“Bugs” and Blowback: Science and American High Modernism

American policy with regard to science and technology in the twentieth century had often been canceled with what James C. Scott described in Seeing Like a State as a “high modernist ideology”: “…self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature… and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.” (Scott, 4) Implicit in Scott’s “mastery of nature” is one other important characteristic that he doesn’t spell out: the high modernist ideology takes previous modes of human interaction among people and with nature, and reduces these interrelations to zero-sum games. Under the ideological régime of high modernism, war becomes total war, health care shifts its focus from palliative care, abatement, and curing, to the wholesale elimination of specific ailments. Edmund Russell’s War & Nature and David McBride’s Missions for Science both explore American scientific policies that reflect this high modernist tendency toward extermination and elimination, as well as looking at the blowback from such an approach.

The concept of blowback originated within foreign policy and espionage circles. Essentially, the term describes when a completed operation, whether successful or not in achieving its intended goals, creates a situation that engenders unexpected negative outcomes for the original actor. While the term isn’t used much in scholarly work outside foreign policy, I believe it’s the best description of what we see in both books. Technologies were adopted for specific purposes, and were in some case effective and in some case ineffective. But in almost all cases, these technologies have unforeseen or unforeseeable consequences.

The narrative structure of Russell’s War and Nature fits nicely with this model of techno-political blowback to high modernist zero-sum tactics. Russell traces the coevolution of chemical-based warfare and pesticides in the period between the first World War and the early 1960s. (I use the term chemical-based weapons or warfare, rather than chemical weapons, as Russell’s definition includes more than conventional chemical weapons, to including incindiaries and potentially battlefield defoliants.) As both technologies were based on the development of new toxic chemicals, sometimes even the same chemicals, chemical manufacturers were able to rapidly shift from wartime to peacetime production, rapidly expanding in the process. Moreover, pesticides were seen as important to war efforts, as insect-borne contagion could be as dangerous to troops on the ground as mortar shells.
In looking at the language used in describing both chemical-based weapons and pesticides, Russell finds a common language of extermination and elimination.

The language used to describe chemical weapons reflects the general principle of total war. Moreover, he finds repeated use of the trope of equating enemy troops with bugs or insects, and calling for extermination. When looking at the language of insecticide advertisements and propaganda, he finds the converse—metaphors of war on insects, and the diseases that come with them. Government etymologists called for an outright war on the blight of insects, saying that nothing short of their complete elimination could ensure the survival and progress of the human species. In both of these examples, as well as tactics used “on the ground,” as it were, we find an overarching philosophy that the only solution for the problem of insects or enemy combatants was complete elimination—the type of zero-sum thinking that is inherent to high modernist ideology.

The final chapter of Russell’s book, however, is all about the blowback effect. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 brought about a backlash against the widespread use of DDT, which had in the years since World War II been widely promoted as a safe insecticide, advertised both for its safety for users and its military prestige—it had been a key insecticide used by the American military during the war. Carson’s book promoted the idea that the chemical was environmentally disastrous and a carcinogen that was unsafe for home use. The chemical was banned within ten years of the book’s publication. 

Around the same time, public opinion toward the military use of chemicals began to shift. While the US chemical industry was miniscule before the first World War, it had grown quite rapidly, and was now a key component of the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address. By 1963, the use of chemical-based warfare was becoming a major point of contention in the escalating US presence in Vietnam. Those who opposed the war would point to the use of defoliants, and later napalm, as indication that the war had gone too far, had become too barbaric, while some on the right argued that the use of all-out chemical warfare would be the most efficacious way to decisively gain advantage in the war.

At around the same time, both chemical-based warfare and mass use of insecticide were suddenly met with a mass of public disapproval, after almost fifty years of being positively associated with US dominance as an international power.

David McBride’s Missions for Science deals with the impact of US scientific and technological interventions in four areas with Black Diaspora populations. In Haiti, Liberia, the US “Black Belt,” and the Panama Canal Zone, McBride chronicles the way that American scientific and technological interventions served the purpose of expanding US imperialism and hegemony. Regional leaders like William Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and “Papa Doc” Duvalier, often shared the faith in the high modernist ideology expressed by outsiders leading US intervention. But while the goal of expanding US imperialism, the hopes for the power of science and technology improving the lives of those in the affected areas often failed, sometimes catastrophically. Public health efforts in the Panama Canal Zone were initially effective, but those leading failed to continue with further, more far-reaching, measures. Technical education in the Black Belt failed to change the underlying disparity in the social and political makeup in the area.

The best illustration of the blowback against high modernist intervention is Haiti. In Haiti, you have all four elements that Scott describes as necessary to the creation of a full-on disaster of social engineering—the administrative reordering of society, high modernist ideology, an authoritarian state, and a prostrate civil society incapable of effective resistance. In Haiti, when the US took over the administration of the state in 1915, their public health efforts actually did much to upset the existing structure of medical care, while their efforts to eradicate epidemic diseases on the island were ultimately unsuccessful. By the time the US pulled out, the population was still impoverished, and suffered high disease rates. “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who began his career as a doctor and made a name for himself in the mass administration of penicillin, came of age in this period, and was educated according to US high modernist principles of medicine. In the case of Haiti, the blowback from high modernist scientific intervention not only included the destruction of a health care system more adequately suited to palliative care and abatement in an unsuccessful attempt at eradication of disease, but also included helping to create the ideology of a man who became a corrupt autocrat whose reign of terror greatly increased the suffering of the people that those intervening had originally intended to help.

There is a fundamental fallacy in the high modernist faith belief in zero-sum games, when it comes to science and technological intervention. Social intervention of this type cannot take into account all the variables—future discovery, the wisdom of existing social structures, and the inability of social engineering to account for the complexity of such structures—it is impossible to verify that a strategy is a zero-sum game when one cannot account for all the players, the rules, or the changes that may occur with future research. So it’s quite possible that blowback is inevitable.

However, both of these books reflect what strikes me as a rather wise ambivalence toward scientific intervention. On one hand, there are many examples of this sort of blowback, with often disastrous consequences. On the other hand, certain scientific advances, especially in medicine, are so groundbreaking and present so much opportunity for the betterment of peoples lives that denying access to such medicines and technologies seems inhumane and immoral. It’s a complex question, but both of those books help to shed light on the difficulties and complexities, and will hopefully help to inspire further research and thought on the topic.