In the early 1950s, my father ran a gas station on Governors Island, a military base in New York harbor. In those years, it would be my only encounter with the suburbs. And there, for maybe a dime on any Saturday afternoon, I could join the kids from military families at the local movie house for the usual Westerns or war movies preceded by either a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon space adventure serial. Those films were old even then, but the future still looked remarkably new to me. They were my introduction to space and the wonders of the weaponry to someday be wielded there, including disintegrator pistols, flash rays, and other techno-advances in death and destruction.
Though such serials, if you see them today, couldn’t look campier, they seemed to me then like promises of a future almost beyond imagining. And we, the children of the 1950s, were being promised much, including, for instance, that we would all someday have our own individual jetpacks to travel the skyways of the great spired cities of the future. (Imagine traffic jams in the clouds, as I did then!) And in the 1960s, of course, many of us were prepared to join Captain James T. Kirk on the deck of the starship USS Enterprise and imagine “boldly going where no man has gone before” among the many alien races of the United Federation of Planets and beyond. The crew of that spacecraft, too, wielded or faced a remarkable range of weaponry in the 23rd century, including phasers, lasers, plasma cannons, and even Ferengi energy whips.
Aside from Star Trek-like “communicators” (think smartphones), the actual future, the one most of us are living in at the moment, has been something of a letdown by comparison. Its grim wonders include: thousand-year rain storms instead of jet-pack traffic jams, and one not particularly spired city that recently went almost completely underwater without any of the charm of Atlantis. But don’t think that somewhere out there people who, in their own youth, were influenced by Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk, and undoubtedly the Star Wars movies haven’t been trying to do something about this. Take historian Alfred McCoy’s word for it, they have — and they’ve had techno-weapons, including space-based ones, endlessly on their minds. At least since the 1960s, the Pentagon has, in fact, been pouring taxpayer dollars into the planning and testing of Buck Rogers-style techno-weapons and the possibility of bringing space war and all its “wonders” to planet Earth.
We’re talking about the same outfit that successfully developed robotic killers, the global assassins that now patrol the skies of the Greater Middle East daily, killing terrorists, insurgents, and plenty of civilians in the bargain (and so acting as a brilliant recruiting tool for just those insurgencies and terror groups). In his new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, just published this week, McCoy takes us on a grim and gripping tour of the present state of the Pentagon’s wonder weaponry and its plans for a future that will take us far beyond today’s one-way drone wars into a world in which the United States may look ever less like Buck Rogers or Captain Kirk and ever more like some of those malign aliens they confronted.