[Note for TomDispatch Readers This is the second post in a pre-Labor Day “best of TomDispatch” series. The first was Chalmers Johnson’s 2005 “Smash of Civilizations.” Now, we backpeddle another year to 2004 and reconsider the Pentagon’s ceaseless efforts to dream up and build ever more effective, ever more invasive and destructive weaponry not just for 2010, but for 2020, 2030, 2040, and beyond. The new model car or the next version of the iPhone has nothing on the Pentagon, which fully expects to roll out the next version of destruction until Hell freezes over. This makes TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse’s 2004 piece — in those distant days he still signed his posts “Nicholas” — on ways the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was planning to weaponize the wild kingdom as shiny new as tomorrow’s HDTVs.
A version of this piece would later became part of Turse’s 2008 book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, which will someday be considered a classic on the militarization of American society and should be in your library — yes, I mean you! It’s a shame, really, that TomDispatch pieces, now collected in a new book, The World According to TomDispatch, America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), hold up so well. If only a better world had made them obsolete — but no such luck. As Chalmers Johnson did, so here Turse provides a new introduction to his old post, reconsidering a world in which, however new its weaponry, the Pentagon is starting to look its age. Tom]
The Pentagon: Some-Things-Never-Change Department
What a difference four and a half years makes. When I first penned “The Wild Weapons of DARPA,” in March 2004, I was a new TomDispatch writer; the war in Iraq was not yet a year old; the war in Afghanistan had been bubbling for less than two and a half years, and I suggested that “what’s left of the USSR is a collapsed group of half-failed states, while the U.S. stands alone as the globe’s sole hyperpower.” Today, I’m the long-time associate editor of TomDispatch.com; the United States, now far from a “hyperpower,” continues to be bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight in either occupation; and a resurgent Russia, now an energy superpower, has only recently invaded the hardly-failed state of Georgia.
Similarly, at that time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s blue-skies research outfit, still looked young and vigorous. Today, DARPA is beginning to show the stresses of age. The agency turned 50 this year and, as Sharon Weinberger reported at Wired Magazine’s Danger Room last month, “its birthday present appears to be another $100 million in budget cuts, according to a Defense Department document…” — and this was on top of a $32 million loss the month before.
Still, much remains the same. Despite current budget cuts, the agency is still “both intellectually and financially, a fabulous and alluring gravy train,” and its funding for the life sciences still offers “a fertile area to further the science of death and destruction.” For example, back in 2004, I wrote that “DARPA has been creating insect databases while increasing efforts to ‘understand how to use endemic insects as collectors of environmental information,'” and I asked: “How long until they start thinking about weaponizing insects as well?” Earlier this year, I answered my own question. Not long was the reply. I reported that DARPA was now working to create cyborg insects for surveillance purposes, and — an even more frightening prospect — “that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with ‘bio weapons.'”
I wish I could claim some special prescience, but that prediction was a total no-brainer. After all, this is just the way the Pentagon operates, whatever changes or budget cuts come down the pike. Four years later, plenty of people have written about various DARPA projects, but most still fail to ask the most salient question: Why does the U.S. government foster unfettered, blue-skies creativity only in the context of lethal technologies (or those that, indirectly, enhance lethality by aiding the functioning of the armed forces)? Some things never change. Nick Turse, August, 2008