Becoming Death, Destroyer Of Worlds: The Theology Of Extermination

I was born eight years after Francis Fukuyama, rejoicing at the collapse of the Berlin Wall, pronounced a conclusion to millennia of ideological debate and promised my generation “the end of history.”  And yet for a generation defined at every level by submersion in a nihilistic postmodernism, my lifetimes have been marked by the shattering of historical superlatives, by accelerating and self-perpetuating crises that threaten known life in the universe yet have become so commonplace they are merely a background noise, fueling the cacophony of our cynicism.  Against this tide of sheer alienation from the realization of consequence and the scope and value of being, we can not begin to fathom the moment a literal end of history, quite the opposite of Fukuyama’s utopian conjecture, became possible.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project and mastermind of the atomic bomb, clearly grasped the gravity of his creation as the first nuclear weapon exploded at the Trinity test site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.  Though Oppenheimer was an atheist and a communist sympathizer, he understood the spiritual connotations of human beings unleashing the energy within an atom, to this day the most powerful force mankind has ever harnessed, and it was not lost on him that this unprecedented power was unleashed first as a weapon of war.  No longer would the apocalypse be heralded by horsemen and thunderbolts, the vestiges of the divine, but by the throes of mortal conflict.  Fortunately for the lexicographers of history, Oppenheimer was a student of poetry.

He would later claim to have marked the occasion with a quote from one of the oldest surviving meditations on mortality, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

The epic Hindu poem was a perfect intellectual refuge for a groundbreaking physicist tormented by conflicting views on his role in armed combat.  The Gita tells the tale of warrior prince Arjuna, who is paralyzed by guilt on the field of battle and turns to his chariot driver, Krishna for advice.  Krishna reveals to him far reaching instructions for wisdom and morality in one of the most gorgeous testaments to humility and oneness ever written.  But, like most religious texts, it is raked with subtle (and less subtle) tools of the status quo.  Chief among these is Arjuna’s conclusion that, with even knowledge of the entire universe, it is his responsibility to return to the slaughter of his foes since all beings are brothers in death.  This is a convenient commandment for the castes that kill and profit from killing, and an inconvenient one for the castes that die.

The line Oppenheimer chose to evoke comes near the end of the poem as Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as the supreme god Vishnu, a terrifying form with billions of fanged mouths.  The verses that follow demonstrate an atypical and blunt subservience to militaristic power that a professional skeptic like Oppenheimer could have easily identified if he was not so desperately searching for moral absolution for his act of ultimate violence. (The text differs slightly from Oppenheimer’s, who was using a 1944 translation by Vivekananda and Isherwood, I rely on the remarkable poet and anthologist Stephen Mitchell, writing in 2002):

I am death, shatterer of worlds,
annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
in their facing armies will die.

Therefore stand up; win glory;
conquer the enemy; rule.

There was no omniscient Vishnu granting Oppenheimer justification for the ultimate instruments of destruction he presided over, any more than there was one on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.  No soldier has ever been granted a divine license to kill, a fact that any nuclear physicist is painfully aware of.  For this reason, in his reading of the Gita, Oppenheimer chose to transcend the character Arjuna altogether and position himself as Vishnu himself, “the whole universe enfolded, with its countless billions of life forms, gathered together in the body of the God of gods.”

This is what it is to be death, destroyer of worlds.

He was not being impudent.  The Father of the Bomb understood what Einstein had warned a few years before.  The splitting of the atom was as seismic an achievement as the mastery of fire.  Unleashing energy in its most basic form, shattering bonds unaltered since they burst from dying stars, nuclear weapons represented an axiomatic shift in warfare and in power itself.  If any nation ever developed a fighting arsenal, a war could annihilate all things as easily as fire-breathing Vishnu himself.  To ethically wield that power, a person must have the power to know with absolute certainty what is and is not just for every being, an impossibility outside of the world of religion.  Thus in the age of the atom bomb, the atom bomber must not only be an all-powerful God, but an all-knowing one as well.

The logic of his own divinity was ultimately not enough to soothe Oppenheimer’s qualms.  Already voicing hesitation before the first detonation, he was telling scientific journals by 1948 that he and the rest of the Manhattan Project engineers had “known sin,” that he personally had “mercilessly…dramatized the inhumanity and evil of modern war.”  His opposition to Cold War foreign policy was a major factor in the the House Un-American Activities Committee’s decision to strip him of his security clearance and condemn him (falsely) as a Soviet spy in 1949.  He spent the last decades of his life working closely with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to define the moral application of science.

