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Dominick Jenkins, 'The Final Frontier: America, Science and Terror'

Verso 2002, ISBN 1 85984 682 3, 320pp, £19

At first sight, this book looks exciting and compelling. The blurb focuses on its relevance to debates about warfare and world security post-S11. And the title, to my mind, conjures up images of nuclear tests, Agent Orange, dirty bombs and the spraying of dangerous fungicides over Colombian hillsides. Inside, however, one finds a lost opportunity - or perhaps a cynical attempt to grab a marketing opportunity by the judicious addition of current buzzwords to a historical study of fairly narrow interest.

The book is essentially a (very, very) detailed look at the immediate post-WW1 efforts by US scientists and their political supporters to construct a model of an evil, barbaric enemy plotting world domination by military and economic means. The fear engendered by this was heightened by mystifying enemy methods, portraying weapons such as poison gas as new scientific developments with almost unlimited potential for expansion - thus necessitating corresponding backing for the scientists researching ways of neutralising them.

So far, so good. The parallels with present US (etcetera) demonisation of its opponents and the hysterical screeches of “WMD” or dire warnings of chemical or biological weapons are pretty obvious. Substitute North Korea, Iraq or al-Qaeda for Germany in many of the descriptions of US hyperbole and it all comes up to date. But this is hardly headline news.

And then there is the way that this book is assembled. Somehow the hyper-detailed examinations of individual books or speeches from 1919 or 1921 smack of a PhD thesis recycled by adding some topical references. Many of the latter aren't even justified or expanded upon, simply asserted - and then back to the minutiae. The dense detail is there from the beginning of the first chapter and it doesn't let up. I don't object to detail, but unless you have a specific interest it's heavy stuff, and the occasional references (and the jacket's hard sell) to current issues make the obscurity of much of the contents really frustrating.

On top of this we then get forays into some dense and slightly spurious theory, name-checking Lyotard and Kant with a dose of Dante to top things off. The eclecticism of the references and stylistic conceits can also get a little dizzying - Toad of Toad Hall, for instance, The Riddle of the Sands and a lengthy and unhelpful courtroom analogy. The overwhelming sensation is one of having waded through a lot of gloop to get at a few titbits (such as some grim details about the history of familiar names such as Du Pont and Dow Chemicals). This is not helped by some sloppy editing (“continue to regarded”), poorly checked facts (mis-spelt names, mis-dated wars) and an occasional uncomfortable bout of touchy-feeliness (“I experience a feeling of discord...”) that chimes ill with the often jargon-rich academic language.

I was really excited when this book dropped through my door. Unfortunately, the interest didn't outlive the first few chapters of the book, and nothing subsequently managed to revive it.