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Bush's Missile Shield Is a Science Fiction Fantasy
2 December 2001
Back before the Sept. 11 attacks supposedly changed everything, the Bush administration deemed a July 14 missile-defense test over the Pacific Ocean a success, even though the impact of the "kill vehicle's" direct hit of a dummy missile was not all it was cracked up to be. The Los Angeles Times later revealed that the prototype radar used to measure the collision between the interceptor and a mock warhead had malfunctioned.
Uncertainty characterizes future tests as well. "It's not clear we know how we're going to do that," said Robert Snyder, the executive director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, when describing a test scheduled for 2005 or 2006 that would involve deploying a space laser and firing it back at a target in the Earth's atmosphere. Yet the $329-billion fiscal 2002 defense budget includes appropriations for a space-based laser targeted at missiles in their boost phase three to five minutes after launch, and George W. Bush continues to make a missile shield the centerpiece of his defense policy - although, as we are all aware, the Sept. 11 attacks had nothing to do with intercontinental ballistic missiles. And well before weaponized domestic planes fell from the sky, a missile shield was being looked at skeptically by many scientists and even some Pentagon officials.
Why is so much money and energy being spent on wild and crazy - and even science fictional - technological schemes?
One major reason is that science fiction has permeated American culture, and Bush appears to be under the influence of its most predominant strain.
Science fiction addresses our unfounded fear that some monstrous alien will emerge from an unknown dark depth to attack us. When Orson Welles broadcast "The War of the Worlds" on radio in 1938, people really believed that the Martians were coming. Last summer, sharks caused a similar kind of hysteria very likely rooted in "Jaws" and just as unfounded scientifically. There were no Martians landing in New Jersey; there are no great white sharks conspiring to turn us into fast food. And it is entirely unclear that what Bush and his supporters refer to as "rogue states" are about to attack the United States with nuclear missiles, though lots of books and films would have us believe that this is quite likely.
Science fiction also feeds our desire to find a technological solution to every problem. Sometimes, of course, science fiction ideas become very real. Jules Verne predicted the submarine; Arthur C. Clarke the communication satellite. Pamela Sargent described the Internet. AIDS, cloning and ozone-layer decay are all science-fiction scenarios. Capt. Kirk's communicator, the cellular phone, is now in all of our hands. The Bush idea comes right out of science fictional depictions of warfare fought in outer space with technology whose fascination for Americans (predominantly males) has extended from Flash Gordon to "Star Wars." The difference is, this science fiction is not connected to reality. Bush can only imagine that there is a feasible way to shield the entire United States from attacking missiles with a technology built in outer space.
When John F. Kennedy initiated the race to the moon, he drew upon a plausible science fiction tradition. Setting a time limit somewhat analogous to the stipulation articulated in Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days," he challenged Americans to reach the moon before the end of the 1960s - and, of course, we did. We took the fictional trip that Verne and his fellow science fiction writers had imagined. The technology was available; incremental testing of earlier forms of rocketry had been done over many years.
In contrast, Bush seems to be under the influence of the kind of science fiction that generates the power fantasies that captivate male adolescents when they imagine themselves firing "Star Trek" photon torpedoes. It is all in the mind.
In fact, it is most likely terrorists within the United States and in cyberspace (a term coined in science fiction by William Gibson), not missiles from rogue nations, that are probably America's most likely enemies. The kinds of cyberterrorists that Marge Piercy depicts in "He, She and It" are the potential enemies we need to guard most strongly against. Piercy's protagonists literally enter computers and wreak havoc for individuals and corporations and entire nations. In another version of what is called cyberpunk fiction, Gibson's "Neuromancer," the male body merges with computer circuitry. Cyberpunk underscores that the military in general - and the missile shield in particular - cannot protect computer webs.
Bush is thinking more along the lines of an old-fashioned science fictional post-nuclear-holocaust apocalypse, such as is depicted in Nevil Shute's "On the Beach." He acts in accordance with the space-soldier narratives involving high-tech future warfare, such as Robert Heinlein's "Star ship Troopers" and Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War," in which male soldiers use outer space as a venue for strutting their high-tech military stuff.
Besides cyberpunk literature, there is another lesser known science fiction alternative that Bush ignores: feminist science fiction that questions the need for space soldiers at all. The genre includes Joan Slonczewski's "A Door Into Ocean," the story of a planet where women eschew techno logy and venerate nature, Ursula Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," the story of a planet where gender as we know it does not exist and Joanna Russ' short story "When It Changed," the tale of a planet devoid of male p residents and male soldiers. Women's studies professors and feminist general readers, not the military industrial complex's old-boys network, value these texts.
The notion that Bush would read and embrace feminist science fiction scenarios is, of course, a feminist power fantasy which is as unreal as zapping Osama bin Laden with a photon torpedo. In America, feminist science fiction's utopian ideals constitute an alternative universe. The science fiction that influences Bush is far closer to the world he already knows.
Marleen S. Barr.