But regardless of one physicist’s moral journey, well over 200,000 people were murdered by the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945.  Those closest to each blast were crushed to death simply by the pressure before their brains could physically register that they were under attack.  Others disintegrated in the heat, leaving only their dark silhouettes on streets otherwise bleached by radiation.  Less fortunate were those who, over the ensuing weeks, watched their skin drop away from their bodies or felt tumors claim their organs, one by one, a process that condemned many to years of agony extending far beyond their Empire’s defeat.  Cried Arjuna to his companion,

Seeing your billion-fanged mouths
blaze like the fires of doomsday,
I faint, I stagger, I despair.
Have mercy on me, Lord Vishnu!

It is now clear that Nietzsche was exactly wrong.  God is not dead, we have resuscitated him, and in his return he is more horrible than ever.

In the ashes of the second World War, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as across continents, humanity reeled in a horror that could only signify the ultimate rebuttal of Grace.  As Theodor Adorno famously declared in 1949, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  The Jews and Gypsies burnt to death in camps, the women systematically raped throughout China and Germany, the colonized millions starved by the war effort in India and the Philippines, the atom bombs, the silent echelons who refused to stop the train before it hurtled off the rails – whose memory would be most desecrated by the concept of sanctity?

And yet with the sacred finally rendered impossible, religions found real gods for the first time (“negation of the negation!” old man Marx would bellow from his grave).  The imperial victors East and West plunged into parallel pathological theologies, coalescing around their respective idols cynically and yet with historically unprecedented zeal.  Under Mao, every toilet bore a written reminder to “never forget the class struggle,” even as Party insiders seized food from their starving neighbors.  In America, a Schroedinger-esque underclass simultaneously demands free speech for corporate-funded white supremacists and deportation for athletes protesting racism, while liberals who applaud diversity and tolerance spend several times the national median income to avoid sending their children to class-integrated schools.  And at the pinnacles of these collective contradictory delusions – putting simple Inquisitions and Crusades to shame – are individuals wielding the power to truly end life in the universe.

The concept of mutually assured destruction became the backbone of American foreign policy at the insistence of John von Neumann, a mathematician and game theorist who worked alongside Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project.  After the war, von Neumann worked for the RAND Corporation, a think tank sponsored primarily by missile manufacturer Donald Douglas.  This fact somewhat illuminates his perplexing insistence that the fastest path to peace in the twentieth century was a nuclear arsenal capable of literally destroying humanity.  His theory was simple: if the United States and the Soviet Union both have the potential to obliterate the world, the two immense powers would never clash in a World War 3.  In the desolate wasteland that is liberal political theory, John Lewis Gaddis credited von Neumann with the “Long Peace” that extends from 1945 to the present – after all, Western Europe was never bombed again!  That the “Long Peace” encompasses the most violent period in human history, with tens of millions murdered in neo-colonial wars throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, is hardly a matter of concern.

The mutually assured destruction doctrine (poignantly acronymed MAD even by its overseers) became possible with the development of the thermonuclear “H-bomb” in 1952, which uses a secondary nuclear device to create explosions hundreds of times more powerful than those unleashed on Japan.  By the late 50s, both the US and Soviet Union had created enough nuclear weapons to evaporate every major populated center in the world.  More terrifyingly, the radioactive ash hurled into the atmosphere by these explosions would completely block out the sun, before raining down on the freezing and blinded survivors in a century-long nuclear winter.

The media has tried to downplay our precarious proximity to such an apocalypse.  In fact, total nuclear annihilation has been just narrowly averted several times.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, American destroyers fired depth charges at a Soviet submarine, unaware that the vessel carried a nuclear payload – only a last minute decision by submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov to disobey orders and not use his vessel’s missiles prevented total war.  Satellite images of the moon, the northern lights, even migrating geese have been misconstrued as missile attacks, provoking panicked responses (Jimmy Carter, frequently framed as a bleeding heart, admitted to being 3 minutes away from launching the nuclear arsenal after a solar flare showed up as a Soviet strike on NORAD’s sophisticated radar system).  As recently as 2010, a computing error nearly activated an automatic missile response from Wyoming.

Rather than take precautions to reduce such ludicrous risks, leaders in the US and USSR tried to accelerate it.  Following the game theory of Herman Kahn (another RAND employee), both empires began intentionally increasing the risk of accidental nuclear war in a model literally based off of the driving game Chicken.  Every day during the Cold War, American bombers set off for Russia and Eastern Europe with orders to destroy the world, and only changed course once they established communication with their commanding officers.  Now, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, automated underground trains travel along randomized paths in the American Midwest, prepared to release their nuclear payload if every manned missile is disarmed.  And, of course, there is the “nuclear football,” accompanying the President at all times, with which he can remotely launch every weapon at his discretion.

