blip : Blog of Isaac & Jason :

“Divine Strake”: the military claims divinity? sicut deus

January 19th, 2007 by isaac · 3 Comments

I switched on the radio on my way to pick up my wife from work yesterday. And I half-listened to a report of a community in Nevada protesting a possible test conducted by the The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (funded by the US Department of Defense). It was a good story—quite interesting and informative. But half-way through the report something struck me; I couldn’t believe my ears. This test is part of something called “Divine Strake”! They are trying to develop a way to destroy underground facilitiies. It’s part of the mission of the US government’s Global Strike against WMD. I guess it fits into the category of “Hard Target Defeat” of the 2006 Strategic Plan for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency: “DTRA develops and demonstrates technologies, tactics, techniques and procedures to hold at risk and defeat critical military targets protected in tunnels and other deeply buried, hardened facilities.”

But the crazy thing about it is the name: Divine Strake. Is the Department of Defense claiming divinity? Ok, it’s an absurd insinuation. But how in the world did they think that using a word like “divine” was an appropriate way to name a military project? If they use such language, they enter into theological (literally, “talk about the divine”) territory, and into a tradition (at least for Christians) that takes language about the divine very seriously—that’s what the Council of Nicaea, among others, is all about. So, even if the DTRA thought it was just a clever idea to use language about God for the project, it seems important to think a little bit about why such language is inappropriate, and what they may be saying implicitly (heck, why not explicitly) about their project.

The first thing that comes to mind is a passage from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book called Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004). In their first chapter, they argue that after modernity war “now tends toward the absolute.” “In modernity war never had an absolute, ontological character…. War was an element of social life; it did not rule over life.” But in our age, war now rules over life—it becomes “a form of biopower” (literally, it holds the “power of life”, and that’s made evident by it’s ability to end life, to kill). Thus, as Hardt and Negri put it, “war becomes properly ontological.” At the center of the threat of global war, of weapons of mass destruction, is the claim of sovereignty—and it’s “not simply of an individual or group but of humanity itself and perhaps indeed of all being” (18-19). That is why war, especially the threat of mass destruction, becomes an ontological claim—it claims to control being.

Maybe the Department of Defense is finally being honest about their control over weapons that have the potential to end life. Divine Strake is it’s way to explore ways to make sure others don’t share in the United State’s ability to decide when and where life should end—ontological biopower. It is the Defense Department’s desire for soveriegnty, for godlike control of the power over life and death—thus, divine. To share God’s ontological soveriegnty. To be like God: sicut deus.

In his very early work on Genesis 1-3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer engaged in a theological exegesis of the creation and fall of humanity. He has a chapter called “Sicut Deus”—like God. Bonhoffer explores what it means for the serpent to tempt humanity with the possibility of making ourselves “like God” (Gen. 3:4-5). And I think he offers some helpful ways to understand what it may mean for us to think about the use of language that seizes divinity for ourselves (projects like Divine Strake). He writes, “In what does humankind’s being sicut deus consist? It consists in its own attempt to be for God” (116). “This is disobedience in the semblance of obedience, the desire to rule in the semblance of service, the will to be creator in the semblance of being a creature, being dead in the semblance of life” (117). Those words seem to be a very appropriate warning, and it helps unmasks rulers who claim to do things in our service: the desire to rule in the semblance of service. And the last line captures the ontological biopower of threats of war and control over weapons of mass destruction: death in the semblance of life.

The last passage I want to quote from Bonhoffer’s Creation and Fall (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) ends his chapter on the Fall (p. 120):

It is rebellion, the creature’s stepping outside of the creature’s only possible attitude, the creature’s becoming creator, the destruction of creatureliness, a defection, a falling away from being safely held as a creature. As such a defection it is a continual fall, a plunging down into a bottomless abyss, a state of being let go, a process of moving further and further away, falling deeper and deeper. And in all this it is not merely a moral lapse but the destruction of creation by the creature… From now on that world has been robbed of its creatureliness and drops blindly into infinite space, like a meteor that has torn itself away from the core to which it once belonged.

And that’s where we are, it appears—falling deeper and deeper into self-destruction. When we attempt to control life and death, we try to make ourselves more like God, and end up destroying what we are—humans, creatures. On Bonhoeffer’s account it seems that it is right to name “divine” the power over life and death—ontological biopower—that weapons of global destruction embody. So, I guess The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is not so far off in how it names its projects. Maybe someone in their midst is reading Bonhoeffer or Hardt and Negri.

Lastly, I have to end with Karl Barth. It seems I always make my way back to him. This is from his early work on the Epistle to the Romans: page 236 of The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1963):

If, then, by the consciousness of religion we make human thought and will and act to be the thought and will and act of God, does not human behaviour become supremely impressive, significant, necessary, and inevitable?... A man may or may not act religiously; but if he does so act, it is widely supposed that he does well, and is thereby justified and established and secure. In fact, however, he merely established himself, rests upon his own competence, and treats his own ambitions as adequate and satisfactory. Religion, then, so far from dissolving men existentially, so far from rolling them out and pressing them against the wall, so far from overwhelming them and transforming them, acts upon them like a drug which has been extremely skilfully administered. Instead of counteracting human illusions, it does no more than introduce an alternative condition of pleasurable emotion. Thus it is that the possibility of religion enables the existentially godless man to attain the full maturity of his godlessness by bringing forth a rich and most conspicuous harvest of fruit unto death.

I come away from all this with a question. It almost sounds like, on Barth’s account, that we should talk about the military as a religion, or at least desiring religious goals. So, are we to consider the United States Department of Defense a religion on account of their explicit and implicit goals to control life and death, and their explicit use the language of religion for their projects? Would it be appropriate to categorize this proposed test in Nevada, and all other military operations, as liturgical acts?

Tags: current events · political power · technology · theology · war

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Jan 20, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Fascinating exegesis of the culture of modern war. Military as religion…interesting. The military certainly encompasses a set of beliefs and practices, but I don’t think you could say there are any cultic acts, for there is no center of worship (perhaps you could say “life” in a general sense, but that is a stretch). So without worship or anything transcendent military seems better defined as a god-like emperor (or a modern day Caesar) since it seeks to control life and death.

  • 2 isaac // Jan 20, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    Maybe you’re right. But my whole point is that the military is explicitly invoking the transcendent: “Divine Strake”. That’s religious language. So why isn’t it religious? It sounds to me like they are claiming to name where the “divine”—otherwise known as God—happens, and what counts as divine.

    And as far as “worship” goes… that’s what “liturgy” means. And “liturgy” is the word the Athenians first used to describe the “common work” of building an aqueduct for the city. So, liturgy (or, “worship”) is the common work we offer up to God. So, why can’t we take the military at its word when it claims to offer some common work in the name of “the divine”?

    The early Christians were called atheists because they didn’t participate in the emperor cult. I think you posted something about that a while ago. So it seems that comparing the emperor to “a god-like emperor”, like you said, has everything to do the religious domain.

  • 3 James // Jan 22, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Military names are often chosen somewhat randomly. I was in a unit in Vietnam with the call sign “Hearty Diet Zulu” and I don’t believe it had anything to do with the quality of our chow.