Any discussion of American science includes, perforce, the military. Physics? Nuclear weapons. Biology? Germ warfare. Chemistry? Poison gas. While the wonders of science extend far beyond these blights, the military and its money have distorted scientific inquiry, to say the least. And where the Pentagon hasn’t co-opted any given discipline, capitalism has swooped in.
Just compare the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to Cuba’s. In the U.S. new drugs are designed solely with an eye to profitability and jacking up the price. The only drug currently approved in the U.S. to treat Covid-19, Remdesivir, costs thousands of dollars. Cuba uses its drugs to treat its covid patients much more cheaply. Similarly with lung cancer – Cuba long ago developed a vaccine, which it sells to foreigners, including desperate U.S. lung cancer victims, for a few hundred dollars. Here in the U.S., pharmaceutical companies won’t even develop such a vaccine. They make too much money bankrupting cancer patients with the astronomical costs of chemotherapy. They don’t want lung cancer to be easily cured.
“The river of the tragedy [of U.S. science] has two headwaters: corporatization and militarization,” writes Clifford Conner in his new book, The Tragedy of American Science (Haymarket). Conner covers the lies of nutrition science, beholden to Big Sugar and Big Food, the failure of the green revolution to alleviate hunger within the lethal framework of capitalist inequality, the dangers of GMOs, the tobacco industry’s abuse of science, Big Pharma’s murder of multitudes of Americans with opiods, environmental degradation and the climate crisis brought to us by fossil fuel capitalism, the lies of the nuclear power industry and the catastrophe of storing its radioactive waste, the conflicts of interest in the academic-industrial complex, the dreadful propagandistic power of think tanks, the fraudulent science of economics and more. But much of this book is devoted exclusively to the militarization of science, because it is here that the principles of free scientific inquiry in the public interest have been most thoroughly corrupted. Indeed, jettisoned.
“We must be thankful that most of the trillions of dollars in American military spending have been wasted,” Conner observes. The world, he writes, would be better off if all military R&D funds had been flushed down the toilet. But some of that money achieved its goals. Conner considers the example of new, “small” nuclear weapons.
The development of W76-2 nuclear warheads has not made the world a safer place. Though less powerful than their many megaton predecessors, that is the problem. Conner quotes historian James Carroll: This warhead “isn’t designed as a deterrent, it’s designed to be used.” The idea is to use it in regional wars, thus avoiding nuclear holocaust. But Carroll argues that firing off small nuclear weapons “would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point is barely imaginable.” If the military scientists and engineers who birthed the W76-2 warhead claimed they were making the world safer, they lied.
Conner also clarifies that so-called “smart bombs” are in fact stupid, as anyone who has followed U.S. “precision” bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan knows. Nothing could be less precise. Those smart bombs have slaughtered countless civilians. Conner also dissects the work of scientists and engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He mentions DARPA’s development of prohibitively expensive prosthetics, whose true purpose, despite public relations stunts, is not to improve injured vets’ lives, but to create “humanoid limbs for war-fighting robots.”
Any survey of the military’s perversion of science would be incomplete without mention of the infamous Operation Paperclip – the CIA program that imported about 1600 Nazi scientists to the U.S., whitewashed their war criminal pasts and employed them in the military industrial complex. Operation Paperclip’s legacy “includes ballistic missiles, sarin gas cluster bombs, and weaponized bubonic plague.” The most notorious Operation Paperclip bigwig, of course, was Werner Von Braun, who headed NASA. Von Braun had been a high-ranking SS officer, “deeply complicit in the deaths of the thousands of slave laborers who were killed producing his V-2 rockets at the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp.” Other Nazi scientists illegally brought to the U.S. included Walter Dornberger, in charge of V-2 rocket production at Dora-Nordhausen, who became “America’s mouthpiece for the urgent need to weaponize space.” There was also Arthur Rudolph, whose office at Dora-Nordhausen “had a window that looked directly out onto the assembly line above which executed laborers were hanged to terrify the workforce.” Another Nazi, Kurt Debus, became the first director of the Kennedy Space Center, Conner writes. And there were many execrable others – fascists who should have faced war crimes tribunals, instead of wealth and honors in America.
But then, this is the same U.S. government that conducted “at least 239 experiments in at least eight American cities from 1949 to 1969.” In Operation Sea Spray, the U.S. navy in 1950 sprayed bacteria “into the air just off the coast of San Francisco, as the wind was blowing ashore.” The pathogen Serratia marcescens can “cause a wide range of infectious diseases.” A similar bacteriological experiment was carried out in the New York City subways in 1966 with bacillus globigii, later categorized as a pathogen. Conner also covers the “Megadeath Intellectuals,” at the RAND corporation.
This book concludes with the present-day Trump regime’s closure of the pandemic directorate right before the Covid-19 outbreak. Conner compares the nearly nonexistent U.S. public health infrastructure to Cuba’s far more robust and successful one. U.S. public health failures are now on glaring display, for all the world to see. The powerful American empire, which has spent trillions on the science of death, cannot protect its own citizens from a microscopic virus. China can. South Korea can. So can New Zealand. But in the U.S., money flooded into diabolical methods of killing, while the public health system was systematically starved and dismantled since the Reagan regime. Conner’s outline of this catastrophe for Americans clarifies that if ever there was a case to be made for switching our scientific priorities, Covid-19 is it. If ever there was a time to make this change, that time is now.