It is this device, handcuffed to the wrist of an aide-de-camp in Mar-a-Lago or the Oval Office at this very moment, that places Donald Trump in the company of the ancient god-kings.  But unlike Aztec Emperors, who could only pray that carving out the hearts of their enemies would bring rain, our leader could literally black out the sky.  What turns history has taken!  Could modernity at its pinnacle mean the realization of the Chinese messianic ruler Qin Shi Huang’s 2000-year-old ambition – to lie in an eternity of darkness with a buried nation of unblinking devotees?

In his personal spirituality, no doubt, President Trump must rely on some spitefully cynical and selfish atheism à la Ayn Rand, but his public embrace of evangelical Christian fundamentalism, especially as it pertains to nuclear brinksmanship, is revealing.  His threat, last month, to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, is poached from the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah: “The Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.”

Like Oppenheimer, Trump has positioned himself as that ultimate renderer in claiming a divine right to total destruction.  But his words were not revenant poetry reaching for self-forgiveness, they were a crude appeal to the most authoritarian and militaristic tendencies of the Judeo-Christian history.  The Prophet Isaiah himself first evoked the fire and the fury in the 6th century BCE, rallying the Israelites to join the Persian Empire in war against Babylon.  In many ways the Book of Isaiah is the rhetorical parent of the Crusaders and the Islamic jihadis, casting a once benevolent God as a political force for war.  At least in the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu is universal and impartial; the Lord of Isaiah and Trump has chosen ones among His children, and He seeks active participation in the destruction of their non-believing brothers.

Even this is a charitable characterization of Trumpian theology.  It’s worth noting that the President, who once acknowledged that he could not recall any verse of the Bible despite calling it his “favorite book,” could likely no sooner describe scriptural history than spell the word “coverage.”  In the largely oral tradition of American Evangelical Christianity, “fire and fury” is used colloquially not to describe God’s horrific but ultimately righteous wrath, but the Devil and his all-consuming powers of temptation.  Trump’s handlers claim the threat was improvised; if that is true, does the President of the United States subconsciously view himself as the cosmic force of darkness he rhetorically projects?

Satanic or otherwise, Trump’s self-proclaimed divinity has been the center of a new ideological assault on a long-contorted electorate of disciples by the White House’s theocratic wing.  Robert Jeffress, a Texan Baptist preacher who boasts the oxymoronic honorific of spiritual advisor to the President, announced to the Evangelical community, “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”  That such a proclamation could be made by al Baghdadi in the bombed-out ruins of Iraq and Syria about Trump himself is an irony that, like most ironies, is lost American ears.  In a culture that places the value of prayer above the value of public education, it should come as no surprise that a demagogue backed by corporate churches is celebrated for his divine right to power.

But the actual Donald Trump is so much more than the messianic savior of the religious right, he is the nightmarish realization of its darkest secrets.  Religious conservatives fight against women’s right to body autonomy; Trump unapologetically forces sex on female bodies.  The nation’s largest churches manipulate their members into paying obscene tithes (claiming this “seed money” will lead to prosperity later in life) while refusing to aid to the poor; Trump’s garish materialism is so narcissistic he once used funds designated for charity to buy a painting of himself.  And evangelicals are distinguished by their celebration of an imagined Day of Reckoning, when Christ will return to pass judgment on mankind, while in the material world Trump nonchalantly wields the truly religious power to erase all of us and our sins forever.

Unlike conventional theologies, the church of nuclear armageddon begins with an apocalyptic vision, not a myth of creation.  Still, understanding its origins is the only hope humanity (and life itself) can reach for.

Why do human beings, laced with greed, cowardice, stupidity, etc., wield the power of gods in the twenty first century?  Was it an accident of history that Oppenheimer could become death, that the processes of stellar reproduction would be claimed by mankind as weapons of war?  Can we blame religious conservatives for the presumption that the divine should exist, however terrible?  For that matter, is it the fault of secular liberals, who elevate science in its awesome and terrible scope to fill the chasm left by faith?

In the art of cataloguing historical pathways and patterns, there has yet to arise any school of thought that can compete with the long and evolving Marxist tradition.  It was Marx, after all, who showed that capitalism was born, “red in tooth and claw,” from the inevitable ashes of feudalism, and that this progression was preordained not by philosophies or discoveries but by the very nature of property and class relations, axiomatic structures of history.  Marx imagined that the progression of exploitations and inequities that defined civilization would be resolved through the abolition of capital through communism, which he considered workers’ unavoidable reaction to increasing injustices.

