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The phantasmagoria of war

April 4, 2010

On the magazine racks of konbinis, i.e. Japanese convenience stores, you’ll sometimes find, next to the pornography, little books cataloguing the more grand, outlandish, and fantastical weapons of past and present wars:

(click images for wikipedia links)

With respect to the juxtaposition of war machines with schoolgirls’ carefully proffered torsos, it’s not just that the objects of puerile fantasy should be grouped together for easy consumption. There is also a kind of romance to old weapons, a romance laid of course over something much darker. Many of these weapons are almost something that a daydreaming child would imagine, and not an evil child: ill-will has nothing to do with it. It’s the amusing, ridiculous, ambitious machines themselves that excite, not their successful operation. Set aside real-world consequences, the things that make real war irredeemable: the stupidity and callousness behind war-making and the misery it creates. War on some level still promises limitless invention.

This is less true today. The weapons of even the recent past were by and large mechanical and organic. They clanked along on grease and gears, snorted by on muscle and hay. Now our weapons are nuclear and digital. They are sleek, stealth, and completely handleless—literal and figurative black boxes. Scarcely the only work for fantasy now is dull and terrifying:  imagining mushroom clouds, more and bigger.

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