we get to the late 2000s, we encounter Avatar, a film about the marshaling of an entire ecosystem to defeat a rather outdated machine-based military. And don’t forget the Jerry Bruckheimer kids film, G-Force, that featured weaponized guinea pigs and a cyborg fly called “Mooch” commandeered by the military to go on missions. The creators of G-Force, incidentally, talked openly about taking inspiration from the HI-MEMS project, which by this time had become an object of public interest.
Of course, biological metaphors have been a part of war/security discourse for a while. Consider the fact that “drone” came from a WWII experiment in unmanned flight that relied on a control center called the “Queen Bee.” Surveillance, especially during the Cold War, has been rife with “bugs” and “flies on the wall.” In the post-9/11 period, however, the biological has edged toward the center as ultimate object of military power. War has gone ecological. Here, terrorism fuses with the natural disaster, Homeland Security responds to disease outbreak and domestic bombing alike, and the specter of biological weapons haunts the public imagination. In such a discursive environment, the contest we call “war” has effectively been mapped onto the biosphere as a permanent and ubiquitous condition determined less by the policing of national boundaries than policing life systems. The upshot is that this discourse of war normalizes an increasingly invasive security apparatus.