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Weapons are Extensions of the Body

An history lesson in weapons as physical extensions of the body; ghost warfare and other strategies.

David Cox

Weapons are an extension of the body, the extremities. The body mass itself, and where the arms and legs meet the torso, cannot move as swiftly or with as much force as the ends of the limbs. A stick is but an extension of the arm. A knife or sword is an extension of the edge of the hand, its sharp point that of the fingers. The classic scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where Moonwatcher, the ape-man, finds a bone and beats the crap out of his challenger from a neighboring ape-man tribe, then realizes the potential of his bone weapon by continuing, in slow motion, to smash more bones says it all.

Kubrick cuts from the tossed-up bone-weapon to a thermonuclear bomb orbiting the Earth. It is one giant jump cut for humankind, indeed.

A karate expert moves his or her hands and feet accurately to deliver blows and yet can block such blows from an opponent. The ends of the limbs move quickly, are manipulable; the parts of the legs and arms less so, but these can be used more like clubs or shields, and the torso is kept well apart of the entire ensemble of moves. A good fighter can move the body mass in such a swift way that general awareness of all the elements coalesces into a powerful totality. No one part is without the others. It is interesting that the word karate is Japanese for ‘empty hand’. It is a form of fighting without weapons, with the hand free of items. In karate, the body can have its limbs extended by using weapons such as bo staffs that offer range and strength to the arm. When Bruce Lee implored his TV interview viewers to ‘become like water, my friend’, it was an injunction to embrace the broadest possible means of interpretation when it comes to martial arts where there are no fixed rules or systems. There are only collections of rules and systems that are then adapted to a particular person’s needs. This can also be interpreted to mean that learning a martial art is politically neutral.

Where the limbs meet is soft and vulnerable, as are significant parts of the head, such as the sense organs upon which the body relies. The body is a weapon and all weapons are metaphors in some way for the body or extensions of it or combinations of extensions of it. Damage is, thus, inflicted upon bodies from bodies.

Ranged weapons such as arrows and missiles take the body metaphor further, pushing it outward and beyond. The bow and the crossbow are artificial ‘pulled back arms’. Political entities are but bodies politic, armies and arsenals, collective masses of weapons. Representing masses of people, the body politic.

Any weapon contains within it the potential for use, for delivery. Every gun has potential to be fired. Every sword the potential to sever a limb, or pierce a body. The potential for use is as much a part of the weapon as its actual use. How often do the weapons of an official or even a whole state who bears them get used? The symbolic payload is often the point. The ‘chandoleir ‘o’ gear of the cop. The rocket parades of red square during the cold war. The Apollo launches of the late 1960s, updated V2 rockets for the age of Populuxe and the war on dandruff.

A rule of movie screenwriting is that if you show a gun in the first act, it will have been fired by the third act. A girl, a gun and a car. But the threat of use is often the main purpose of a weapon as much as its actual use. A ceremonial display function also operates with weapons. The Kris knife in Indonesia, passed on from generation from generation. The officer’s side-arm. The samurai tanto blade, reserved for the singular purpose of suicide following defeat on the battlefield.

Weapons are ultimately about control and management of territory, and that which stands upon it. They are deployed to restore or reclaim lost land or property, to steal if from others, or to enforce the protection of land and property from the potential.

Weapons are the extension of the need to control and manage. They are inseparable from the concept of control and management. No weapon was ever drawn where the user did not need to make a point about control, or the lack of it.

Samuel Colt in the 19th Century developed a means to manufacture interchangeable parts for his firearms. This was in part to meet growing demand for revolvers and rifles in the expanding west. The so-called “Indian” wars as well as the Civil War created a sudden and massive unprecedented demand for guns that resulted in whole new categories of standardized systems of production. Guns were individually, mechanisms that as part of a system, relied upon the fact of large-scale government subsidy. The wholesale official Federal backing of genocidal warfare against the native population kick started era of mass production, at least in terms of standardized interchangeable parts and the machines that made them. This model would later go on to become the basis for the Deutsche Werkstatte – the official policy of the then new Germany to apply such standardization nationwide. Henry Ford would expand the concept further later in the USA to really begin the 20th Century.

Just as mechanization accompanied the development of weapons, so did weapons development accompany mechanization. The world wars were the testing grounds for ever increasing levels of sophistication in both ranged weapons but also psychological weapons, such as the now famous ‘ghost army’ made up of inflatable rubber tanks and artillery, and phony radio transmissions, played over wire recordings.

Weapons can be the end-point in a system. A Predator Drone for example cannot exist in isolation. It is kept aloft by a very complex system of control trucks, radar stations, various satellites, and other control centers. It is a node in a system. As such its uses are heavily defined by that system. As far reaching as a drone is, it is limited in terms of the imaginations of its users. It can only be used in the context and the parameters of the beurocratic system of which it is a part. It is as much a part of the social and military apparatus of our time as the counterweight trebuchet was to the Mongols. It does a single set of jobs well, but it is also hindered by the conditions under which it needs to operate at all.

David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco. He is the author of Sign Wars (2010).

Copyright © David Cox. All rights reserved.