As Marx’s revolution failed to materialize, it became clear that capitalism, at least as Marx understood it, was not dialectically predetermined to advance into communist utopia.  Luxembourg described how capital’s insatiable need to grow developed an unprecedented imperialism, which Lenin posited could only be defeated through an organized worker’s state.  Trotsky, staring down the rise of fascism, illuminated the futility of isolated movements without a global “permanent revolution.”  Gramsci, from behind Mussolini’s prison walls, theorized that even capital was subservient to overarching totalitarian hegemony.  Mandel pronounced the era of “late capitalism,” Harvey uncovered the economic engines of “neoliberalism,” the continental Marxists viewed the new world as “postmodern” – there is no shortage of scholarship extending Marx’s vision of historical progression, each reading with its own merit and shortcomings.

One of the less well-known but most precinct of these theories was developed by British historian E. P. Thompson in a 1980 New Left Review essay entitled “Notes On Exterminism.”  Thompson warned that history had entered a final stage, “exterminism,” which he described as “a state of absolute antagonism, in which both powers grow through confrontation, and which can only be resolved through mutual extermination.”

Exterminism, Thompson wrote, is an “addiction,” self-reproducing at every level of a society’s “economy, its polity, its ideology.”  Exterminism is the ultimate realization of capital’s existential imperative to expand beyond its capacities, the obvious effect of hegemonic denial of alternatives.  It is the conclusion of absolutes.  In this sense our exterminist nation is a cult to collective damnation, a completed theocracy made possible only by a civilizational commitment to our own contradictions.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the lack of a hostile party capable of assuring mutual destruction seemed to render previous theories of nuclear apocalypse irrelevant.  Yet in a world where nuclear weapons have no conceivable strategic justification, the logic of exterminism has maintained its grip on the American foreign policy establishment.  The “peace surplus” so many liberal politicians had promised never materialized; a decade after the Cold War, the US military budget had nearly doubled.  As unprecedented privatization and tax cuts stripped public services to the bone, liberals and conservatives alike continued to increase the flow of government money to weapons manufacturers.  In his final months in office, President Obama authorized a staggering trillion-dollar payout designed to modernize (and increase) America’s nuclear capabilities.

No longer dueling an adversarial superpower, America now commits itself without hesitation to the complete annihilation of tiny opponents over minor economic disputes.  “In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly,” said an official from the first Bush administration – meaning unleash chemical weapons, carpet bombing and forced starvation on countries like Iraq, where 25 years of American aggression have killed nearly 10% of the population.  As Bush himself later admitted to the New York Times, his government was fully prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons strikes if Saddam did not immediately surrender the Kuwaiti oil fields.  His son later considered the nuclear bombing of Afghan peasants in response to 9/11, and in 2002 ordered the State Department to develop plans for “thermonuclear war” with Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.  This is the hangover of the exterminist “addiction.”

In the 21st century, a rising awareness of the anthropocene ecological crisis has moved to the back of popular consciousness.  Of course, in the face of pollution and climate change already widespread enough, according to a study by the World Health Organization, to cause one in four deaths on the planet earth, it is not imprudent to focus on capitalism’s cataclysmic effect on the natural world.  But in recent months Donald Trump has reminded us that he does in fact wield the power to prove himself correct in his infantile denial of the scientific consensus on global warming.  With the press of a button, he could ensure total extinction not by rising temperatures, but in the freezing horror of nuclear winter.

How then does the left respond to the apocalyptic dance between President Trump and the newest player in the war of walking gods, Kim Jong Un?

It is alarmist to suggest that nuclear war with North Korea will lead inexorably to global annihilation.  But it is also inhumane to understate the stakes and the power at play.  While mainstream media in recent months has been awash with hypotheticals about the potential of the North Korean missile program, and how afraid Americans in any particular city should be, there has been almost no discussion of the consequences of an infinitely more feasible American first strike.

If the US were to launch a tactical nuclear weapon at the North Korean capital Pyongyang, the instantaneous death toll would approach 2 or 3 million, by far the highest of any single bombing in human history.  Such an attack would unquestionably trigger a retaliatory strike on South Korea and Japan, potentially killing tens of millions.  To prevent Kim’s counterstrike, it’s likely America would aim to “totally destroy” the country (Trump’s words), and let loose enough warheads to disintegrate every city in the nation, effectively committing genocide against North Korea’s 25 million people, a death toll substantially greater than that of Hitler’s entire war machine.  And that’s not accounting for the millions who could be killed by radioactive fallout in South Korea, China, and Japan, or those who would be endangered by volcanoes around the world detonated by seismic shock.

