Review of Eric Schlosser’s Gods of Metal

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Schlosser, Eric, Gods of Metal, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.69-70.

Gods of Metal
Eric Schlosser
London: Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-141-98226-7
122 pp.

When dealing with the military, whether or not in a country unhappy enough to have to suffer their relentless and systematic depredations, it is easy to forget just how ridiculous they are, with their coloured costumes, prancing about according to arcane and archaic protocols and tedious preening in the name of xenophobic nationalism. Hobsbawm (2007) identified this situation: “Separated from the rest of society by a life consisting (in peacetime) of fancy dress, instruction and practice, games and boredom, organized on the assumption that their members at all levels are generally rather stupid and always expendable, held together by the increasingly anomalous values of bravery, honour, contempt for and suspicion of civilians, professional armies tend almost by definition to ideological eccentricity (p.264).”

The second thing it is easy to forget is just how incompetent they are and how poorly they attempt to achieve their goals. The British ship pounding the jungle with cannon fire in Heart of Darkness may be read as a symbol of imperial power shredding the land but it might also be read as the futile attempt of bullies to enforce their way through bluster and chance. The tradition continues with the American drone fliers, who are demonstrably slaughtering citizens around the world in a supposed campaign against terrorism that could scarcely be designed to be more counter-productive. The misery suffered by victims of the military may be no less for the fact that most deaths are categorized as ‘collateral damage’ but it does indicate how poor a solution to complex real life problems violence is.

The incompetence is not manifested only on the battlefield, of course but throughout the whole range of activities. Some, not naming any names, specialize in bullying to death new recruits and enlisted personnel, human trafficking, abuse of power, conspiring to overthrow democratically elected governments, use of state assets for personal gain, money laundering, extortion and the corrupt purchase of bomb detectors that do not detect anything, aircraft carriers that do not float, zeppelins that do not fly, fighter planes that come with additional benefits and submarines that will never be able to be used properly. All of this while making false claims of moral superiority. Meanwhile, Nepalese troops deployed by the United Nations (UN) are strongly suspected of spreading cholera and killing thousands of people as a result. Reports of sexual abuse by other groups of UN peacekeepers are becoming legion. Then there is the case of the USA and its nuclear missiles, which is the subject to which Eric Schlosser has devoted himself in Gods of Metal. One would hope that the missiles, whether one believes them necessary or not, would be kept in good and secure conditions. Unfortunately not:

“For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind (p.36).”

The laxity with which these powerful weapons are kept and which Schlosser documents, means there is a very real fear of accidental explosions – just one of which could be catastrophic in effect – and the possibility that terrorists or other ill-intentioned people could obtain access to one or more of them. These dangers are highlighted by the peaceful activities of protestors such as Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli, who are among many who have more or less wandered into these supposedly high-security sites and enacting their protests by painting walls with blood or symbolically damaging some areas of brickwork that would not pose any threat to the weapons themselves. By demonstrating the vulnerability of the sites to infiltration (if octogenarian nuns can do it, so could large numbers of other people), the protestors have provided a valuable service for the US government and military. This is particularly true of the central event in this book, which is an infiltration of the Y-12 site in Tennessee. Of course, the response to such incidents almost invariably represents the embarrassed bluster of incompetent military forces probably operating under budget constraints caused by the insistence of the American right that putting disproportionate amounts of money into the bank accounts of a small number of the undeserving rich will benefit the country as a whole. At least we can console ourselves that, in the event of a nuclear conflagration, the rich are likely to be caught outside their fall-out shelters and be incinerated along with the rest of us.

Schlosser’s style is journalistic and his prose is readable and lucid. The research he has clearly done is sprinkled quite sparingly in the text. The book is an expression of the kind of long-form journalism that rather went out of fashion as a result of the spread of the online world and the concomitant starving of funds to the traditional media. Indeed, the original form of the text was published in the New Yorker and that has now been expanded for this Penguin volume that will bring a wider audience for it. The story ends with the author in a prison – he notes that he spends a lot of time visiting people in different prisons throughout the USA – where he is visiting one of the protestors who is spending his time teaching others how to read, playing Scrabble and being part of a Bible-study group: “The prison looked like an image on an old postcard, a haunting, uniquely American symbol of state power. And a thought occurred to me: the walls of the penitentiary guarding this pacifist were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12 (p.112).”

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

References

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of darkness and other stories (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995).

Hobsbawm, Eric, Revolutionaries, revised and updated version (London: Abacus, 2007).