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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, Number 2
Volume 19, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2001

Way Out There Indeed

A Review of Frances Fitzgerald's Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 2000, $30.00)

by Chris Gray

Also discussed in this essay: William Broad, Star Warriors, Simon & Schuster, 1988; Carol Cohen, "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals" in Signs 12, no. 4, Summer; and Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Things such as the Star Wars programs have many causes. They are over-determined. But that doesn't mean we can't look closely at them and try and analyze exactly why they have come to pass. This is particularly important, and interesting, with the various Star Wars proposals because they make so little sense on the surface. Of course, in the context of mutually assured destruction, little does in contemporary war planning, but still, as a technological or a military program all of the proposed Star Wars are irrational. Yet, politically, economically, and psychologically they obviously make some sort of twisted sense, enough to exist.

Of these three basic forces in policy formation, one in particular is little understood: psychology. There are only a handful of books and articles that directly analyze how individual psyches have influenced public policies around nuclear war in general, let alone missile defense. Among the best, Bruce Franklin's War Stars and Carol Cohen's justly famous essay "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." Many other works have seriously considered the psychodynamics of apocalyptic war planning but have not made it a central focus of analysis, and certainly not of such a key player as Ronald Reagan. And when it comes to the psyche of Ronald Reagan, well a whole book is clearly needed.

Why did Ronald Reagan make the idea of Star Wars a central program? Back in the 1980s I interviewed high-ranking military officers involved in space war who were mystified. "It just won't work," they'd exclaim in befuddlement. But they didn't grasp what a political success Reagan's dreams would have, even if they were a total failure in terms of putting together a working technology.

Francis Fitzgerald shows why Reagan fixated on Star Wars and not on some other superweapon. When read along with the work of William Broad, who concentrated on the scientific players, Fitzgerald's book goes a long way toward explaining why we have Star Wars. Fitzgerald, author of the haunting and justly famous Fire in the Lake about the Vietnam War, has done this topic proud. Way Out There in the Blue is as thoughtful and beautifully written as Fire in the Lake, and just as important.

She explains "Reagan's success in tapping into the mother lode of the American civil religion..." (p. 15). It is a yearning of our whole culture for the "blue sky", a yearning Reagan understood. Just as at a particular time in their history the French wanted a Maginot Line, today many in the U.S. desire a technological panacea against the threat of nuclear war; seldom articulated it profoundly colors our thoughts. Much of Fitzgerald's book explores this terrain. It is speculative by necessity, but she crafts a convincing story.

In doing so she has also written a careful history of the political decisions around The Strategic Defence Initiative and other Star Wars programs. In particular, her accounts of the infighting among the pro-Star Wars lobby is illuminating. Despite severe differences, they always manage to cooperate in the end. All giant military-industrial projects involve intense interservice, corporate, and political party rivalries, which overwhelmingly focus in on who is going to benefit from the gravy train. Yet, almost always the spoils end up being shared among the major players. No zero-sum games for them.

For many of us, this book is a reminder of the horror of the way things are done. I joined CPSR during the first Star Wars campaign and wrote about the militarization of space all the time and still, when faced with the irrational and gleeful misuse of evidence and logic. I am continually flabbergasted. For example, consider the role of the Patriot missile in this debate.

The Patriot is not designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles but it is supposed to work against their little brothers that are unequipped with counter-measures, such as Iraqi Scuds, so the performance of Patriot batteries in the Gulf War has been a key talking point in Star Wars debates. As Fitzgerald shows, within hours of the first Scud being launched The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was "a great advertisement for SDI." Within days Patrick Buchanan was citing the Patriots as proof of the basic idea of SDI and within weeks Pres. George Bush (the senior) was declaring their success "remarkable" as he rededicated himself to Star Wars. (p. 485)

But, as we all now know, the Patriot was a miserable failure in the Gulf War, perhaps with no hits at all, certainly with very, very, few. And this despite the fact that its test record was perfect. (p. 498) This makes no difference whatsoever to the debate. In place of the Patriot's now lost success, and in light of the test failures, the rationale behind Star Wars has become the inevitable fecundity of science.

But that's what so many of our military policies are based on -- our faith in science. Which brings us back to the beginning and the main story of this book: the American psyche. The very crisis of weapons of mass destruction, that earlier discoveries have created, is to be solved with yet more technologies. It is a vicious, but certainly not infinite, circle. This book casts some much needed light on this maze; perhaps it can help illuminate a way out.

The only disappointment I had in Way Out There in the Blue was that I found no references to CPSR. This is too bad because even in this thoughtful book the technological and scientific issues that underlay programs such as Star Wars are slighted. I could find and only a minimal discussion of the technical issues and the large mobilizations of scientists against Star Wars. Deeper issues, such as key philosophical struggles around the limits of computing specifically and epistemology generally, were not addressed at all. It may seem arcane, even to some computer scientists, but the relationship between technology and knowledge is also one of war and peace.

Chris Gray, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Computer Science/Cultural Studies of Science and Technology at the University of Great Falls, Great Falls, Montana.

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