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Franklin, H. Bruce. WAR STARS: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. 1990. Revised and Expanded Reprint. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 280. Paper $28.95.



Introduction: Imagining Our Weapons

Part I: Beyond Manifest Destiny

1: Robert Fulton and the Weapons of Progress

2: Fantasies of War: 1880-1917

3: Thomas Edison and the Industrialization of War

Part II: Victory through Air Power

4: Peace Is Our Profession

5: Billy Mitchell and the Romance of the Bomber

6: The Triumph of the Bombers

7: The Final Catch

Part III: Chain Reactions

8: Don't Worry, It's Only Science Fiction

9: Atomic Decision

10: The Rise of Nuclear Culture

11: The Baruch Plan: American Science Fiction

12: Nuclear Scenarios

13: Early Warnings

14: Triumphs of Nuclear Culture

Part IV: End Games

15: Exit Strategies

16: Star Wars

17: The Age of the Automatons

18: The End!

Part V: Pax Americana; Or, The Superweapon and the Twenty-First-Century American Imagination

19: The Science-Fiction Project for the New American Century

20: Mushroom Cloud Over Cincinnati; Or, The Terrorized Empire

21: The New American Century; Or, The Age of Terror

22: The Unimaginable

Bruce Franklin’s exploration of the “cult of the superweapon” [5] is a study in the tension between social construction of imagined weapons and the contingencies that occur when they are realized. His great achievement is demonstrating that “actual superweapons originated in their imagined history” [4], which constitutes the social construction aspect of his study. Temporally, Franklin covers the late nineteenth century to the 2003 invasion of Iraq (in the current edition). His methodology is culturally centered on popular literature and other portrayals that projected seemingly fanciful applications of future weaponry, but which have been realized in some fashion. Franklin's cataloging of early twentieth and interwar depictions of aerial warfare are thorough and extensive. His historical context is based on a weak array of secondary sources, relying on, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut for factual details on the bombing of Dresden (which have been broadly refuted in the scholarship).


Roger D. Connor, Spring, 2012

Unlike Michael Sherry or Mark Clodfelter who attempt to look at strategic bombing and the atomic bombing as a continuum, Franklin’s penultimate concern is with the atomic bomb, for which strategic bombing debates were a necessary prelude. This is a subtle, but critical distinction. It forces the atomic bomb’s status as a “superweapon” to the fore and places its use as a socially constructed grand gesture. This is in reality a considerable departure from the Sherry perspective which places the atomic bomb in a chain of gradualist evolutions. The advantage of this perspective for Franklin is that it argues for a fundamental transformation in the acceptance of the “superweapon” as it went from an imagined technology to a literal one.

Franklin argues “most Americans still believe that the [atomic] bombs defeated Japan and that without them an invasion would have been necessary” [150], and thus sees a transition point where the imagined technology becomes real and deterministic. Franklin does not argue for an explicit determinism, beyond noting, “we are also creatures of the material environment that shaped our imagination,” [5] but his narrative of a self-repeating, self-defeating dynamic built around the fear of both the actual weapons at hand and the continuum of imagined weapons through the twentieth century is highly suggestive of a deterministic reading. This is not to say that he is arguing against human agency, but rather that the imagined “superwweapon” is such an attractive source of national power that it is inherently corrupting. As Franklin puts it, “without imaging a more secure future to be achieved by each new weapon, there would be no will for its financing, production, and deployment. Thus the destiny of the human species is continually being written and rewritten in the scenarios, or dramatic narratives, of those who plan our defense.” [168]

The flaw in Franklin’s approach is that it characterizes the social construction of imagined superweapons as a form of determinism, rather than the more nuanced approach of demonstrating that socially constructed institutions built from the requirements of constructing and applying formerly imagined superweapons creates its own system of validation that discourages political resistance to superweapons. One wishes that Franklin would provide more evidence of the technological momentum for which he argues so strongly. The dynamics of the military industrial complex are astounding, yet Franklin does not give insight into this critical system.

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