How the Threat of Apocalypse Justifies American Empire

A new book argues that in the military’s hands, warnings of world’s end become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Chris Lehmann

“Everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ,” said Ronald Reagan of the Cold War in 1971. (Getty Images)

As any casu­al vis­i­tor to a mul­ti­plex or a megachurch will attest, the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion is in the grip of apoc­a­lyp­tic fan­ta­sy. We con­tin­u­al­ly redis­cov­er that the end is nigh, be it in the popcult fables of a zom­bie apoc­a­lypse or the Rev­e­la­tion porn of the Left Behind novels. 

We should break the American addiction to world-disfiguring apocalyptic fantasy in favor of a “practical and inclusive radical optimism."

In The Amer­i­ca Syn­drome: Apoc­a­lypse, War and Our Calls to Great­ness, Bet­sy Hart­mann traces our apoc­a­lypse obses­sion back to the Puri­tans. Her argu­ment is point­ed: America’s cen­turies-long courtship with world-end­ing calami­ty is cru­cial to the dis­tinc­tive­ly Amer­i­can brand of war­mak­ing. By con­tin­u­al­ly see­ing our­selves on the brink of cat­a­stro­phe, we ratio­nal­ize cat­a­stroph­ic mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions, one after anoth­er. This com­pul­sion to cast our­selves as the chief actors in the dra­ma of history’s end stems, in Hartmann’s view, from our Protes­tant cul­ture, which cre­at­ed a self-rat­i­fy­ing sense of our nation­al cho­sen­ness. That Amer­i­cans are spe­cial and excep­tion­al, a cho­sen peo­ple to car­ry out God’s will or else suf­fer dire con­se­quences, are held to be self-evi­dent truths,” she writes. So, too, is the belief that war is divine­ly justified.” 

King Philip’s War — a 17th-cen­tu­ry cam­paign to exter­mi­nate Native Amer­i­cans — spurred the colonists into rever­ies over their role as the pro­tec­tors of Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion. Cot­ton Math­er memo­ri­al­ized the Puri­tan migra­tion to the New World as the last con­flict with the anti-Christ and the har­bin­ger of the impend­ing millennium.” 

Hart­mann argues that we should break the Amer­i­can addic­tion to world-dis­fig­ur­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic fan­ta­sy in favor of a prac­ti­cal and inclu­sive rad­i­cal opti­mism like the kind expressed in the inscrip­tion on the side of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment build­ing: Work as if you live in the ear­ly days of a bet­ter nation.’ ” 

She also cri­tiques the apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric of mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal­ism. In two clos­ing chap­ters on the overblown specter of over­pop­u­la­tion and the all-too-gen­uine threat of cli­mate change, she shows how far the mil­i­tarist-apoc­a­lyp­tic mind­set has over­tak­en the move­ment to save the plan­et. The pre­dict­ed pop­u­la­tion bomb” now comes off as racist and impe­ri­al­ist fol­ly. Of Malthu­sian­ism, she writes: 

It con­vinces many oth­er­wise well-mean­ing peo­ple that it is moral­ly jus­ti­fied to cur­tail the basic human and repro­duc­tive rights of poor peo­ple at home and abroad in order to save our­selves and the plan­et from oth­er­wise cer­tain doom. 

Like­wise, the effort to cur­tail car­bon emis­sions slips too eas­i­ly into a vision of an anar­chic, vio­lence-rid­den social order at the out­er reach­es of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, marked by waves of cli­mate refugees” flee­ing ris­ing oceans and defor­esta­tion. As Hart­mann notes, these civ­i­liza­tion-engulf­ing hordes often turn out, on clos­er inspec­tion, to be stan­dard-issue eco­nom­ic migrants. They may be flee­ing con­di­tions exac­er­bat­ed by climb­ing tem­per­a­tures, but many are already long engaged in migra­to­ry search­es for geo­graph­i­cal­ly and sea­son­al­ly dis­persed work. 

Polit­i­cal lead­ers from John Ker­ry to Barack Oba­ma to Bernie Sanders all signed on to a ver­sion of this fan­ta­sy by attribut­ing the Syr­i­an refugee cri­sis to cli­mate-induced drought — dis­tanc­ing the resource-deplet­ing régime of Bashar al-Assad from the con­se­quences of its own actions. This cre­ates the impres­sion that such a mass migra­tion is a nev­erend­ing new nor­mal.” Hart­mann writes, Rather than see­ing the cur­rent cri­sis as polit­i­cal­ly root­ed and time-lim­it­ed, we’re encour­aged to believe that we’re enter­ing a world of per­ma­nent emergency.’ ” 

Enter the Amer­i­can nation­al secu­ri­ty state. The defense estab­lish­ment has already ral­lied to des­ig­nate cli­mate change as a first-order nation­al secu­ri­ty threat — a move wel­comed by many environmentalists. 

But, Hart­mann writes, we should be care­ful what we wish for: 

Through the secu­ri­ti­za­tion of cli­mate change and dis­as­ter response, we are being taught to fear the dark peo­ple glob­al warm­ing will sup­pos­ed­ly set loose. … The more we accept that racial­ized apoc­a­lyp­tic vision of the future, the more we con­cede con­trol to the military. 

And that, in turn, seems our short­est avail­able path to apoc­a­lypse now. 

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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