A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Guns and Steel Don’t Kill, People Kill

Aimé Césaire, Jared Diamond, and the Contradictions of Empire

by james maffieMay 14, 2018

As we approach the first quarter century mark of the 21st Century, our leaders tell us that U.S. global hegemony — called by some Pax Americana – is to be explained in terms of Yankee ingenuity and superiority. Just as the Colt .45 “peacemaker” tamed the American West, so now remote operated drones and combat vehicles, laser-guided firearms, and computer-guided missiles work as peacemakers in service of the American empire. Today’s peacemakers come at a high cost for U.S. taxpayers. By some estimates, the U.S. will spend $818.2 billion dollars in 2017 on military expenditures, more than the next seven countries combined.

These facts raise two interrelated questions. Is U.S. global hegemony adequately explained solely in terms of U.S. technological might? And what are the non-fiscal costs of U.S. hegemony for ordinary Americans?

Explaining U.S. global dominance in terms of its technological prowess recalls Jared Diamond’s immensely popular Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, in which Diamond argues that the success of the West in conquering the world is to be explained in terms if its germs, guns, and steel. Germs aside, how do guns and steel conquer the world?

Let’s turn to history for a clue. One of the most persistent questions of early modern history is the triumphant conquest of the Aztec empire by Cortez and his indigenous allies. What explains this small band of Europeans’ ability both to win over indigenous allies and to conquer the powerful Aztecs (as well as other indigenous peoples in the Americas)? Both academic and cable channel historians tell us it was Europe’s technological superiority; their guns and steel.

I submit that this can be no more than a partial explanation because European technological superiority merely provided Europeans with the means to conquer, not the disposition or ideological license to do so. If it is only partially true that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” as the popular defense of unrestricted gun ownership in the USA would have us believe, then we must examine the mindset of the Europeans sent to execute the conquest. After all, guns and steel do not commit genocide, people do.

I suggest a more complete explanation must include (at least) two additional key factors. First, Europeans had to have the requisite (im)moral personality that would allow them to kill Native Americans indiscriminately . Briefly put, in order to be a murderer one must possess a murderous temperament, and to be a mass murderer one must possess the temperament of a mass murderer. Europeans therefore possessed the requisite psychology to be mass murderers. Secondly, they were able to give free reign to their murderous temperaments because they enjoyed the philosophical and religious blessings of both secular and religious moral authorities of their day.

The foregoing reiterates Aimé Césaire’s critique of Europe in his Discourse on Colonialism in which he boldly asserts that Europe is “responsible before the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history.” Thus, the all too common singular focus of scholarly and popular explanations of the success of the Conquest upon European technological superiority (guns, steel) or European communicative superiority (written language), for example, deflects us from examining the requisite psychology of imperial conquest and genocide: viz., the psychological make-up of serial killers and mass murderers – or whom, concocting an unlikely mix of Ward Churchill and Bill Clinton, we might call “super-predators.” Focusing upon technology deflects our attention away from the psychological and moral make-up (deficiency?) of Europeans and their settler colonial descendants as well as their apologists that together explain why Europeans have behaved for hundreds of years as “super-predators.” Diamond’s focus on guns and steel thus helps enable what Charles W. Mills calls “white ignorance.”

Historians’ explanations of the Holocaust standardly invoke the mindset of Nazi-era Germans, from ordinary citizens to death camp guards. Few scholars would explain the “success” of the Holocaust in exterminating millions of Jews, Slavs, socialists, homosexuals, and others deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime solely in terms of the military hardware and technological killing apparatus of the death camps, i.e., in terms of guns, steel, and cyanide. Here, as Césaire observed, white ignorance is much harder to sustain.

Returning to the present, it thus appears that U.S. global hegemony is not to be explained solely in terms of Yankee ingenuity but also in terms of Yankee willingness to commit mass murder accompanied by Yankee religious and secular apologists’ moral legitimation of mass murder.

But this proposition should not be seen as controversial. Apologists for the conquest and imperial subjugation of the nonwhite peoples of the world, from Christopher Columbus to the present day, invariably invoke Western Europe’s and now the United States’ superior ability at killing people as evidence of their ontological, moral, religious, and cultural superiority. Europe, the United States and their servants abroad continue tossing the corpses of those who stand in their way onto the ever-mounting, putrefying pile of their superiority, now delivered more clinically via laser-guided missiles, remote-controlled drones, and computer programs. Like besotted soldiers counting notches on their gun barrels, Euro-Americans boast of their civilizational superiority; like servile preachers assuring their audiences that they “are the light of the world” and that they inhabit “a city that is set on a hill,” Euro-Americans declare their moral superiority — all in virtue of their technological ability to efficiently commit mass murder with self-comforting “surgical precision.” Yet who operates the drones? Who programs the missiles? Who points the laser-guided weapons? Who writes the algorithms? Guns and steel, indeed.

This brings us to our second question and to Diamond’s subtitle, The Fates of Human Societies. What are the effects of America’s technological domination upon ordinary Americans? What is the fate of American imperial society? Here, too, we do well to look to Césaire. Césaire argues that colonization “works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the truest sense of the word.” As he argues, each time a group of children drawing water from their community’s well or a family celebrating a wedding in Iraq, Yemen, or Afghanistan is atomized by a U.S. drone strike, and in the U.S. “they accept the fact,” each time an Iraqi or Afghani is tortured, and in the U.S. “they accept the fact … a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and at the end of all the patriotism and racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of the [people of the U.S.], and slowly the nation proceeds towards savagery.” White ignorance allows Americans to live in bliss but at the heavy cost of moral depravity. So what of “the fates of human societies?” The fate of the U.S. imperial society is to be “indefensible before the bar of ‘reason’ and before the bar of ‘conscience’,” “to take refuge in hypocrisy…and to become every day more snarling, more openly ferocious, more shameless, more summarily barbarous.” Guns and steel, indeed.