Almost as terrifying is the potential political crisis such an attack would unleash.  Domestically, the President and his billionaire junta would almost certainly initiate some corporate-fascist state of emergency, a totalitarian regime the Democrats, deeply indebted to the arms lobby, have put themselves in no position to resist.  Abroad, world leaders would either need to accept a rogue state’s prerogative to commit nuclear genocide where it sees fit, or unite behind the nuclear power of Russia and China and force the Trump administration to step back.  Either option guarantees a future in which nuclear weapons and nuclear war are not abstract threats but concrete reality.  And as the destructive potential of our arsenals and our politics accelerates, the probability of a true “end of history” will gravitate unavoidably towards 100%.

Kim Jong Un is not, as Donald Trump professed to the United Nations, a “rocket man…on a suicide mission.”  He is a brutal and repressive dictator, perhaps the final “farce” to Stalin’s “tragedy,” and by all accounts a counter-revolutionary despot, but he is also a rational actor in a perilous geopolitical landscape.  After half a century staring down an enormous army with a nuclear arsenal across the 38th parallel, and especially after two decades of increased aggression by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the Kim regime has turned to nuclear brinksmanship as the only possible deterrent to an American invasion.  One of the only rulers on Earth yet to bend the knee to American capitalist order, Kim no doubt felt the recent invasions of Iraq and Libya, not to mention the ongoing devastation in Syria, acutely.  Though Western media outlets are loathe to mention it, he has never threatened nuclear violence except in direct response to American military drills and bombings along the Korean border.

That, when faced with possible unseating, Kim threatens to take every life in the region with him speaks to his demonstrated cowardice and lack of basic empathy.  That Trump’s retort is to push him closer to that unprecedented destruction, to promise the completion of that destruction through nuclear retaliation, is a sign of a deeper and more terrifying nonchalant disregard for human life.  And that we imagine such a destruction could be ethically justified shows how pervasive the exterminist cult has become.

American propaganda outlets claim intervention in the peninsula would be a heroic gesture of liberation on behalf of both Koreas.  But the US policy of sanctions that starve the most vulnerable pockets of North Korean society, not to mention the American bombing of the country in the 1950s that killed an astounding 20% of the population, prove what should be obvious – our government has no interest in North Koreans’ wellbeing.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rallied last month to demand the US back down from its nuclear hardline, a fact almost completely invisible in western media, should make it clear that our regime has little more regard for its so-called allies.

The American policy in the Korean Peninsula has scarcely changed since the bombing of Nagasaki.  The goal has always been to eliminate to eliminate the obstinate northern Republic, to assert to the rest of Asia and to the world that Pyongyang’s style of government will not stand.  Our problem is not the repressiveness of Kim’s regime, which, while astounding, hardly stands out against the warlords and extremists we back throughout Africa and the Middle East.  Our problem is his uncompromising rejection of our economic hegemony.  Coaxed by soft bribes from the South Korean and Japanese business right, who see North Korea as a land of potential investment and exploitation, the American war machine has pushed the nation to the breaking point.  But the game of “submit or be destroyed” ends when imposed on another destroyer.

And ultimately this is why Donald Trump, our God of Destruction, the reductio ad absurdum of American values and the lack thereof, would commit a war crime on the scale of several compounded Holocausts without blinking an eye.  Like every authority, the President’s artificial omnipotence by definition can not coexist with an alternative.  As long as there were Jews, the God of the Spanish Inquisitors was not the only God, and so the Inquisitors killed the Jews.  As long as the workers’ cooperatives of the late 1800s could govern themselves, the state was not a necessary force of governance, so the state slaughtered union members.  As long as Trump has no power over North Korea, Trump is not an all-powerful force.  We can all imagine how this contradiction is resolved.

Donald Trump, like the generations of rulers before him, is delirious with the concept of his own god-like power.  He has confused his functional divinity with immortality, but he will find himself as vulnerable as the rest of us when the self-consuming idolatry he hides behind has vanished in the mushroom cloud.

History does not need to end with our empire, blinded by gluttony, lashing out with the force of a dying star and the temperament of a spoiled yet mistreated infant.  But there is no path to survival that includes our unquestioning devotion to the state, to the deluded narcissists who control it, and most importantly, to the sanctified use of coercive force and violence.  Trusting the Donald Trumps and Kim Jong Uns of the world with our collective destiny is tantamount to suicide.

It is not gods but the walking, working people of every nation, not yet completely broken of their empathy and their capacity for hope, who will save us.  From Nagasaki and Pyongyang to Washington, D.C., we must unite against the promise of unfathomable destruction.  To tear down those who presume to act as our gods will be difficult, but in this penultimate frame of history, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

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