Briefing from the radioactive badlands of the American Southwest, 1954

[We are fortunate to have this transcript, taken by a company stenographer, from one of the early efforts of the resistance to instruct an army company in tactics. Although we now have more sophisticated technologies to hold these invaders in check, it is instructive too see how the American military in the 1950s struggled to cope with an unusual enemy, a struggle that was described in an excellent documentary produced by Warner Bros.]

Men — and ladies — the purpose of this briefing is to instruct you in the basic anatomy of the enemy. We have lost many soldiers to the assumption that these are just elephant sized beasts and that this is an exercise in big-game hunting; post-mortem analysis has found that many wounds that appear as if they should be instantly lethal actually miss major organs and allow the monsters to rampage on relatively unimpaired. I am here to shake up your assumptions and give you better targeting instruction so that you will more effectively kill the enemy.

Get this out of your heads right now. These are not overgrown familiar animals. These are giant ants.

Another purpose of this briefing is to teach you to respect the enemy. You may consider ants to be nothing but unpleasant nuisances, easily squashed without a moment's thought, but these creatures have been endowed by their creator — or produced by millions of years of evolution — with unique traits that make them hardy and resilient, and in their new enlarged form, almost as hard to take down as a small tank. Do not underestimate them!

One thing we will not be discussing here is how these monsters came to be. In fact, the University eggheads are all telling us that it's impossible for insects to grow so large, and mumbling about radiation and mutations and other such technical talk. We don't give a damn. They're here, and our mission is to slaughter them, root out their colonies, and exterminate the entire goddamned species, because this is America, and we aren't going to stand by while big bugs eat our sweet American children.

The first thing you need to know about these big bugs is that they're heavily armored. Their entire body is covered with thick sheets of a material called chitin — it's a carbohydrate, chains of sugars, like the cellulose found in wood. It's also a complex composite material, infiltrated with other substances like calcium carbonate to form rigid shells. It's flexible, lightweight, and tough — our scientists are already working out its structure to build carbon fiber composites that will form the military armor of the future…but right now, the bugs are way ahead of us in armor technology. You're going to have to crack that armor to kill them.

The bad news? Your handguns aren't going to make a dent in this stuff, and even your M1 carbines don't have enough punch to get through. Fragmentation grenades occasionally stun them, but mostly do little damage. It takes sustained fire from a .50 cal Browning machine gun to break through that armor, or better yet, use a 75mm recoilless rifle. Anything less, you're just tickling them.

The other bad news? Let's say you've got enough firepower to bust through that armor. What are you going to hit?

This is a standard military paper target; you all trained on this, and you know what to shoot. A head shot; instant kill, you take out the target's brain, and it goes down and doesn't move. Chest shot; major point of failure, the enemy dies instantly if you take out its heart, and if you miss a little bit, you blow out its lungs and its incapacitated and is going to bleed to death. Gut shot produces major trauma and bleeding, is probably going to kill the target eventually, but in the meantime, the shock puts them out of combat.

None of that is true for giant bugs. The hallmark of bug anatomy is redundancy and distributed functions. Sure, they've got a brain, and it's roughly about where you expect it to be, between the eyes: but if you get through the armor, if you manage to get through the thick, rubbery swaddling of the massive jaw muscles that surround the brain, and you manage to blow it up, it's got another one below its jaws…and then it's got a chain of them in its chest. In fact, you may be in worse shape, since the front brain seems to be involved in restraint and inhibition. Take it out, and you've got a frenzied giant ant, a creature that will start charging around the battlefield like a chicken with its head cut off…an 8-ton armored chicken with claws.

Your best bet is to target the thoracic nerve complex: aim for where all those legs join the body, and blow that sucker up. It may not kill it instantly, but it will cripple and immobilize it.

What about shooting the heart and lungs? More bad news: they don't have lungs. It's another distributed system, with a network of tubes infiltrating the tissues to carry oxygen to them. Every goddamned little pore on their body is basically a nostril, and every contraction of the muscles flexes the cuticle like a bellows and draws air inside.

They do have a heart…or rather, hearts. There's another chain of them running along the back of the thorax, about where your spine would be. However, they also have an open circulatory system: the hearts just push bodily fluids around, sloshing the insides with that yellow green stuff called hemolymph, or bug blood. All of that breathing and blood pumping stuff is integrated with muscular activity — you do the same thing to a lesser degree, with muscle contractions in your legs that push blood back to the heart, and coupling of breathing to arm movements — but bugs do it better. Their whole boxy armored body is a big pump that moves fluids and gasses around as they run and shred and fight. There is no single point of failure, no one critical target analogous to what we humans have — you can slow them down and impair them by blowing off big chunks of their bodies, but there's no one weak spot that can flatten them.

Are there other organs that are points of weakness? Nope. No liver; instead, they have a tissue called the fat body, which is distributed under the cuticle and around the guts. Distributed, again. Kidneys? A kidney shot can incapacitate a human because they're highly vascular organs with a sustained high internal blood pressure; bugs have ropy tubes called Malpighian tubules sloshing about in the hemolymph, without a particularly high pressure blood system. You can gut-shoot an ant — in fact, you can blow off that entire big gut structure called the gaster at the end of the body — and while it will eventually starve to death, it's not going to be slowed at all.

Face it. These magnificent bastards are tougher than you are, better designed for combat than you are, and uglier and meaner than you are. All the tools and skills you've been trained in for killing people aren't going to work on these brutes.

That's why the company is being issued this: the M2 Flamethrower. It's the perfect weapon against bugs, because instead of relying on damaging a single point of weakness, it causes massive systemic damage — distributed destruction for a resilient distributed system. We've also had great success with napalm air strikes on surface nests, but to root out the enemy takes soldiers invading their nests and taking the fire to the queen ant's chamber, burning out the enemy at every step. It's bug hunt time, and you're going to be taking cleansing fires into the tunnels of your foes.

[Tragically, this company was lost to the last man in the Siege of Las Vegas, one of the early skirmishes in the age of the Arthropod Wars. While we've lost great swathes of the American Southwest to these creatures, the experience and training of our brave troops against the insect menace has allowed us to successfully fight off the giant grasshopper assault on Chicago, the giant mantid invasion of Washington DC, the Mexican tarantual menace, and the giant moth attack on Tokyo. Never forget. Don't let these men and women have died in vain. Sign up for the Bug Corps and protect this planet for humanity.]

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For some reason I kept reading "Mr. Flamethrower" instead of "M2 Flamethrower".

I like my version better.

A tracheal breathing system won't work at that scale. These are Pseudoants, ant-like creatures, the result of convergent evolution, which have some other breathing system not found in sensu stricto ants.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

Hang on... "1954"... "- and ladies -"

Never mind the giant ants, you just broke my suspension of disbelief right there.

Brilliant! I am in awe, sir.

By Bruce W Fowler (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

Largest insect known to have ever existed was a dragonfly-like creature with a wingspan of about 1 meter. So, not quite the size in the movies, but definitely unsettling if you were to see it. A swarm of them would terrifying.

By darth_borehd (not verified) on 08 Jan 2013 #permalink

Obviously inspired by the excellent sci-fi movie "Them", which scared the hell out of my 12 year old self in 1953.

By Thehaymarketbomber (not verified) on 09 Jan 2013 #permalink

I am 100% down with Mr. Flamethrower, particularly the Enclave Inferno model!

By Lordwhorfin (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013 #permalink