November 30, 2007

Rods from God


(This post is based on a book in-progress, titled:

“Visible Wars and American Nationalism:

Militarization and Visual Culture in the Post-Cold War Period.”)

by Wendy Kozol

Despite long-standing debates about the viability of missile defense technology and the ramifications of “weaponizing” space, a range of websites — from the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency, to lobbying or advocacy groups, like — use powerful visual rhetoric to sustain the economic, political and military investment in this still questionable technology.

Computer-generated pictures, diagrams, and video scenarios depict satellites and sensors orbiting in space around a peaceful globe. Threat and defense are completely disembodied.  There are no “viewers”; no “people” making decisions about when to send out interceptors; and no face of the “enemy.”  Devoid of any constraining conditions, everything functions to plan 100% of the time.  And, because every “kill” is a clean kill, free of impact on populations or environments, nobody ever gets hurt.

This illustration, appearing on the Global Security website, extends U.S. military technological power to a wider universe by positioning planets and stars in the composition.  The beauty of the blue planet, so common in popular discussion of Space travel, provides the color scheme for the picture by bathing the technology in the same reassuring tones.

Against the racially empowering function of threats from rogue nations, pictures like this imagine American interceptors destroying enemy missiles in Space.  The illustration prominently foregrounds the American flag on the satellite, while a laser emanating from the satellite furthest in the back successfully hits its target.  A small white light in the background appears as the attacking missile, thus diminishing the threat while emphasizing the omnipotent power of the satellites to protect not just America, but the entire globe.

Importantly, missile defense advocates also rely on moral claims to justify these defense systems (which these “almighty” and “heavenly” visual objects reinforce, as well).  For instance, “Rods from God,” is the nickname for an Air Force Space Command missile defense program.  Technology and religion combine in this label to invoke an image of omniscient power by the U.S. military to protect the nation and its allies from space.

In claiming Space as an extension of national territory, the Air Force Space Command describes themselves as the “guardians of the High Frontier.”  Mobilizing an imperialist logic of military dominance, such references invoke a moral geography based on a mythic ideal about the founding of the United States.  As General Lance Lord, former head of the Air Force Space Command states in this NYT article:

“Space superiority is not our birthright but it is our destiny. . . . Space superiority is our day-to-day mission.  Space supremacy is our vision for the future”

Unlike spectacles of violence and suffering more typical of war imagery, Space is a blank screen for clean technology that never hurts and always protects.  Images from the war on terror — including photographs of suicide bombings, American casualties, Haditha, and of course Abu Ghraib — have provoked enormous attention and an occasion for many to critique American Occupation policies.

When we ask the question, how is it that people can look at pictures of suffering and then look away, perhaps it is because they are finding something easier or more comforting to look at.

Wendy Kozol is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Oberlin College.  She teaches courses on feminist theories as well as visual culture.  Among her publications, Wendy is the author of LIFE’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism.  I warmly welcome Wendy to BAGnewsNotes.

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus