Are We the New Martians?

Heat rays don’t always carry the day. (I used to own this double album, narrated by the great Richard Burton)

W.J. Astore

A few years ago, I picked up H.G. Wells’s classic novel, “War of the Worlds,” and read it in full. I had seen the movies based on it and had also dipped into the book, but I finally read the whole thing, marveling at the suspense Wells created in his classic account of Martians invading our planet, stomping us with their superior technology, only to be overcome by microbes to which they had no resistance.

As I read the book, I asked myself: Are we Americans becoming the new Martians? Warlike ways, superior technology, a predilection to invade and dominate for resources, with no regard for the “primitives” we stomp on or push out of the way in our quest for full-spectrum dominance?

I’m not the only one with questions along these lines. At TomDispatch today, Tom Engelhardt recounts his own affection for “War of the Worlds,” which he avidly read as a boy, and which he recently turned to again in our era of dangerous microbes, incessant war, and a changing climate that is threatening life as we know it on this planet.

Wells, of course, intended his story partly as a critique of the British and Western imperialism of his day, which is why it remains relevant to our imperial world today.

Think about it. America’s leaders, and especially the military-industrial-congressional complex, are in many ways the new Martians. Their god seems to be Mars, the god of war, and the planet they’re remaking is increasingly red, barren, and inhospitable. They’re doing a fair job of emulating those Martians as well, leaving Planet America to attack other lands for their resources, banking on superior technology and “heat rays” (Hellfire missiles!) to win the day.

Yet, like those very same Martians in “War of the Worlds,” Planet America loses its wars to “inferior” peoples, betrayed by “primitive” and hostile environments (the sweltering jungles of Vietnam, the urban jungle and heat of Iraq, the rugged mountains and omnipresent dust of Afghanistan). But do America’s Martians ever quit? Of course not! They keep building new war machines, they keep “investing” in new technologies, they keep advocating dominance through invasion and killing, much like those desperate Martians in Wells’s book, who, faced with a dying planet, decided their only course of action was to invade a different planet and steal its resources for themselves.

In Wells’s book, the Martians reveled in war, shouting “Ulla! Ulla!” as they fired their death rays. Our leaders are doing something similar while many of us shout “USA! USA!” mindlessly.

Wells sought to teach us that war and technology and destruction are just as likely to lead to our demise as to our triumph. The more we make war on ourselves and our planet, the more likely it is that Earth will come to resemble Mars, an inhospitable place for a dying species. Yet, unlike the imaginary Martians of Wells’s book, there’s no other hospitable planet in the neighborhood for us to invade.

Bonus: Here’s an excerpt from Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds,” featuring Justin Hayward on vocals and Richard Burton as narrator. “The massacre of mankind”: No one says it quite like Burton.