Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia grinds on (or falters?), as U.S. disaster relief for Hawaii is tied to more military aid for Ukraine, as depleted uranium shells join cluster munitions as America’s latest gift to a blasted war zone, as calls for diplomacy continue to be muted when they’re not actively discouraged and dismissed, I was reminded of the alchemy of war.
Alchemists of the early modern period were sophisticated experimenters driven by an often quasi-religious quest for perfection. We tend to remember only the most craven part of their experiments: the attempt to transmute lead into gold. This transmutation could not be effected, but alchemy itself transmuted into chemistry as its practitioners, through trial and error, developed a better understanding of the nature of the elements, reflected in part by today’s Periodic Table.
Yet the business of war succeeded where alchemists failed. In their alchemy, the merchants of death turned bullet lead into corporate gold. And what gold! Yearly war budgets continue to soar in the United States toward the trillion dollar mark. Weapons shipments to Ukraine continue at a pace that promises many more shattered and blasted bodies, Ukrainian and Russian.
In a sense, dead bodies are also being transmuted into corporate gold.
Transmutation, I was taught as a Catholic, is a miracle. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of course). We have made the miraculous the mundane, and indeed the profane. We take lead and spill blood which becomes gold. And some even celebrate this as good for business in the United States.
All these weapons: they’re job-creators! So we crucify the Word and elevate the life-takers and widow-makers as gods.
We are far more deluded than the alchemists of the past.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.